By ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) — Five men accused of acting on behalf of the Chinese government have been charged with brazen and wide-ranging schemes to stalk and harass Chinese dissidents living in the United States, including by seeking to derail the election bid of a little-known congressional candidate, the Justice Department said on March 16.
The cases underscored what American officials described as increasingly aggressive efforts by the Chinese government—sometimes involving the use of hired private investigators—to seek out, silence and threaten pro-democracy activists abroad.
“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 repression and corruption,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said at a news conference announcing three criminal cases.
“This activity is antithetical to fundamental American values,“ he added. “We will not tolerate such repression here when it violates our laws.”
The criminal cases, filed in federal court in Brooklyn, allege months-long efforts to embarrass dissidents and stifle their speech. The Justice Department in 2020 charged eight people with working on behalf of the Chinese government in a pressure campaign aimed at coercing a New Jersey man who was wanted by Beijing into returning to China to face charges.
In one of the new cases, two New York men operating under the direction of an employee of a China-based technology company spied on pro-democracy activists, sought to illegally obtain and disseminate the federal tax returns of a dissident and also plotted to destroy the artwork of a dissident artist, prosecutors said. A sculpture depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping as a coronavirus molecule was demolished last year, though no one has been charged in that, according to the Justice Department.
Two of the three men in that case, Fan “Frank” Liu and Matthew Ziburis, were arrested on March 15 on charges that include conspiring to commit interstate harassment and criminal use of a means of identification. A third man, Qiang “Jason” Sun, who prosecutors say tasked the others, remains at large.
In another plot that U.S. officials say was orchestrated by China’s Ministry of State Security, an author who once helped start a pro-democracy organization gathered intelligence on dissidents and activists, Uyghurs, Tibetans and advocates for Hong Kong’s independence. The man, Shujun Wang, 73, was arrested on March 16.
A third scheme by a man described as a Chinese government operative sought to undermine the candidacy of a congressional candidate by plotting to locate, or even manufacture, derogatory information.
The operative, identified as Qiming Lin, is accused of having contacted a private investigator seeking information about the candidate’s phone number, address and vehicle. He later asked the investigator to “dig up things from 1989 to now” in search of flaws against the candidate to hurt his candidacy.
At one point, according to charging documents, Lin told the investigator that, in the end, “violence would be fine too” and suggested that he could be beaten “until he cannot run for election.”
The investigator Lin is accused of contacting was actually a source for the FBI, who reported the initial outreach to agents and said he believed Lin to be a retired agent of China’s Ministry of State Security.
In an affidavit, an FBI agent conducting the investigation wrote that, “Based on the conduct summarized herein and my experience and training, I assess that LIN continued to act on behalf of the MSS even if ostensibly retired.”
The candidate is described in court papers as a Chinese dissident and student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Though the candidate is not identified by name in the complaint, the biographical details in the document match those of Yan Xiong, who announced his candidacy as a Democrat for a congressional seat in New York City in this year’s election.
Lin remains at large, officials said. He faces charges that include conspiracy to commit interstate harassment.
The top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Breon Peace, would not describe any conversations that officials may have had with Yan, but said that the Justice Department takes seriously its obligations to warn victims of potential threats and to avert violence.
Yan, who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he did not know any details about the allegations and learned about them after reporters reached out to him. He said he had not witnessed any harassment or intimidation and had not been contacted by the FBI or Justice Department, and that he did not know why the Chinese government would be interested in his campaign for Congress.
“This has nothing to do with them. Why they do that, I can’t understand,” he said. He added: “I’m getting mad. I have nothing to do with them. I’m a purely American citizen.”