U.S. Struggles to Find Balanced Approach Against CCP’s Transnational Repression

Last week, federal prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) opened three criminal cases accusing five Chinese government agents of attempting to spy on, intimidate, and silence dissidents living in the U.S. The high-profile cases come only weeks after the same agency closed the China Initiative, a controversial program aimed at countering Chinese espionage in American businesses and universities. These contrasting developments demonstrate the complexity of protecting citizens and society from both transnational repression by the CCP and domestic overreach by the U.S. government.

The first of the new cases involved the targeting of a Chinese dissident who was a former student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Jan Wolfe from Reuters described this case and a Chinese agent’s alleged actions against the dissident:

In one of the cases, federal prosecutors said a Chinese government agent approached a U.S. private investigator to help manufacture a political scandal that would undermine a China-born man seeking the Democratic nomination to run for a New York seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At one point, the Chinese agent proposed that the private investigator consider physically attacking the candidate to prevent his candidacy, according to prosecutors.

“You can start thinking now, aside from violence, what other plans are there,” the Chinese agent allegedly said. “But in the end, violence would be fine too. Huh? Beat him, beat him until he cannot run for election.”

The candidate was not identified in court documents, but fits the description of Xiong Yan, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for a House seat representing the eastern part of New York’s Long Island. The seat is held by Republican Lee Zeldin, who opted to run for governor rather than seek reelection. [Source]

Aruna Viswanatha, Kate O’Keeffe, and James Fanelli from The Wall Street Journal described other dissidents targeted by the agent involved in the first case:

A man working as an agent of the Chinese government also plotted to appear at another dissident’s house pretending to represent an international sports committee in a bid to get his passport and that of a family member, prosecutors said. The dissident isn’t named but was confirmed by a person familiar with the investigation as Arthur Liu, the father of American figure-skating Olympian Alysa Liu, who has said he fled China after organizing student protests in 1989.

[…] Representatives for Alysa and Arthur Liu also didn’t respond to a request for comment. The complaint alleges that the surveillance and harassment campaign against Mr. Liu included looking to pay a reporter to let an agent tag along on an interview and ask his own questions, put a GPS tracker on his car, and get his Social Security number.

The complaint said investigators had also secured an international sports committee ID card bearing the name of an actual representative and an image of one of the agents. The plan to get Mr. Liu’s passport and that of a family member, the complaint said, was discussed in November 2021 and involved going to the Lius’ house with the identification card under the guise of checking if they were prepared to travel.

The 16-year-old Alysa Liu competed at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, finishing seventh in the women’s competition. [Source]

The second case involved Chinese agents targeting dissident artist Chen Weiming, creator of the Goddess of Democracy statue at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which has since been removed. Some of his work is also exhibited in Liberty Sculpture Park in Yermo, California, including a replica of a tank from the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and “CCP Virus,” a giant sculpture fusing the head of Xi Jinping with a coronavirus molecule. Last July, the sculpture was destroyed in a fire, which Chen suggested was an attack by the Chinese government “to shut down our free speech.” Richard Winton from the Los Angeles Times described how the DOJ says Chen was targeted by Chinese agents involved in the second case:

The three [agents] also tried unsuccessfully to get Chen’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service, thinking they could get him charged for tax evasion, according to indictments unsealed Wednesday.

[…] In a series of communications, Sun encouraged Liu “to have Ziburis destroy the sculpture,” but they also considered whether that could backfire and give the artist publicity.

When Ziburis posed as an art dealer, according to the complaint, he secretly installed surveillance cameras and GPS devices at the dissident’s workplace and in his car. While in China, Sun watched the live video feed and location data from these devices, the charges allege. [Source]

Ellen Nakashima and Shayna Jacobs at The Washington Post described the third case against a CCP agent who informed on dissidents, one of whom was later jailed in Hong Kong:

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. [Source]

Harper Neidig and Rebecca Beitsch from The Hill described the DOJ’s justification, citing the need to protect the U.S. from attacks on the rule of law by foreign governments:

“This activity is antithetical to fundamental American values, and we will not tolerate it when it violates U.S. law,” Matthew Olsen, the assistant attorney general leading the DOJ’s National Security Division, said in a statement. “The Department of Justice will defend the rights of Americans and those who come to live, work, and study in the United States. We will not allow any foreign government to impede their freedom of speech, to deny them the protection of our laws or to threaten their safety or the safety of their families.”

[…] “The complaints unsealed today reveal the outrageous and dangerous lengths to which the PRC government’s secret police and these defendants have gone to attack the rule of law and freedom in New York City and elsewhere in the United States,” Breon Peace, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said Wednesday. [Source]

Defusing national security threats from China has not been simple for the DOJ, whose China Initiative has left scars on many in the research community. The program began under the Trump administration in 2018 with a focus on cases of grant fraud or visa fraud in universities. Over time, it has come under intense criticism by civil rights groups claiming that it created an atmosphere of fear among Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the U.S., especially in the context of the administration’s call for a “whole-of-society” response to the national security threat from China and rising hate crimes against Asian Americans. Critics also lambasted the initiative’s disproportionate reliance on criminal prosecutions and the DOJ’s lack of expertise in university research culture, the subject of most prosecutions. Natasha Gilbert & Max Kozlov from Nature described how the initiative went adrift:

Scientists and civil-liberties groups had been calling for the China Initiative to end for more than a year. Critics of the initiative said it was biased against researchers of Chinese descent, and pointed to the damaged lives and careers of those who have been arrested. For instance, nanotechnology researcher Anming Hu at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was acquitted in September last year after a mistrial. He had been under house arrest for over a year while awaiting trial, and was fired from his job (the university rehired him this month).

[…] The reforms to the China Initiative were driven in part by concerns from the academic and scientific community, Olsen said. A number of university and advocacy groups submitted letters to US attorney-general Merrick Garland asking for a review of the programme last year. Olsen was asked to evaluate the initiative, a process that took three months. He acknowledged that the cases brought against researchers under the China Initiative gave a perception of bias against those of Chinese descent, and undermined international collaboration. However, he said he hadn’t seen any evidence to suggest that the DoJ had taken any decisions owing to racial prejudice.

The volunteer group APA Justice, which has been advocating on behalf of researchers of Asian descent, disagrees with Olsen’s assessment but welcomes “the end of the ill-conceived initiative and DOJ’s openness to listen and respond to community concerns”. In December, an analysis by the news outlet MIT Technology Review found that nearly 90% of all China Initiative defendants were of Chinese origin — a fact that Lee says is indisputable evidence of racial profiling. [Source]

In place of the China Initiative, the DOJ announced a new plan in February called the Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats, focused on nefarious activity from a broader set of countries including Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as China. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen also stated that the department would alter its approach to grant fraud cases by potentially taking civil or administration actions rather than criminal prosecutions. But as Jeffrey Mervis wrote in Science, some researchers argue that the change in name may bring little concrete change going forward:

“Dropping the name is good,” says Steven Pei, an electrical engineer at the University of Houston who has been a prominent advocate for reforming an initiative critics say has unfairly targeted U.S.-based scientists of Chinese origin and improperly subjected researchers who made paperwork errors to criminal prosecution. “But the real issue is how the new policy will be implemented.”

[…] “If you don’t admit that you’ve done something wrong, then how can you prevent it from happening again?” asks Pei, a co-organizer of the nonprofit Asian Pacific American Justice Task Force, which has highlighted the plight of scientists it believes have been unjustly prosecuted. Pei and others would like DOJ to conduct a blanket review of all pending cases. “That would go a long way toward winning back the trust of the Asian and scientific communities,” Pei says.

[…] Such thorny issues are a big reason many scholars see DOJ’s announcement as only a first step. The name change “recognizes that our concerns were legitimate,” says John Yang, president of Advancing Justice-AAJC, an advocacy group. “But there is a lot more work to be done.” [Source]

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