US authorities arrested two men Monday for allegedly setting up a Chinese “police station” in New York and charged dozens of Chinese security officials over a campaign to monitor and harass US-based dissidents.
The arrests of Harry Lu Jianwang, 61, and Chen Jinping, 59, are the first anywhere over a suspected campaign by China to establish surreptitious police posts in countries around the world, said Breon Peace, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn.
The two men set up the office in Manhattan’s Chinatown last year at the behest of the Fuzhou branch of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), China’s national police force, ostensibly to offer services like Chinese driver’s license renewal, according to Peace.
But in fact their main job was to help track down and harass fugitive dissidents from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), US officials said.
“The MPS established a concrete outpost, an off-the-books police station right here in New York City, to monitor and intimidate dissidents and other critics of the PRC within one of the United States’ most vibrant diaspora communities,” said David Newman, the Justice Department’s principal deputy assistant attorney general for national security.
– Harassing dissidents –
Canada and several European governments have cracked down on similar “police stations.”
Last year the Spain-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders first revealed the existence of such outposts around the world.
They often operate with little or no indication they are there — though US officials said the Manhattan office had been visited by officials from the Chinese consulate in New York.
According to Safeguard Defenders, the “police stations” have been involved in pressuring Chinese nationals to return home to face criminal charges.
Canada has identified and closed several unofficial outposts in Montreal and elsewhere.
In October, Dutch authorities said they were investigating reports of two Chinese police operations in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
Lu and Chen were charged with acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government and obstruction for destroying evidence of their communications with Chinese officials.
– Anti-dissident task force –
In a related case, the Justice Department announced charges against 34 members of China’s MPS who were allegedly involved in harassing dissidents overseas, including the US-based Falun Gong religious movement.
The indictees are allegedly members of the “912 Special Project Working Group,” which the Justice Department described as an MPS task force set up “to target Chinese dissidents located throughout the world, including in the United States.”
The task force created thousands of fake social media accounts, according to the US charges, to target Chinese dissidents “through online harassment and threats.”
They also sometimes pose as people from the United States or other countries, the charges said, to push Beijing’s official view or interpretation of global issues, from Democracy to the Ukraine war to American racial tensions.
“This task force isn’t a normal police force,” said Peace.
“It doesn’t protect people or combat crimes. It commits crimes targeting Chinese democracy activists and dissidents located outside of the PRC, including right here in New York City.”
– Interrupting Zoom meetings –
Another six MPS officials and two members of China’s Cyberspace Administration were charged with conspiracy in an updated 2020 case of a China-based employee of Zoom acting to disrupt online meetings and discussions by anti-Beijing activists.
The new indictment says the employee, Julien Jin, “worked directly with and took orders from” the MPS and Cyberspace Administration.
In one case, in May and June 2020, Jin used his access to Zoom company systems to disrupt online meetings by activists to discuss the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen anti-democracy crackdown and massacre in Beijing.
“It shows the PRC efforts to globalize the oppressive tactics used domestically in China to silence dissent,” said Newman.
“The efforts of the government of the PRC to export authoritarian methods to stifle free expression in the United States is a threat to American democracy that we will not abide.”