by Sebastian Rotella
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For years, Chinese American dissidents in New York have suspected that China’s powerful and ubiquitous intelligence services had infiltrated their ranks and were tracking their every move.
“We operate under the assumption that no secret can be kept from the Chinese Communist Party, except maybe very sensitive ones,” said Chuangchuang Chen, a law student at St. John’s University and leading pro-democracy activist in Queens.
On Wednesday, Chen and other dissidents got new evidence of just how deep and aggressive China’s pursuit has become. U.S. prosecutors announced charges in three major cases that they say depict the alarming reach of Chinese intelligence in the United States. In one case, FBI agents arrested a 73-year-old dissident leader who is accused of spying on his fellow activists for 17 years. In the other cases, prosecutors said, Chinese spies recruited U.S. operatives, armed them with generous budgets, elaborate cover stories and high-tech gear, and sent them across the country to target Chinese Americans, including a congressional candidate on Long Island and a sculptor in Southern California.
The high-profile U.S. prosecutions are part of a stepped-up counteroffensive against an increasingly brazen adversary. Wednesday’s announcement at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., came after months of public concern — including extensivereports by ProPublica — about the Chinese regime’s global campaign to harass, threaten, kidnap or imprison its critics and their families. ProPublica detailed one case in which a Chinese police officer slipped into the U.S. and deployed a team of Chinese and U.S. operatives, including a former New York City police detective, to spy on a New Jersey couple and force them to return to China.
During the press conference, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, head of the DOJ’s national security division, described “an alarming rise in transnational repression” and warned that China and other “authoritarian states around the world feel emboldened to reach beyond their borders to intimidate or exact reprisals against individuals who dare to speak out against oppression and corruption.”
All three cases unveiled Wednesday grew out of FBI counterintelligence investigations in the Eastern District of New York, where neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn have long been home to many Chinese Americans. Immigrants in such areas often fear that reporting acts of repression will result in retaliation against relatives in their former country. The FBI has been urging victims to come forward, creating a website with information and instructions in 28 languages.
“We have dozens of transnational repression cases,” said FBI Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr., who leads the counterintelligence division, at the press conference. “However, we believe we should have hundreds.”
Reacting to the charges at a daily press briefing Thursday, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said he did not know the specifics but denied that his government engages in such activity.
“We have never asked and will never ask Chinese citizens to do things in violation of local laws and regulations,” said the spokesperson, Zhao Lijan, in comments posted on the website of the embassy of China. “The accusation of ‘transnational repression schemes’ is totally made out of thin air. The US attempt to hype up ‘China threat’ and tarnish China’s reputation is doomed to fail.”
The clandestine tactics and methods described in the New York cases resemble those at the heart of a groundbreaking federal indictment of police officials and prosecutors from the city of Wuhan in 2020. ProPublica later determined that the lead officer in that case had slipped in and out of the U.S. pursuing other targets for several years, eluding detection by law enforcement. The defendants in the Wuhan case were part of Operation Fox Hunt, President Xi Jinping’s worldwide campaign to forcibly repatriate thousands of Chinese nationals accused, justifiably or not, of corruption.
The new prosecutions allege that, as in many Fox Hunt cases in North America, Chinese spies recruited teams of local operatives, often private detectives who conducted surveillance and gathered intelligence on targets. The New York-based detective hired in the Wuhan case has pleaded innocent, claiming he was duped by Chinese operatives claiming to represent a company hunting for an embezzler.
But some revelations in the new cases are unusual. Prosecutors took direct aim at the Ministry of State Security, China’s secret political police, charging an MSS officer named Qiming Lin with interference in the U.S. electoral process. Olsen said he was not aware of a previous case in which charges were filed against Chinese state officials for trying to sabotage a U.S. electoral candidacy.
Lin had discussed resorting to violence, such as a beating or a staged accident, to prevent a Chinese American candidate from winning an election in a congressional district on Long Island, authorities say.
“In the end, violence would be fine too,” Lin told a U.S. private investigator, according to a voice message transcript in a criminal complaint. “Huh? Beat him [chuckles], beat him until he cannot run for election. Heh, that’s the-the last resort. You-you think about it. Car accident, [he] will be completely wrecked [chuckles], right? Don’t know, eh, whatever ways from all different angles. Or, on the day of the election, he cannot make it there himself, right?”
The allegations stand out because, in general, Chinese intelligence officers have been less likely to engage in violence in the West than their counterparts from Russia and other authoritarian nations.
Lin also instructed the investigator to look for compromising information about the candidate’s personal life and suggested trying to orchestrate a scandal involving a prostitute, according to the complaint. He said his spy agency had set its sights on destroying other politicians as well.
“Right now we will have a lot more-more of this in the future. ... Including right now [a] New York State legislator,” Lin said, according to the transcript. “[T]here are, uh, some-some, uh who speak negatively about China. ... The people who always speak up, you need to pay attention to them. If possible-possible to get some information, then this side will hold you in very high regards in the future.”
Authorities did not identify the intended victim, but their description resembles that of veteran dissident Xiong Yan, who participated in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, became a U.S. citizen and served in the U.S. Army in Iraq. Yan is running for Congress in New York’s 1st District on Long Island. Media reports Wednesday quoted him as saying he had first heard about the case from journalists.
Prosecutors charged Lin with interstate harassment and the illegal use of identity information. Lin had come to New York to meet with the private investigator, who was not identified, in the past, but he is now believed to be in China, prosecutors said.
Olsen said the FBI arrested two Long Island men at the heart of a second case Tuesday: Fan “Frank” Liu, a wealthy U.S. citizen who runs a media company in New York, and Matthew Ziburis, a former Florida corrections officer turned professional bodyguard. The pair’s alleged exploits show the kind of resources that Beijing is accused of pouring into cross-border repression. Ziburis earned more than $100,000 for stalking dissidents in California, Indiana and Thailand last year while Liu, who hired and directed him, received more than $3 million from accounts based in Hong Kong, according to a criminal complaint.
The two men were hired by an intermediary for the Chinese government to discredit prominent dissidents, prosecutors said. The targets included the sculptor of a statue titled “CCP Virus,” which depicted the coronavirus with the face of Xi, the complaint alleges. The suspects instructed a private investigator to bribe an Internal Revenue Service official to provide them with the artist’s tax records in hopes of finding damaging information, authorities said. In reality, the private investigator was cooperating with the FBI and there was no IRS official, authorities said.
To gain access to the targets, the conspirators devised elaborate cover stories, with Ziburis presenting himself variously as an art broker and a journalist, according to the complaint. Their equipment allegedly included a GPS tracker, secret microphones and a surveillance camera that provided a live feed monitored in China. Prosecutors charged Qiang Sun, a China-based employee of an international technology company, with serving as an intermediary between the Chinese government and the U.S. suspects. He remains at large.
The charges in the case include acting as illegal foreign agents, attempted bribery of a federal official and interstate stalking.
The final case detailed Wednesday highlights another trademark of Chinese spymasters: the long game.
The investigation centers on Shujun Wang, 73, a military historian and former college professor who has been prominent in dissident circles for almost two decades. Wang first came to the United States as a visiting scholar in 1993 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2003, authorities said. Three years later, he was among a group of leading Chinese dissidents who founded the Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang Memorial Foundation in the Chinatown area of Flushing, Queens. Wang served as secretary general of the foundation named for two reformist figures of the Chinese Communist Party.
But by then, authorities say, Wang was already a highly placed mole who had infiltrated the movement in New York.
“Emails, chat communications, WANG’s own admissions and other evidence show that, beginning at least in or about 2005, while acting under the direction and control of [People’s Republic of China] and MSS officials, WANG reported to the MSS information about Chinese dissidents and members of the Chinese democracy movement in the United States and elsewhere,” the complaint says.
Wang operated under the direction of four senior MSS officers whom he has identified in questioning by FBI agents, the complaint says. He allegedly filed meticulous reports in face-to-face meetings during visits to China, via a messaging app, and in “diaries” that he wrote in draft emails accessed by his handlers. It is not clear when the FBI first began investigating him, but the complaint details alleged crimes beginning in 2016.
Wang’s communications, according to the complaint, show he focused on the top targets of the authoritarian regime: those involved in the causes of Tibet, Taiwan, the Uyghurs, Hong Kong and the pro-democracy movement. He allegedly kept the MSS informed about conversations, meetings, protests and other activities in granular detail.
“In a March 2019 diary entry, WANG listed possible speakers and attendees at a Tiananmen Square massacre memorial protest in New York,” the complaint says. “According to WANG, one speaker identified by name was to deliver an ‘hour long’ speech and describe his feelings ‘without any reservations.’ WANG further stated that he had not heard from a well-known Taiwan democracy organization; that nothing dramatic occurred at a 50th birthday party in Flushing which 80 people attended; that a known anti-Chinese Communist Party protestor would likely attempt to block Xi Jinping’s car when Xi visited President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida; and that people in New York were not enthusiastic about ‘the democratic movement’ because the Tiananmen Square protesters were too old now.”
Wang also helped shadow a well-known leader of the Hong Kong democracy movement, reporting to the MSS about meetings and telephone calls with him, the complaint says. Hong Kong authorities arrested the activist last year.
FBI agents arrested Wang Wednesday on charges of acting as an illegal foreign agent, misusing identity information and making false statements. Although the unmasking of a seasoned leader might seem devastating, many of Wang’s associates had had suspicions for years, said Chen, the Queens dissident.
“People told me to be careful around him,” Chen said. “He was seen as an active spy. It was a public secret. In our circle, we have known he was being monitored by the FBI for some time.”
Dissidents had suspected Wang because of his ability to travel frequently to China without being arrested or bothered by the authorities there, Chen said. They believed he had frequent contact with officials at the Chinese consulate in New York as well, Chen said. They reported him to the FBI, kept their distance and waited, knowing that U.S. counterintelligence agencies can also play the long game.
If the FBI keeps looking, it will find similar Chinese repression operations going on around the country, Chen predicted. He named the likely hotbeds: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta.
The newly announced cases are “the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “But it’s a good step. Very good step. I applaud it.”
In an initial court appearance Wednesday, Liu denied the allegations through an interpreter. He, Ziburis and Wang were released on bond. Their lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.