Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have charged five people with acting on behalf of the Chinese secret police to stalk, spy on and harass U.S. residents critical of Beijing, officials announced Wednesday.
A major focus of the strategy is fighting transnational repression by authoritarian governments. Its launch last month coincided with the shutting down of a program known as the China Initiative, following controversy fueled by what officials said was a misperception that the department was targeting ethnic Chinese for prosecution. Justice Department officials stressed that prosecutors remained committed to cracking down on crimes such as espionage and cyberattacks, especially those directed by or benefiting foreign governments.
The five defendants are accused of aiding the Chinese government’s efforts to harass, stalk and surveil Chinese nationals living in Queens and elsewhere in the United States. In one case, a defendant allegedly tried to derail the candidacy of a U.S. military veteran running for Congress who had been a student leader at the 1989 pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. That demonstration was brutally crushed by the Chinese government.
In another case, the defendants are accused of crimes including planning to destroy the artwork of a Chinese national living in Los Angeles who has criticized the Chinese government. In a third case, a former Chinese scholar who helped start a pro-democracy organization in Queens is charged with using his position within New York City’s Chinese community to collect information about prominent activists, dissidents and human rights leaders and provide it to the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), a civilian intelligence and secret police agency responsible for political security.
“Transnational repression harms people in the United States and around the world and threatens the rule of law itself,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen. The department, he said, “will not allow any foreign government” to threaten the safety or impede the freedom of speech of Americans and people who come to live, work and study in the United States.
The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Breon Peace, said the complaints unsealed Wednesday “reveal the outrageous and dangerous lengths” to which the Chinese secret police have gone to “silence, harass, discredit and spy on U.S. residents for simply exercising their freedom of speech.”
All the victims, he said, were targeted “because of their pro-democracy views.”
At a press briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the United States of “unwarranted denigration and smearing against China.”
“China always asks Chinese citizens to abide by laws and regulations in host countries," he said. "…. The accusation of ‘transnational repression schemes’ is totally made out of thin air. The U.S. attempt to hype up ‘China threat’ and tarnish China’s reputation is doomed to fail.”
Three defendants of the defendants were arrested and appeared in court in Brooklyn on Wednesday. The other two remain at large.
One of the defendants who is at large is Qiming Lin, a Chinese citizen living in China who allegedly works for the MSS.
Beginning last September, Lin is alleged to have hired a private investigator in New York to disrupt the campaign of a Brooklyn resident running for Congress, including by physically attacking the victim. According to public records and open-source information, the candidate was Yan Xiong, who came to the United States as a political refugee several years after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, then served in the U.S. military and became a naturalized American.
Lin allegedly explained to the private investigator, who had been an informant for the FBI on prior occasions, that he was working with others in China to prevent Yan from being elected, according to the Justice Department. Prosecutors allege that the investigator helped Lin obtain Yan’s address and phone number and asked the investigator to dig up “derogatory information” about him such as evidence of an affair or of stealing funds.
If no such information could be found, Lin wanted the investigator to “manufacture something,” prosecutors alleged, adding that Lin gave as an example an incident last fall in Beijing in which a prominent concert pianist was detained after allegedly being found in the company of a prostitute. Lin encouraged the investigator to “go find a girl. … Or see how he goes for prostitution, take some photos, something of that nature,” prosecutors alleged.
In December, Lin proposed that the investigator attack Yan to prevent him from competing in the June Democratic primary. In a voice message to the investigator, prosecutors alleged, Lin said: “Beat him, beat him until he cannot run for election. Heh, that’s the … last resort. … Car accident, [he] will be completely wrecked, right? … Or on the day of the election, he cannot make it there himself, right?”
In the second case, Fan “Frank” Liu, Matthew Ziburis and Qiang “Jason” Sun are charged with conspiring to act as agents of the Chinese government and with seeking to harass. Liu and Sun also were charged with conspiring to bribe a federal official to obtain the tax returns of a pro-democracy activist in the United States.
According to the complaint, Liu, a Long Island resident, is president of a purported New York City media company, and Ziburis, also of Long Island, is a former correctional officer for the state of Florida and a body guard. Sun allegedly is a China-based employee of a global technology firm.
Prosecutors allege that Liu and Ziburis operated at Sun’s direction to discredit pro-democracy Chinese dissidents living in the United States, including in New York City, California and Indiana, by spying on them and spreading potentially embarrassing information about them. For instance, Liu allegedly paid a private investigator in Queens to bribe an IRS employee to obtain the tax returns of one dissident with the ostensible aim of publicly disclosing the dissident’s potential tax liabilities.
The defendants also allegedly plotted to destroy the artwork of a dissident whose work is critical of the Chinese government. The artist, whose name is not included in the charging documents, had created a sculpture of President Xi Jinping depicted as a coronavirus molecule. The sculpture was “demolished” last year, Peace said, and no one has been charged in that act of vandalism.
Posing as an art dealer, Ziburis allegedly covertly planted GPS monitoring devices at the artist’s home and on his car, enabling Sun to monitor the live feeds from China, prosecutors said. The defendants also made plans to install surveillance equipment at the homes and on the cars of two other dissidents, officials said. Liu and Ziburis were arrested; Sun remains at large.
In the third case, Shujun Wang of Queens was arrested and charged with acting as an agent of the Chinese government and lying about his participation in a transnational repression scheme orchestrated by the MSS. Wang, a former visiting scholar and author, helped found an organization that memorializes two former leaders of the Chinese Communist Party who promoted political and economic reforms and were forced from power.
Since at least 2015, however, Wang has secretly operated at the direction of the MSS, prosecutors allege. Given his stature within the Chinese American community in New York City, he was able to induce activists to confide in him, including sharing their views on democracy in China, as well as planned speeches, writings and demonstrations against the party.
The victims of his efforts included groups that Beijing considers subversive, prosecutors alleged, including Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, advocates of Taiwan independence, and Uyghur and Tibetan activists in the United States and abroad.
In April 2020, one victim about whom Wang allegedly reported information to the Chinese government, a Hong Kong democracy activist, was arrested in Hong Kong and jailed on political charges, prosecutors said. In April 2019, Wang allegedly flew from China to New York carrying a handwritten document with the names and contact information of dozens of other well-known dissidents, including Hong Kong democracy activists who were subsequently arrested in 2019 and 2020.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Cho set bond at $1 million for Liu, a U.S. citizen who has lived in the United States for nearly four decades. Cho set a $500,000 bond for Ziburis and a $300,000 bond for Wang.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.