CUDDEBACKVILLE, N.Y.—Dancers and musicians who have fled communist China and found a base in the serenity of rural upstate New York are now finding themselves the target of overseas operations by Beijing as well as an American national with close ties to China.
An investigation by The Epoch Times, which reviewed thousands of pages of documents, internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents, and over a dozen interviews, uncovered a decade-and-a-half-long campaign by the CCP on U.S. soil.
The target of the CCP’s operation is Shen Yun Performing Arts, the performing arts company celebrated for its world-class performances of classical Chinese dance and music. Why the group is targeted is clear from its slogan this year: “China Before Communism.”
The systematic campaign of intimidation, propaganda, and possible sabotage has targeted the group’s members, performing activities, and campuses.
Meanwhile, the Epoch Times investigation found that a U.S. national who has been exceptionally active in opposing the group’s expansion has deep ties to China.
“Yesterday, I was standing onstage at a prestigious venue to roaring applause, and back here at our home, I’m being spied on, harassed, and living in an environment where hostile people are formulating and spreading egregious lies about us,” said Steven Wang, a principal dancer with Shen Yun. “And to know that the CCP is behind all this … doing this to us on U.S. soil, is scary.”
Many of Shen Yun’s artists experienced firsthand religious persecution under communist rule in China. Many of them practice Falun Gong, an ancient Chinese spiritual practice consisting of slow-moving exercises and spiritual self-improvement based on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
The CCP marked Falun Gong for elimination in 1999 after government surveys estimated that 70 million to 100 million people were practicing it—figures that outnumbered the Party’s membership at the time. Human rights advocates have estimated that millions of Falun Gong adherents have faced unjust arrest, kidnapping, torture, and death at the regime’s hands.
Wang’s father is one of them. He was imprisoned in China for practicing Falun Gong and tortured to the brink of death; he died shortly after his release.
A Campaign of Intimidation
The CCP sees Shen Yun “as very dangerous,” because of its efforts to revive and depict traditional Chinese culture, said Trevor Loudon, an expert on communist infiltration in the West. “They [the CCP] want to say Chinese culture is socialist,” he said.
In Loudon’s view, the CCP would be fully expected to go after Shen Yun with fervor, and indeed the dance company has had to overcome multiple forms of interference—some obvious and some outright dangerous.
Theaters have received threatening letters from Chinese embassies and consulates, warning them not to host Shen Yun lest they antagonize the Chinese regime. Public officials have received similar letters, urging them not to attend the shows. In 2009, a tire exploded on a Shen Yun bus carrying dozens of dancers from Phoenix, Arizona, to their next destination in California. When the driver brought the bus in for service, the mechanics told him the blown tire had unusual marks on it. Apparently, somebody had used a drill to make a hole halfway through the rubber—not enough for it to deflate, but enough for it to burst once on the road.
Several months later, one of the company’s buses was found to have two slashes on its tire, again just halfway through, both clearly made with a blade. A few days later, a tire on another bus burst while en route from Memphis to Little Rock on I-40 West. Two days later, that same bus was found with slashes on one of its tires.
In one case, somebody even poured corrosive chemicals over the brake and accelerator pedal cables of a Shen Yun promotional van. The company eventually had to arrange 24/7 security for its vehicles.
Even basic information, such as the identities of the staff, have been exploited by the regime. The parents of one Shen Yun emcee would receive visits in China almost every weekend from the authorities. The husband of one of the company’s instrumental soloists was jailed in China.
The home of a Shen Yun choreographer, Chen Yung-chia, was broken into in August 2013. “The intruders seemed to be professionals, as they left no fingerprints,” Chen said in a statement at the time. Valuables such as cash, gold jewelry, and expensive watches were left untouched. What did go missing were four laptop computers and a DVD player. “The intruders had a motive [other than simple robbery],” Chen said. “They came here thinking they could gather sensitive information about Shen Yun.”
The biggest target for Beijing, however, has been the company’s training facilities in upstate New York. Named Dragon Springs, the site hosts a Tang Dynasty-style temple as well as the campus of Shen Yun Performing Arts. According to insider information, the CCP treats the site as a “headquarters” for the efforts of Falun Gong followers to counter the persecution in China.
“Attack the overseas Falun Gong headquarters and bases systematically and strategically,” reads one CCP directive document obtained by The Epoch Times.
The campus, which has produced the top talent in classical Chinese dance in the world, houses not only the company’s training and rehearsal spaces, but also two schools, Fei Tian Academy of the Arts and Fei Tian College, which help train future talent for the troupe.
Despite improving security measures over the years, the campus has faced repeated incidents of harassment, trespassing, and vandalism.
In one incident, somebody cut a hole in the perimeter fence large enough for a person to crawl through. In another, somebody smashed a security camera. One time, someone got on the property, broke into the utility box of one of the security cameras, and cut the wires. The incidents were reported to authorities, but it appears the culprits haven’t been found.
One staffer had nails and even dead animals thrown in the driveway of his home near the campus.
In the early years, Chinese consular staff showed up at least once in a car marked with diplomatic plates, sneaked onto the property, and scurried away when discovered by staff.
Lately, the staff have come to suspect a new and more sophisticated form of harassment.
An Unexpected Visit
In November 2018, Dragon Springs, home to the Shen Yun campus, submitted a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), a major document required for further expansion of the site.
On Nov. 14, 2018, the town of Deerpark, New York, held a public hearing on one of the small projects planned for the site, the construction of a larger driveway to allow easier access by buses. As is common in the town, several locals spoke in support of or opposition to the project. There were, however, a couple of unexpected guests that night.
Alex Scilla, 39, an American who at the time had been living in Tianjin, China, for 15 years, stood up and said he was “concerned” about the “safety” of the driveway, the board meeting minutes show (pdf).
It’s not clear what prompted Scilla to suddenly take the hour-long drive from his second home—a small condo in New Paltz, New York—on that frosty evening just to utter one sentence in opposition to a driveway. The Epoch Times reached out to Scilla multiple times with questions regarding his activities. He didn’t respond to any of the questions—instead, his lawyer sent a threatening email.
The other unexpected guest was Long Island civil and forensic engineer Steven Schneider. He said he had obtained documents under the New York Freedom of Information Law, reviewed a traffic study done for the campus, and performed a site visit, the meeting minutes show.
He said the project would create “a lot of traffic on an already hazardous road” and that the traffic study didn’t consider accidents around the driveway.
As it turned out, Schneider was working on a broader evaluation of the campus’s DEIS. Two reports from Schneider’s firm would appear on the website of a nonprofit Scilla later founded. Apparently, the firm spent at least half a year working on the project. There was no mention of who paid for the job.
“I really can’t remember the names,” Schneider told The Epoch Times when asked whether Scilla was involved in the project. He said it was something he did years ago and has had nothing to do with since.
Schneider was just the first in a lineup of environmental consultants and lawyers that came in Scilla’s wake, in what seems to be a part of his battle against Shen Yun’s campus.
To this day, Scilla maintains ties to China, including to a company in Tianjin.
Tianjin holds a special significance in the CCP propaganda machinery. Several Party insiders previously told The Epoch Times that the city hosts the base of the regime’s internet censorship apparatus. It’s also home to the Tianjin Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC), which insiders previously told The Epoch Times is connected to the staging of pro-CCP and anti-Falun Gong protests in New York.
PLACs on various levels control China’s colossal security apparatus, which is largely responsible for enforcing the regime’s political and religious persecution campaigns.
Scilla’s Ties to China
Scilla’s background is described in some detail on his LinkedIn profile as well as a bio posted on the website of the American Chamber of Commerce in China (AmCham China).
According to his 2018 bio, he lived in Tianjin, China, for 15 years. There’s no online mention of Scilla’s activities in China during the first seven years. If he had a source of income, he never mentioned it. In 2006, he married a Chinese woman named Lei Zhang, New York state records show.
Scilla’s first job in China, as mentioned on his LinkedIn profile, started in 2011: “General manager of Tianjin Zhongyi Steel Corp, a leading commercial/industrial recycling provider, based in the Tianjin Free Trade Zone, … a fully-licensed, accredited collector, and processor of all types of commonly recycled materials, with a strong focus on ferrous and non-ferrous metals and plastics.”
Yet this supposedly “leading” recycler company has virtually no online footprint and doesn’t show up in publicly accessible government databases in China, which would hold records of licenses for a recycling operation.
Around 2014, Scilla teamed up with farming entrepreneur Daniel D’Urso to found an environmental committee at AmCham’s Tianjin chapter. The committee mainly held events, such as school exhibits with art made by children from recyclables they found during trash pickups.
In late 2014, Scilla was elected to the executive committee of the Tianjin AmCham with eight candidates vying for six seats.
His attendance in November 2018 at the Deerpark hearing appears to be his first foray into advocacy of any kind on U.S. soil.
In January 2019, Scilla registered a nonprofit at his New Paltz address—the Mid-New York Environmental and Sustainability Promotion Committee Limited, or NYenvironcom.
In February 2019, Scilla registered a company in China called Tianjin Zhongyi Xianfeng Environmental Consulting Service, which he then branded as Frontier Environ. The starting capital of the company was over $120,000. His wife, Lei Zhang, serves as its supervisor, Chinese official records show.
There’s no indication the company has conducted business of any kind, and its website only vaguely describes the kind of services it’s supposed to provide. The nonprofit’s website lists Scilla’s recycling company as a partner.
Scilla’s activities with the AmCham China committee were put on hiatus with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He wasn’t reelected to the Tianjin executive board in 2020 and is no longer listed as a member of the environmental committee, which was rebranded as Manufacturing and Sustainability Forum.
If Scilla indeed moved upstate to pursue life as an environmental activist, there would have been no shortage of opportunities around his new home town of New Paltz. The small, strongly progressive college town is nestled right on the Wallkill River, with the Hudson River to the east and the Catskill mountains to the northwest—the site of the reservoirs that provide drinking water to New York City. But Scilla’s nonprofit doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in its own backyard. The town’s records, including minutes covering public comment on development projects, mention neither Scilla nor his organization.
Based on its website, nearly all of the group’s advocacy is focused on the Shen Yun campus and a few other real estate projects tied to the Chinese expat community in Deerpark, which one of the documents on the site calls “satellite developments” of the campus.
Where Does the Funding Come From?
Scilla’s group says on its Guidestar page that it pulled in over $41,000 in 2021 and spent about the same amount. Those are self-reported figures; the group hasn’t filled federal financial disclosures, which aren’t required for nonprofits with incomes of under $50,000 a year.
Scilla listed the group’s 2020 and 2021 donors on its website. The Epoch Times was able to verify several of the donations.
A $1,100 contribution came from one of the Advised Funds at Aspen Community Foundation in 2020. The foundation manages dozens of funds, mostly for families. It’s not clear which fund provided the money.
Another donation came from The Bank of Greene County’s Charitable Foundation, which gave out $218,000 in 2021 shared among more than 200 recipients. The foundation says it gives up to $2,500 to any individual recipient.
Some money also came from the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation, a California nonprofit run by the Marxist scholar and environmental activist Ronald Chilcote. The group has yet to release 2021 financials, but past reports indicate it seldom issues a grant exceeding $5,000.
Orange and Rockland, a local utility company, donated $3,070 in March 2021 for a water monitoring program, its spokesman told The Epoch Times via email.
KeyBank Foundation and Steward’s Shops, another pair of donors, didn’t respond to inquiries, but seem unlikely to have given more than $5,000 to a nonprofit the size of Scilla’s.
A small local environmental group also chipped in, according to the website.
Yet despite the relatively modest donation amounts, money doesn’t seem to be an issue for the nonprofit. In January, Scilla and his organization launched a lawsuit against the campus, backed by several lawyers and environmental consultants.
Surveillance Targeting Chinese Dissidents
In recent years, the Shen Yun campus staff started to notice a new and troublesome form of surveillance—drones. The small, unmanned machines can fly low and fast, carrying high-powered cameras capable of snapping images and videos up-close and detailed enough to allow identification of individuals.
The staff suspected that at least one of the drones was being flown from the property of one of the neighbors who later joined Scilla’s lawsuit.
The Epoch Times spoke with two people who live in the neighborhood who confirmed they had seen a drone being flown from the neighbor’s land adjacent to the campus property at least four times between January and May 2020. They didn’t always catch the moment when the drone was taking off, but they saw it in the air, above the Shen Yun campus, and then landing on the property. One of them identified Scilla in several photographs as the one who operated the drone.
Based on the descriptions by campus staff as well as the people from the neighborhood, the drone was not a toy. It was about two feet wide and seemed to be a type used by professional videographers that costs thousands of dollars.
Later that year, the staff noticed that two other neighbors put up cameras on their land and aimed them at the campus entrances. Both cameras appeared to be the same model. This has become a constant source of concern for the staff, as such surveillance can collect information on who’s coming in and out of the site, again threatening to reveal the identities of the staff. One of the cameras was taken down recently.
One of these neighbors has direct financial ties to Scilla. The environmental group started by Scilla, according to its website, financially supports a local organization, Deerpark Rural Alliance, headed by the neighbor.
“You know, back in China, every neighborhood has a surveillance committee, usually formed by retired ladies, to monitor their neighbors and report their activities to the government,” principal dancer Wang said. “Whenever I see the cameras these hostile neighbors have installed outside our front gates to spy on us, I’m reminded of the ladies from the surveillance committees in China.
“It’s creepy, and for many people, quite dangerous. I have friends who work here who still have family back in China. If they are identified as someone working at Dragon Springs, their family back in China could be in real danger.”
Scilla’s efforts culminated in the environmental lawsuit he filed in New York in January. It was immediately picked up by some Chinese state-controlled media to attack Shen Yun.
The activities aimed against Dragon Springs felt “disheartening” to Wang.
“When I first got my U.S. citizenship, when I cast my first vote in a U.S. election, these were moments that filled me with pride and gratitude. I cherished the fact that this country gave me a chance at a new life, free from tyranny. But now, the way we’re targeted here … I just can’t believe this is happening,” he said.
To use American groups, environmental laws, or local ordinances as tools to achieve its goals would be fully in character for the CCP, according to Loudon.
“We know that the Chinese will use American groups to help them economically or help them militarily,” he said. “Why would they not use Americans to shut down cultural opposition, too?”
If somebody with strong China ties goes on to exert a focused effort against Shen Yun’s home base, “it would seem the most obvious conclusion” that the CCP is involved, he said.
“They see it as a major enemy. And, of course, they would use [for instance] the local zoning laws to put pressure on Shen Yun if they could. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t,” he said.
Casey Fleming, CEO of BlackOps Partners and a counterintelligence expert, agreed that such a move would be right out of the CCP’s playbook.
The regime pursues the strategies of “unrestricted warfare” and “hybrid warfare”—using any and all aspects of society as tools to achieve the same objectives as a war, to defeat and dominate the enemy, he said.
“They use all methods. ‘Religious warfare,’ ‘economic warfare,’ ‘drug warfare,’ ‘education warfare,’ ‘family warfare’—everything you can possibly imagine,” he said. “So yes, culture is absolutely critical for them to unwind our society for takeover.”
Environmental activism can be exploited for this purpose, too, to frustrate economic development and serve as a cover for intelligence gathering, he said.
“They’ll do whatever they have to do to maintain control, because control here is also control there [in China],” he told The Epoch Times.
“Their boldness to infiltrate and subvert the United States and the West is beyond most people’s comprehension.”
Just recently, the FBI indicted one American and one Chinese national for conspiring to act as agents for the CCP and enact a plan to sully the reputation of a Chinese artist living in the United States, after the artist made a satirical sculpture of CCP leader Xi Jinping. The Chinese national and his wife received from Hong Kong accounts $3 million “that appear consistent with payments made for their services rendered in surveilling and harassing the U.S.-based dissidents,” the complaint says (pdf).
According to the Justice Department, other Chinese dissidents, one living in Indiana, the other in the San Francisco Bay Area, were also targeted. The department is now pursuing prison sentences of up to 15 years.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has also warned that China is “getting more brazen” in controlling certain speech inside the United States.
“For decades, the Chinese Communist Party has targeted, threatened, and harassed U.S.-based Tibetans and Uyghurs, Falun Gong members, pro-democracy advocates, and any others who question their legitimacy or authority,” Wray said on Jan. 31.
And just last month, the State Department took action against CCP agents for targeting members of religious and spiritual practitioners “including within the United States.”
“The United States rejects efforts by PRC officials to harass, intimidate, surveil, and abduct members of ethnic and religious minority groups, including those who seek safety abroad, and U.S. citizens, who speak out on behalf of these vulnerable populations,” the State Department said in a March 21 statement.
The State Department said it’s continuing to pursue accountability for those “responsible for atrocities and human rights violations and abuses wherever they occur, including within China, the United States, and elsewhere around the world.”