Five individuals were charged with spying on U.S. citizens critical of Beijing

A major goal of the strategy was to combat transnational repression from 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. Officials from the Justice Department stressed that they are committed to crackingdown on cybercrimes such as spying and cyberattacks. This includes those directed 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. A third case involves a former Chinese scholar, who was instrumental in the establishment of a Queens-based pro-democracy group. He is accused of using his position as a New York City resident to gather information on prominent dissidents, human rights activists and to provide that information to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is a secret intelligence agency and civilian police station responsible for protecting 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. He stated that the department “will not permit any foreign government to threaten or impede freedom of speech for Americans as well as people coming to the United States to study, live and work.”

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 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. Two more remain in hiding.

Qiming Lin is a Chinese national living in China and allegedly working 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. The prosecution alleges that Lin was helped by the investigator to get Yan’s phone number and address. Lin then asked for “derogatory” information about Yan, such as evidence of an affair and stealing money.

If such information was not found Lin asked the investigator to “manufacture some” and prosecutors added that Lin cited as an example an incident in Beijing last fall where a well-known concert pianist was taken into custody after being allegedly found with a prostitute. Lin advised the investigator to “go look for a girl.” Prosecutors alleged that Lin encouraged the investigator to “go find a girl.”

Lin suggested that Yan be attacked by the investigator in December to stop him competing for the Democratic primary. Lin allegedly said in a voicemail to the investigator: “Beat Him, Beat him till he can run for office.” That’s the last resort, heh. The car accident [he], will cause the vehicle to be totaly destroyed. … 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. Sun and Liu were also charged with conspiracy to bribe an official in order to get the tax returns for a pro-democracy activist from 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 is an employee from China of a multinational technology company.

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. Liu, for example, allegedly paid an IRS employee in Queens with the promise of public disclosure of the potential tax liabilities of the dissident.

The defendants also plotted to desecrate the art of a dissident who is critical of China’s 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. Peace stated that the sculpture was destroyed last year and that no charges have been filed for 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. Officials said that the defendants planned to place surveillance equipment in the homes of the two dissidents and their cars. Sun is still 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 was a former visiting scholar, author and helped to found an organization which commemorates the two ex-leaders of China’s Communist Party, who were removed from power after promoting political and economic reform.

Since at least 2015, however, Wang has secretly operated at the direction of the MSS, prosecutors allege. His status within New York’s Chinese American community allowed him to influence activists, including by sharing their opinions on China and planning speeches, writings, demonstrations, and other activities against the party. The victims of his efforts were groups Beijing considered subversive. These included Hong Kong democracy activists and advocates for Taiwan independence.

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. James Cho, Magistrate of the United States set a bond for Liu at $1million. Liu is a U.S citizen and has been living in America for almost four decades. Cho set a $500,000 bond for Ziburis and a $300,000 bond for Wang.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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