The U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against an American and four suspected Chinese intelligence officers for spying on and outing critics of the Chinese government living in America.
On Wednesday, the DOJ announced the arrest of 73-year-old American Wang Shujun of Queens, New York, and charges against Chinese nationals Feng He, Jei Ji, Ming Li and Keqing Lu. The four Chinese nationals remain at large at this time.
The DOJ said He, Ji, Li and Lu are suspected of working for China’s secret police agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS).
According to federal prosecutors, Wang is a well-known academic and author who helped start a pro-democracy organization in Queens in opposition to the current Chinese government under the ruling Chinese Communist Party. While Wang presented himself and the organization as critics of the People’s Republic of China, prosecutors say he has actually used his position within the Chinese dissident community to collect information on China’s critics.
Prosecutors say He, Ji, Li and Lu acted as Wang’s handlers, directing him to focus his information gathering on Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, Taiwan independence activists, and Uyghur and Tibetan activists. Wang’s alleged handlers also had him gather information on special topics and issues of importance to the MSS. Prosecutors say Wang would transmit the information he collected through emailed “diaries” to his alleged Chinese intelligence handlers, as well as face-to-face meetings. Prosecutors say authorities uncovered 163 “diary” entries Wang wrote to He, Ji, Li and Lu and other MSS officials.
In one Nov. 22, 2016 exchange, Ji tasked Wang with interacting with a specific attendee at an upcoming pro-democracy event who had contacts with “Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongolians.”
In a Nov. 16, 2016 exchange, Wang informed Li that he “just finished chatting” with a leading human rights activist. Wang said he asked the “necessary questions” and received “candid” answers from the targeted activists. Li replied “great” and with a thumbs-up emoji.
The DOJ said PRC authorities arrested at least one Hong Kong democracy activist and dissident that Wang reported on, referred to in a federal indictment as “Hong Kong Dissident #1.” The DOJ said Wang also turned over the telephone numbers and other contact information of Chinese dissidents to Chinese government officials.
In addition to acting as an informant for the Chinese MSS, the DOJ said Wang made materially false statements to federal law enforcement, including denying he had contacts with Chinese government officials.
“Today’s indictment exposes and disrupts an operation by the PRC that threatens the safety and freedom of Chinese nationals residing in the United States on account of their pro-democracy beliefs and speech. Our office and our law enforcement partners will remain vigilant to thwart foreign espionage activities aimed at our citizens and residents,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said Wednesday.
“We will not tolerate efforts by the PRC or any authoritarian government to export repressive measures to our country,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen said.
The charges against Wang and the four alleged Chinese intelligence officers come two months after the DOJ charged three Americans and two alleged Chinese MSS officers in an effort to spy on and harass Chinese dissidents, including a Brooklyn resident running for a U.S. congressional seat. Two of the Americans and one of the Chinese nationals were also charged with attempting to bribe an employee of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in an alleged effort to access the tax records of Chinese dissidents.
“If anyone doubts how serious the Chinese government is about silencing its critics, this case should eliminate any uncertainty,” acting FBI National Security Branch Executive Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. said Wednesday. “The Chinese government’s aggressive tactics were once confined to its borders. Now, the PRC is targeting people in the United States and around the world. The FBI and its partners remain committed to combatting transnational repression.”