washington - Last week, the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictment of one former and one current Department of Homeland Security agent in connection with an alleged Chinese government plot to target U.S.-based critics.
The men, the law enforcement agency said, aided a "transnational repression" scheme to "silence, harass, discredit and spy on U.S -based residents for exercising their freedom of speech."
Their victims ranged from a prominent California-based Chinese sculptor to a Chinese American Army veteran running for a congressional seat in New York.
This was not the first Chinese operation of its kind inside the United States. But it marked the first time that China has recruited federal agents in support of their effort, reflecting what U.S. authorities regard as Beijing's increasingly brazen intrusion into other countries.
'There seems to be a marked escalation in their efforts to carry out this unlawful campaign, a campaign that's inimical not only to U.S. law but [also to] democratic values that we adhere to,' said David Laufman, who headed the Justice Department's counterintelligence and export control section from 2014 to 2018.
A term popularized in recent years, transnational repression refers to efforts by authoritarian regimes to target critics living outside their borders. They do this in a variety of ways, from online harassment and intimidation to physical assault and assassination.
With a growing number of governments 'using the same tools' to target critics, the advocacy organization Freedom House warns that the problem is becoming 'normal.'
In a recent report, Freedom House documented 735 incidents of transnational repression from 2014 through 2021, with China accounting for more than 30% of the incidents, making it the most prolific user in the world.
About 75% of transnational repression activities are carried out in non-democratic countries, said Freedom House senior researcher Yana Gorokhovskaia.
'This is what makes it shocking - that the Chinese government has been able to be so active in the U.S.,' Gorokhovskaia said.
Growing US alarm
Once seen as a human rights issue, transnational repression is increasingly viewed by U.S. officials as a violation of national sovereignty that must be countered. The recent U.S. focus on Chinese attacks comes as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials warn about Chinese espionage and influence operations.
Uzra Zeya, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, told a congressional panel last month that 'the reach and frequency of [China's] global repression is growing more alarming by the day.'
In response, Zeya said, the Biden administration has adopted a whole-of-government approach that includes visa restrictions, export controls, and the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators.
'We must reckon with this serious threat, and we are combating it with the attention, seriousness and resources it deserves,' Zeya said.
The Chinese government denies wrongdoing outside its territory.
Asked for comment on the U.S. allegations, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA in an email, 'China always asks Chinese citizens to abide by laws and regulations in host countries. We have never asked and will never ask Chinese citizens to do things in violation of local laws and regulations.'
Pengyu continued, 'The accusation of 'transnational repression' is totally made out of thin air. The U.S. attempt to hype up [the] 'China threat' and tarnish China's reputation is doomed to fail.'
Operation Fox Hunt
While China has long been known to engage in transnational repression around the world, its use of repressive tactics against dissidents and minorities increased in recent years as President Xi Jinping has consolidated power at home and adopted a more muscular foreign policy, experts say.
Laufman said China's cross-border activities have been on U.S. law enforcement's radar since at least 2014.
That's when Beijing launched an anti-corruption drive known as Operation Fox Hunt. Together with a later version known as Operation Skynet, Fox Hunt seeks to repatriate fugitives wanted for financial crimes in China. But U.S. officials say China has used the program as a cover to silence critics.
According to Freedom House, several parts of the Chinese government security apparatus are involved in transnational repression activities. These include the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The MSS is responsible for counterespionage and political security.
While MSS agents manage the targeting of Uyghurs, Tibetans and domestic dissidents, MPS officers work with local authorities to make threatening calls to exiles, according to Freedom House. In other instances, the Chinese government keeps a distance, using proxies such as 'anti-cult associations' in the United States to harass and attack critics.
The latest Chinese plot to target U.S.-based dissidents came to light in March when federal agents arrested two prominent Chinese Americans in New York.
Shujun Wang, a well-known New York-based academic, was accused of using his status within the Chinese American diaspora community to collect information about prominent activists and dissidents and report his findings to his four MSS handlers.
Fan "Frank" Liu, president of a purported media company, was accused of hiring private investigators to illegally collect tax records and other information about several dissidents.
Both men face charges of acting as agents of the Chinese government, as well as other criminal charges.
FILE - Weiming Chen, a sculptor and photographer, shows his artwork and photos of conflict in Syria during a demonstration in Los Angeles, Sept. 10, 2013. Chen is alleged to have been one of the victims of a Chinese government plot to target U.S.-based critics.
US agents charged
In a superseding indictment unsealed on July 6, a grand jury charged Craig Miller, a current DHS agent, and Derrick Taylor, a former DHS agent, for their roles in obtaining confidential information about the dissidents from a restricted government database. Another DHS agent, recently retired, is described as a 'co-conspirator' in the indictment but has not been publicly charged with any crime.
Liu's alleged handler was Qian 'Jason' Sun, a Hong Kong-based employee of a technology firm, according to the indictment.
In early 2021, Sun allegedly sent instructions to Liu to surveil and gather derogatory information about three U.S.-based Chinese dissidents.
Court documents do not name the dissidents. But two of the victims - Weiming Chen, a California artist, and Arthur Liu, the father of figure skater Alysa Liu - have since come forward.
The third dissident, described as an Indianapolis-based activist, remains unidentified.
Liu's activities came to the FBI's attention in early 2021 when he asked a private investigator to obtain federal tax records on Chen and other dissidents. Concerned that the request had come from the Chinese government, the investigator contacted the FBI instead and began cooperating.
In secretly recorded phone calls, Liu allegedly asked the investigator to obtain Chen's tax records, agreeing to pay $3,500 to bribe an Internal Revenue Service agent into illegally releasing the records.
No IRS agent was bribed. Instead, Chen secretly agreed to have the investigator hand over his tax returns to Liu.
In an undated document, Liu explained to Sun the goal of obtaining Chen's tax records.
'Based on his high price quotes for his [Chen's] artwork,' Liu wrote, 'we believe he definitely took in a large sum and evaded taxes, a major crime in the U.S. After obtaining evidence, spend money for court and attorney fees to totally get rid of him.'
Having obtained Chen's tax records, Liu allegedly tasked another investigator, Matthew Ziburis, with spying on Chen.
In court documents, Ziburis is described as a former Florida corrections officer and bodybuilder living in New York.
Chen's artwork, including a sculpture depicting China's Xi, had drawn the ire of Chinese authorities.
Armed with pointers provided by Sun, Ziburis flew to California where he secretly installed a GPS tracking device in Chen's car. Among other things, he photographed and videotaped Chen and his sculptures at his sculpture park in Yermo, California.
Ziburis had been given a cover story: He was an art dealer for a 'very rich Jewish man [and] head of the Jewish community' whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to build a 'democracy museum,' the documents allege.
Ziburis was arrested in March.
In June 2021, the fiberglass sculpture was destroyed in a suspected arson. No one has been arrested in connection with the arson, but Chen blames it on Chinese government agents.
'I'm very, very upset,' Chen said in an interview with VOA. 'I am just afraid that so many people working for the Chinese government want to destroy America, free speech and free population and free news.'
Last month, on the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chen unveiled a replacement dubbed 'CCP Virus II,' using a material that is harder to burn.
Tiananmen Square protester Xiong Yan, center, flashes a victory sign during a march in Hong Kong, May 31, 2009, marking the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown in Beijing. Xiong, who later served in the U.S. military and is now running for a seat in Congress, says the Chinese government 'tried to sink my campaign.'
Congressional candidate targeted
Yan Xiong, an Army veteran running in the Democratic primary for New York's 10th Congressional District, said he was 'shocked' to learn he had been targeted.
'They tried to sink my campaign,' Xiong said in an interview.
Xiong announced his candidacy in September 2021. Shortly after the announcement, a China-based MSS agent allegedly hired a U.S-based private investigator to undermine Xiong's campaign, including the use of physical violence.
'Right now, we don't want him to be elected,' the agent, Qiming Lin, wrote, according to court documents.
In other instances, the goal of Chinese transnational repression campaigns has been to pressure critics into silence.
Frances Hui, a Hong Kong activist now living in the U.S., said she was 'harassed and followed' by a Chinese government agent after she helped organize a pro-Hong Kong protest in 2019 while a student in Boston.
'That experience really traumatized me because it involves my personal life, and I was personally being harassed by this person,' Hui said.
Family member in crosshairs
Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, described how the Chinese authorities detained her sister shortly after she appeared on a panel at a Washington think tank in 2018.
'I criticized China's policies. And describing the current situation, what China's doing against Muslims and as well as outlining the faith of my in-laws, my in-laws' entire family [was] taken to concentration camps,' she said. 'Just six days after that speech, they took my sister hostage.'
But prominent activists are not the only ones who are targeted, Gorokhovskaia said.
'Even ordinary people we talked to as part of our research - Falun Gong practitioners who are not very public in terms of their profiles - were still harassed,' she said.
And the impact ripples beyond the immediate victims. While many activists continue to speak out, others have chosen to keep a low profile.
'In the United States, there are more than 8,000 Uyghurs,' Abbas said. 'How many of us are speaking [out]? If you look at the social media, you cannot find even 50 speaking regularly, not even 10 percent, because of what could happen to their family."