The wife of a Chinese former official has described in court the moment their life in the US was “turned upside down” by Chinese government threats aimed at forcing her family to return to their homeland.
Liu Fang told how two strangers pounded on her New Jersey front door and twisted the handle, in what is the first trial to come out of US claims that Beijing has tried to harass and intimidate dissidents and others into returning home.
When the men left, Liu said she opened the door and found a note telling her husband: “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right.”
“What happens if they were able to come in?” Liu asked aloud, through a court interpreter, at the criminal trial of a man accused of helping post the note and two co-defendants.
In home-security video shown at the trial, two men walk up a path toward the couple’s front door, then appear on a back deck and look in the glass doors to a sunroom, and then traipse up the front path again. Liu said she and her husband went to look at the video after they heard pounding on their door.
The couple subsequently installed new locks and additional security cameras, replaced sheer curtains with opaque ones and got a baseball bat for protection, she told jurors.
An American police sergeant-turned-private investigator called Michael McMahon, and expatriates Zheng Congying and Zhu Yong are charged with being part of a conspiracy to hound Liu, her adult daughter and her husband – former Chinese city official Xu Jin – to get him to go back to his homeland, where the government alleges he took bribes.
According to prosecutors and Liu’s testimony, the pressure campaign for her husband’s return took various forms: spreading damning articles about them to their adult daughter’s Facebook friends, sending letters in relatives’ names to Liu’s sister in New Jersey, and flying in Xu’s father, against his will, in 2017 to beseech his son to return to China.
“My life was turned upside down, at 180 degrees, overnight,” Liu told a Brooklyn federal court jury.
Prosecutors say the intimidating overtures at Beijing’s behest are part of a repatriation initiative called “Operation Fox Hunt”, which China describes as a plan to pursue and repatriate nationals Beijing considers fugitives. However, those on the wanted list also include people at political or cultural odds with China’s ruling Communist party.
“The victim and his family endured years of harassment,” assistant US attorney Irisa Chen said earlier in an opening statement. “It’s part of a public Chinese government initiative to force people living abroad to return to China against their will.”
Xu, once a city official in Wuhan, and his wife left China in 2010. Chinese officials then issued international alerts that he was wanted on allegations of embezzlement and bribe-taking and that she was also wanted for allegedly accepting bribes.
Liu told jurors the government went after her husband “because he is upright, and he believes in justice … and he upset those in power.” She said she was targeted simply for being his wife.
The Chinese expatriates are charged with acting as illegal agents for China. Their lawyers say the three thought they were helping collect a debt or do some other task for private entities, not the Chinese government.
Defence attorneys say the men were variously told they were helping a Chinese construction company that had been defrauded of millions of dollars, aiding a Chinese acquaintance who was owed $400,000, doing something related to important people in Macau, or other explanations.
China can’t legally compel suspects to return from the US, since the countries have no extradition treaty. Beijing has denied issuing threats to induce people to return “voluntarily.”
The defence raised questions about the couple’s source of income in the US. Liu said she was self-employed, before the judge blocked further inquiries on the issue. Defence lawyers also sought to suggest that she was testifying to get help with investor visa approval for her family.
Liu said she hadn’t been promised any immigration help, though she said that she didn’t think the US government would force the couple to return to China. Regardless, she said immigration matters didn’t influence her testimony.
“All I’m telling is the truth,” she told jurors. “I’m testifying to let people know the truth of what happened to me.”
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