For decades, American intelligence analysts concluded that Chinese agents in the United States were primarily assigned to steal trade and government secrets, and gather public information about American life. But the discovery of Operation Fox Hunt marked a new wrinkle in the spy games between the two countries and a new espionage challenge for the F.B.I., which investigates foreign spying and influence campaigns.
In 2015, top Obama officials privately warned Chinese officials to stop using their agents in the United States to harass expatriates. But the documents unsealed on Wednesday show those warnings failed. In recent years, China appears to have increased its efforts, which are popular among a Chinese public focused on rooting out corruption.
Justice Department officials did not identify the operation’s targets, saying they needed protection from Chinese operatives. The expatriates are believed to be former senior Chinese government officials who may have profited significantly from their positions in government before leaving.
Those arrested on Wednesday were: Hongru Jin, a 30-year-old naturalized citizen living in Queens; Zhu Yong a 64-year-old Chinese citizen living in Queens; Michael McMahon, 53, a New Jersey-based private detective; Rong Jing, a 34-year-old Chinese citizen living in California; and Zheng Congying, a 24-year-old Chinese citizen living in Brooklyn.
Three others were charged and are believed to be in China: Hu Ji, 45; Li Minjun, 64; and Zhu Feng, a 33-year-old Chinese national who lived at one point in Queens.
The documents unsealed by the Justice Department depicted a menacing campaign by the Chinese government in which its targets were repeatedly told that they and their relatives would be harmed if the expatriates did not return to China.
“There are many established ways that rule of law abiding nations conduct international law enforcement activity,” Mr. Demers said. “This certainly isn’t one of them.”
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