The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparently wasn’t happy that a sculpture criticizing its leader Xi Jinping was on display in the United States, so the regime’s agents went to work. They hired a private investigator in New York and a former correctional officer in Florida in a conspiracy to try to shame and discredit the sculpture’s artist.
That’s according to federal prosecutors who unveiled the alleged scheme earlier this week, describing the efforts as part of the communist regime’s wider campaign to spy on, harass, and intimidate Chinese dissidents abroad.
Two of the three charged in the plot, Liu Fan, a president of a purported New York-based media company, and the correctional officer, Matthew Ziburis, were arrested in New York on March 15, according to the Justice Department (DOJ). They worked under the direction of Sun Qiang, a China-based individual who allegedly acted as an intermediary for the CCP and remains at large, prosecutors said.
The DOJ didn’t reveal the name of the artist but provided descriptions of the sculpture that the defendants wanted to destroy—a work depicting Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a coronavirus molecule that was destroyed in the spring of last year.
In an interview with The Epoch Times, Chen Weiming, a Chinese-born New Zealander now living in California, confirmed that he was their target.
“The CCP agents thought they could commit crimes in this free country and nobody would care. But the net of justice is closing in on them,” Chen said.
Chen said his agent in New York was contacted by Ziburis, who portrayed himself as someone who admired Chen’s work.
Ziburis expressed an interest in having all of his artwork displayed in a New York exhibition, according to Chen. Subsequently, Ziburis paid a down payment of $20,000 for one of Chen’s art pieces, a sculpture named “CCP Virus,” Chen said.
The “CCP Virus” was a bust statue more than 20 feet tall featuring a face resembling Xi. The face was split in half—the right side appeared human while the left side was a skull. The distinctive spike proteins of the virus molecule made up its hair.
The statue was originally located at Liberty Sculpture Park in Yermo, California. However, in July last year, less than a month after Chen unveiled his work to the public, the sculpture was destroyed by arsonists.
Chen said he didn’t suspect Ziburis’s intentions because he was a Westerner. Ziburis also showed him photos of his alleged financial backer and some Democratic politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which had convinced Chen of Ziburis’s credentials.
After the sculpture was destroyed, Chen said Ziburis stopped mentioning the exhibition. Chen had thought that Ziburis’s change of mind was due to him being either threatened or bribed by the Chinese regime.
Ziburis eventually broke the contract he signed with Chen, who then hired Li Jinjin as a lawyer to file a civil lawsuit. Earlier this week, Li, a Chinese dissident who was once jailed in China for taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, was stabbed to death by a woman at his law offices in New York City.
The Alleged Plot
According to a criminal complaint unsealed on March 16, Liu, president of a purported media company called Congress Web TV Station in New York City, began plotting against Chen in January 2021. His goal was to obtain Chen’s federal tax returns, believing Chen had evaded taxes, a crime he could make public to discredit the artist.
Liu first hired a private investigator, whose name wasn’t released by the DOJ, asking if he had any contacts with the FBI or CIA to obtain Chen’s tax returns. The investigator, who was “concerned that the requests” were from the Chinese regime, contacted the FBI, according to the complaint.
Under the direction of the FBI, the investigator told Liu he had a contact at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and a bribe of $1,500 would get him Chen’s tax returns. According to the complaint, Liu made the payment through his company and subsequently obtained copies of the tax returns in March 2021.
In California, Ziburis installed surveillance equipment on Chen’s vehicle and his studio, the complaint said, while Sun had access to video footage and location data from the devices.
During one communication, Sun encouraged Liu to have Zibris destroy the sculpture, saying: “Destroy all sculptures and things that are not good to our leaders,” according to the complaint.
The court file quoted another communication in which Liu suggested to Sun that destroying Chen’s artwork should be videotaped.
“Contact a couple of hundred media outlets in the United States and China to report the news and harshly criticize their disgusting act,” Liu wrote to Sun, explaining how the videos could be used.
Chen said he now suspects that these same individuals orchestrated the arson attack.
The complaint didn’t say Liu and Ziburis were suspects behind the arson. It noted that the two were in New York City at the same time the sculpture was destroyed in California.
Others Allegedly Targeted
Aside from Chen, Liu, Ziburis, and Sun also targeted two other dissidents, one living in Indiana, and the other in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the complaint.
One of those targets was Arthur Liu, the father of U.S. Olympic figure skater Alysa Liu.
The defendants sought to discredit the two dissidents by using their own comments, the DOJ said. The idea was to set up mock media sessions using Liu’s purported media company, and have the interviewees respond to questions designed by Sun intended to elicit answers that could humiliate or discredit the dissidents. Their responses would then be used in Chinese propaganda to smear the targets.
Ziburis was paid more than $100,000 for his services, wire transfers showed, according to the complaint. Meanwhile, Liu and his wife received payments of more than $3 million from Hong Kong-based accounts.
If convicted, Liu and Ziburis face a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison for conspiring to commit interstate harassment, and up to 15 years in prison for criminal use of a means of identification, according to the DOJ. Liu also faces another five years for conspiring to bribe a federal official.
The case should serve as a lesson to the communist regime, Chen said.
“The CCP should never think about undermining the free society [of America],” he said.
Xu Manyuan contributed to this report.