Inside the CCP’s Campaign to Spy on Americans

By Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Reporter
Andrew Thornebrooke is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.
March 22, 2022 Updated: March 24, 2022

An Army veteran running for Congress, an Olympic figure skater, and a pro-democracy activist were among those targeted in an alleged plot by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to harass, intimidate, and spy on ethnic Chinese dissidents in the United States.

Federal prosecutors unsealed charges against five men in three separate cases on March 16, whom they accused of acting as agents of the Chinese communist regime. Two of the defendants allegedly worked directly for the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the CCP’s top intelligence agency.

“While separate matters, these cases are all very much related,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen during a press briefing.

“One shows an insidious strategy to collect information on dissidents in order to target them and, in some cases, imprison pro-democracy activists abroad. One case describes a conspiracy to derail the congressional campaign of an American citizen and military veteran. And one shows a campaign to surveil and harass an artist engaged in free and peaceful expression.”

The CCP is believed to have spent millions of dollars funding the alleged criminal activities, and the cases offer something of a rare glimpse into the machinations of the Chinese secret police abroad, and their efforts to undermine democratic beliefs and institutions.

To understand the CCP’s grand strategy, however, one needs to understand what the victims have in common.

Epoch Times Photo
Yan Xiong in June 2010. (VOA)

‘Beat Him Until He Cannot Run’

Yan Xiong is an American citizen.

Born in China, he was a student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests 33 years ago, where Chinese communist soldiers massacred civilians in the hundred and, possibly, thousands.

After the massacre, CCP authorities placed Yan on their most-wanted list, after which he was arrested and imprisoned for 19 months. He was never charged with a crime.

Following his release, he fled to America and applied for asylum. He studied at Harvard and joined the Army as a chaplain. He served two tours in Iraq.

Last year, he announced his bid to represent the Democratic Party in New York’s 1st Congressional District. The CCP was apparently not going to allow that without a fight.

Enter Lin Qiming, a retired MSS agent. Lin is alleged to have hired a private investigator (PI) in New York to dig up dirt on Yan in order to discredit him before the elections.

After that effort failed, however, Lin suggested that the PI fabricate evidence of wrongdoing, or else hire a young woman to volunteer for Yan’s campaign, seduce him, and then publish evidence of involvement with prostitution.

“If you don’t find anything after following him for a few weeks, can we manufacture something?” Lin told the PI in one recorded call, according to the criminal complaint against him.

“But in the end, violence would be fine too,” Lin said in another voice message. “Beat him. Beat him until he cannot run for election.”

From there, Lin told the PI that he could arrange for a car accident, if that was what it would take to get the outspoken Yan out of the race.

“Right now, we don’t want him to be elected,” Lin said in one conversation with the PI, according to the court file.

“We will have a lot more of this [type of work] in the future,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
The “CCP virus” sculpture was unveiled at Liberty Sculpture Park in Yermo, Calif., on June 4, 2021, the anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre. (Courtesy of Jonas Yuan)

‘A Very Rich Jewish Man’

Chen Weiming is a New Zealander, though he was born in China and lives in California where he makes his living as a sculptor.

His statues and reliefs were displayed at universities throughout Hong Kong for more than a decade, where his most famous pieces commemorated the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest and celebrated democracy.

Those works were removed suddenly in 2021.

Then, last spring, one of his sculptures in California, was destroyed by arson.

Titled “CCP Virus,” the sculpture had depicted Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping as a coronavirus molecule.

Three men, Liu Fan, Matthew Ziburis, and Sun Qiang, are now accused of stalking Chen and conspiring to defame him using a private investigator. The effort was intended to shame Chen into silence, according to the criminal complaint, and the three had discussed destroying “CCP Virus.”

Liu, who is the president of a purported New York-based media company, ordered Ziburis to pretend to be an art broker and fan of Chen’s in order to get close to him and gain access to his tax returns, which could be used for blackmail, the court file showed.

Liu told Ziburis, a former correctional officer, to say that he was employed by “a very rich Jewish man [and] head of [the] Jewish community,” the complaint said.

Liu further instructed Ziburis to imply that this fictitious Jewish man was a large donor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s political campaigns.

Ziburis subsequentially put a $20,000 down payment on “CCP Virus,” and agreed to host an exhibition of Chen’s work in New York City.

Chen told The Epoch Times he didn’t suspect Ziburis’s intentions at the time because he was a Westerner.

Unbeknownst to Chen, Ziburis also planted tracking devices in his vehicle, and was following his movements, prosecutors alleged.

“The CCP agents thought they could commit crimes in this free country and nobody would care,” Chen said. “But the net of justice is closing in on them.”

Chen ultimately decided to sue Ziburis for breaking the contract.

He hired Li Jinjin as a lawyer to file a civil lawsuit. Li was himself once jailed in China for taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and subsequently became an immigration lawyer in America.

Li was stabbed to death in his New York office on March 15, a day before Ziburis was arrested.

The woman alleged to have killed Li came to the United States on a student visa to attend university in Los Angeles. She allegedly never enrolled in university and never lived in California. The investigation into Li’s murder is ongoing.

Epoch Times Photo
Alysa Liu of Team United States skates during the Women Single Skating Free Skating on day thirteen of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing, China, on Feb. 17, 2022. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

‘Any Corner of the World’

Alysa Liu is an American Olympic figure skater. Her father, Arthur Liu, fled to the United States following his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Liu, Ziburis, and Sun also targeted them.

For that plot, Liu proposed setting up mock media sessions with Alysa and Arthur using his media firm as a cover, and then using questions designed by Sun which were intended to elicit answers that could be used to humiliate or discredit the family, according to the complaint.

Their responses to the fake media interview would then be used in Chinese propaganda to smear them and discredit their beliefs and activism.

Plans were also made to plant surveillance equipment inside the home of the Lius, the court file said.

In a separate plan, Ziburis was sent to the Liu home in November, the complaint said. He claimed to be an official with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and demanded the Lius’ passport numbers, but Arthur Liu refused to provide them.

Alysa Liu went to Beijing to compete in the Olympics. She told her father that she was approached by a stranger one night in Beijing and that the man followed her and asked her to come to his apartment.

“I’ve kind of accepted my life to be like this because of what I chose to do in 1989, to speak up against the government,” Arthur Liu told the Associated Press. “And I know the Chinese government will extend their long hands into any corner in the world.

“I’m not going to let them win, to stop me, to silence me from expressing my opinions anywhere.”

Epoch Times Photo
Wang Shujun in an undated photo. Wang, secretary-general of a Queens-based Chinese pro-democracy group, was arrested in New York City on March 16 on charges relating to acting as an agent for China. (The Epoch Times)

Alleged Mole

Wang Shujun was a prominent pro-democracy activist in New York City. Or so the world thought.

He served as secretary-general in the pro-democracy nonprofit Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang Memorial Foundation, named after two former CCP reformist leaders.

Wang is now accused of spying on his fellows in the foundation and feeding the personal information of dissidents in the United States and elsewhere back to handlers in China.

A U.S. citizen since 2003, case documents allege that Wang was working as a mole for the CCP by 2005. He reported to at least four different handlers in the MSS from 2016 to 2021, according to court documents.

One of the people Wang informed on was Albert Ho, a Hong Kong-based politician and founder of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, an organization he established in 1989 to support the cause of protesting students.

Ho was subsequently arrested by CCP authorities in Hong Kong.

Exporting Authoritarianism

The tactics used by the CCP and its proxies in these cases are not new.

Since 2014, the United States has been engaged in a battle to uproot Operation Fox Hunt, a CCP program that seeks to harass, surveil, and intimidate Chinese citizens living overseas who have run afoul of the communist regime.

While representatives from the DOJ said that these new cases were not directly related to Operation Fox Hunt, it did say that they represented a concerted effort by authoritarian states to export their anti-democratic ways—a campaign known as “transnational repression.”

“We are seeing a high degree of aggressiveness, particularly from the PRC, as these cases reflect, in terms of their efforts to threat and silence dissident voices inside the United States,” Matthew Olsen said, using the acronym for the formal name of the Chinese state.

Likewise, just two months ago, the Canadian government issued a report that found that the CCP was engaged in a “systematic campaign of intelligence-gathering, persuasion, influence, and manipulation,” and was using “intimidation of [overseas Chinese] at every level of society.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, the DOJ terminated the China Initiative, a Trump-era anti-espionage campaign that critics accused of racially profiling Chinese Americans.

A DOJ probe into the program ultimately found no evidence of racial profiling, but Olsen said that the program would be canceled to prevent a “harmful perception.”

The furor drew attention to the problem now being realized in these new cases: that the CCP intentionally targets ethnic Chinese abroad, and seeks to silence any dissent, whether that dissent takes place in China or elsewhere.

“They try to play on a sense of ethnic kinship, and they exploit any cultural background that’s related to China to recruit and influence people,” said Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher for the Rand Corporation, a defense-focused think tank.

“One helpful thing is that the [China] Initiative has drawn attention to a problem that I don’t think previously got a lot of attention, and that was the efforts of the Chinese government to coopt, subvert, and recruit Americans of ethnic Chinese heritage,” Heath said.

Memories of Tiananmen

Amid the latest crackdown on the CCP’s infiltration of American society, there is a startling continuity in the relationship its targets have to Tiananmen Square, and the events that transpired there more than three decades ago.

Remembrance of the protests, and remembrance of the massacre that followed, is largely seen as an attack on the legitimacy of CCP rule in mainland China to this day, and the legacy of Tiananmen remains one of the most sensitive and censored topics in China.

To that end, U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said that there was one reason above all why these people, these ethnic Chinese in America, were being persecuted and attacked by the CCP: They supported freedom and a democratic way of life.

“All of these victims were targeted because of their pro-democracy views, because they chose to exercise their freedom of speech here in the United States,” Peace said.

“The complaints … reveal the outrageous and dangerous lengths to which the PRC government’s secret police and these defendants have gone to attack the rule of law and freedom in New York City and elsewhere in the United States.”

For his part, Olsen said that the DOJ would protect all people from the transnational repression of the CCP, and that the United States would remain a place where dissidents and exiles, cast throughout the world by communist oppression, could find a home and speak the truth.

“For the Justice Department, defending American institutions and values against these threats is a national security imperative,” Olsen said. “Transnational repression is part of the range of tactics that our adversaries employ to try to undermine our democracy, our economy, and our institutions.”

“This activity is antithetical to American values. We will not tolerate such repression here when it violates our laws.”

Frank Fang contributed to this report.

Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.