Covert Chinese agents are in the US searching for the exiled brother of a disgraced top aide to former president Hu Jintao, and the US doesn’t like it.
How many agents, their operational skill-sets and what they intend to do when they hunt him down are unknown, but American officials say Ling Wancheng could become one of the most damaging defectors in the history of the People’s Republic of China — if he chooses to seek political asylum.
Citing anonymous US government officials, the New York Times reports that the Chinese efforts are part of a global program, called Operation Fox Hunt, to coerce Chinese expats and fugitives into returning home.
The Obama administration delivered a warning to Chinese officials in recent weeks, demanding a halt to the activities, NYT reported Sunday.
If you’re thinking this remarkable story has the sound of a potential blockbuster movie, you’re not alone.
While no official is saying it, as anyone who has ever seen a fast-action spy thriller knows, when coercion doesn’t work, the alternative is often kidnapping or even assassination, which always leads to shootouts, big explosions, spectacular car chases and wanton destruction.
Ling has not been seen since October 2014 and is presumably in hiding, but he could just as easily be in US protective custody, tucked away in a safehouse somewhere in North Dakota.
Ling’s big brother, Ling Jihua, who held a role akin to the White House chief of staff, was sidelined from the upper echelons of power in 2012 after the scandalous death of his son and two naked Tibetan hotties in a high-speed Ferrari crash at 4 a.m. on a Beijing ring road.
He and his family fell under a cloud of questions about how they had become rich enough to afford such luxuries as a Ferrari, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The Communist Party soon formally put Ling under investigation, state-run media announced last year.
Ling, Hu’s right-hand man, was expelled from the Communist Party in July and awaits trial for taking bribes, committing adultery with multiple women, wrongly acquiring state secrets and using his position to obtain financial benefits for his relatives.
When last seen, Ling the fugitive was living the good life under an assumed name in a $2.5-million, 8,000-square foot home in the Sacramento suburb of Loomis, California which he bought in 2013.
He introduced himself as Jason Wang and said nothing to his new neighbors about being connected to the innermost sanctum of Chinese politics and elite business circles, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“He was so funny, he would send emojis but had trouble with the language sometimes,” neighbor Sarah Matteson told the Wall Street Journal.
“He was really a very funny, happy-go-lucky guy who loved life, loved golf.”
Diplomats and analysts said Ling might have had access through his brother to sensitive information about Chinese leaders, according to WSJ.
The Chinese undercover operatives searching for Ling work for the Ministry of Public Security, China’s law enforcement branch charged with carrying out Operation Fox Hunt, a US official told NYT.
Since 2014, according to the Ministry of Public Security, more than 930 suspects have been repatriated, including more than 70 who have returned this year voluntarily, the ministry’s website reported in June, said the newspaper.
According to Chinese media accounts, teams of elite rapid deployment agents have been dispatched around the globe.
“Within 49 hours, they can make their arrest anywhere in the world,” said NYT, citing a report published last year on Chinese Police Net, a website run by the Ministry of Public Security.
American officials said they had solid evidence that the Chinese agents, who are not in the US on acknowledged government business and most likely are entering on tourist or trade visas, use various strong-arm tactics to get fugitives to return.
The director of the operation, Liu Dong, is quoted as saying the agents are told to comply with local laws, but he added “as long as there is information that there is a criminal suspect, we will chase them over there, we will take our work to them, anywhere.”
US Department of Homeland Security officials declined to comment on whether they have tried to locate Ling or if he has sought political asylum in the US, citing a policy of not commenting on individual cases, said WSJ.
A Xinhua editorial responded to the diplomatic warning by saying the US “made a regrettable move by ordering the Chinese law enforcement personnel in the country for the “Fox Hunt” operation to return home immediately”.
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