Yu Jing, who had escaped China after being persecuted for her faith, did not expect that she would feel her freedom threatened in her new-found home.
Once an official with the state-run China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau in communist China, Yu lost her job and was subjected to three arrests and two house raids for her faith in Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa.
The spiritual practice involves a set of moral teachings with truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance as its core principles, as well as five meditative exercises. By 1999, an estimated 70 million to 100 million people were practicing Falun Gong. Viewing the practice’s popularity as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power, then-leader Jiang Zemin ordered a brutal nationwide campaign of suppression that continues today.
In 2001, Yu almost died. After 11 days of hunger strike in protest of the persecution, no sleep, and nonstop threats from baton-wielding guards, her sweat-covered body began shaking uncontrollably. Had they arrived 10 minutes later at the hospital, the doctor told the guards, she would have been dead.
Yu escaped to freedom in mid-2015. Months later, she traveled to the nation’s capital to join a protest near the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, where Xi Jinping was staying on his first visit to the United States as the paramount leader of the Communist Party.
She held a large white banner with “Bring Jiang Zemin to Justice” written in thick Chinese characters. She wanted the persecution to end and for Xi’s predecessor Jiang, the campaign’s chief architect, to be brought to account.
As Xi’s motorcade was driving in the late afternoon, Yu suddenly found herself surrounded by a large number of men donning red T-shirts. They held up red flags in an effort to cover Yu’s face and the banner. They surrounded her, even after police warned them to step away.
“Never would I imagine that in a free society like the United States, these pro-Chinese Communist Party agents can be so out of control,” she told The Epoch Times, recalling her shock at the time.
Many in the overseas Chinese dissident community have long known such pro-Beijing protesters to be organized by local groups closely tied to the CCP.
A federal indictment last month confirmed this connection.
Two New York men were arrested for allegedly operating a secret police station in New York City on behalf of Beijing. Those arrests were part of several cases bringing charges against more than 40 Chinese agents over their alleged involvement in various schemes aiding the communist regime’s transnational intimidation and propaganda efforts.
The two men arrested, court documents state, operated a local Chinese association that organized busloads of pro-Beijing supporters to Washington to serve as counter-protesters during Xi’s 2015 trip.
Roughly 60 million ethnic Chinese live outside of China, with about 1 in 12 of them in the United States, according to 2020 statistics compiled by the Chinese state-run Huaqiao University. The school operates under the oversight of the United Front Work Department, a key state agency spearheading Beijing’s influence campaigns to stifle dissidents and co-opt Western groups to toe the Party line.
Spying, harassment, online threats, physical assaults, and pressuring China-based family members of the target individuals are but a few of the tactics the CCP deploys to keep this growing population in check.
It’s an expansive effort that has become known as transnational repression. In both scale and sophistication, Beijing’s campaign stands unparalleled to the rest of the world, multiple think tank analyses have found.
Nor is Beijing shy about its record. From April 2021 to July 2022, authorities, through its long-arm policing, coerced 230,000 Chinese nationals who they labeled as fraud suspects to return to China, Chinese state media have touted.
Meanwhile, pushback has been building.
Laura Harth, campaign director at the human rights nonprofit Safeguard Defenders that first shed light on the global Chinese policing network, described the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) April 17 action as part of a “sea change” from U.S. authorities to deter covert overseas Chinese operations.
“For so many of us in the human rights community, who are kind of used to friends, dissidents, activists, human rights defenders getting locked up, disappeared, tortured, over baseless charges, it’s nice to be on the other end, for once,” she told The Epoch Times, expressing hope that the fresh attention on this issue would lend a voice to the victims.
Sarah Cook, senior analyst at Washington-based Freedom House, similarly described the DOJ charges as “unprecedented.”
On Beijing’s transnational repression, she said, the prosecutions represent the first to address the secret police stations, the first of such scale, and the first to target perpetrators of one of the regime’s largest campaigns against faith: the persecution of Falun Gong.
Even though most of the individuals charged live in China, there’s still real-world impact, Cook told The Epoch Times.
“For one, they cannot come to the U.S. without facing arrest, and potentially, they have to be careful about traveling to other countries that have extradition treaties with the U.S.,” she said.
While applauding the charges, both Harth and Cook, along with the other China watchers, lawmakers, and victims of the campaigns, contend that the cases only touched on “the tip of the iceberg.”
“The arrest of Chinese Communist Party agents involved with setting up the illegal CCP police station in New York is a small but important victory for American sovereignty and dissidents fleeing oppression who have made America their home,” Rep. Michael Gallagher (R-Wis.) told The Epoch Times.
“The CCP’s mafia tactics—surveillance, harassment, blackmail, assault, and the persecution of elderly parents, spouses, and children back in China—cannot be tolerated in America,” he added.
“The United States must remain a haven from persecution, not a hunting ground for dictators.”
The two New Yorkers that the FBI arrested on April 17 are Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, the general adviser and secretary general for the America ChangLe Association, a major social gathering place for people from southeastern China’s Fujian Province.
The facility they operated was located in the association’s now-shuttered office in Chinatown of lower Manhattan, and it represented one of four Chinese extralegal police outposts in the United States, according to Safeguard Defenders. At least two other outposts exist in New York and Los Angeles; the location of a fourth outpost remains unknown.
Formerly the association’s chairman, Lu enjoyed longstanding trust from Chinese authorities, court filings state.
During Xi’s 2015 visit to the United States, court filings said, Lu and other local Chinese association leaders helped bus hundreds of people to Washington—each pocketing $60 from the New York Chinese consulate—to counter demonstrations from Falun Gong adherents.
The group sought to raise awareness about the ongoing persecution of fellow adherents in communist China.
Lu, who has admitted his affiliation with a former director of the CCP’s 610 Office—an extralegal police agency created in 1999 expressly to persecute Falun Gong practitioners—also partook in the counterprotest, prosecutors said.
Apparently satisfied with the counterprotest’s outcome, Chinese officials threw a ceremony in celebration, during which Lu received a plaque commanding his work.
Such scenes were not unique to Washington. During Xi’s three-day stopover in New York from Washington, Xu Dong, a Chinese American and a Falun Gong adherent, recalled several people speaking a Fujian dialect trying to get in front of him as he stood near Xi’s hotel. Red flags in hand, those people attempted to block his protest banner from view.
Not wanting to make a scene, several other Falun Gong adherents moved away. But Xu, who had just become a U.S. citizen, stood his ground.
“This is our country, not a place for the CCP to act at will,” he recalled thinking at the time.
Lunch Boxes and ‘a Free Ride’
Zhang Huidong, who held the other end of the banner with Yu, remembered counting six to seven buses, with some coming from Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, and Philadelphia.
They arrived at different times over the day, depending on which one of the three shifts they were scheduled for. At lunch, people holding banners identifying their respective Chinese associations came to distribute lunch boxes, recalled Zhang.
One man, who looked like a leader, even mocked Zhang, who, like other adherents, brought his own food.
“What do you do this for?” Zhang asked.
Another, a student from Connecticut, told Zhang, “We got a free ride” on the buses.
The men became edgy with cameras around them.
When Zhang, who limps slightly due to injuries in attempting to escape from a Chinese jail two decades ago, raised his phone to capture their behavior, the Beijing supporters dodged, throwing curses. A reporter for a Western media outlet quickly found himself at the center of hostility, with some from the group pulling him by the arm and demanding he deletes the photos.
Yu learned the counter-protesters were paid about a year later after she started driving for a Chinese senior care center with a close relationship with the Chinese embassy. Several senior citizens told her they were promised $20 to $50 for showing up to welcome Xi. Many took the offer.
Lu, a participant in the counterprotest, has admitted to an affiliation with a former director of the 610 Office, an extralegal police force created to persecute Falun Gong. He and a former director of the 610 Office had taken a photo together in front of his home in China, the court filing shows.
Zhang said the pro-Beijing camp’s behavior left him speechless.
“For a bit of money, they seemed willing to betray everything,” Zhang told The Epoch Times. “It’s simply disgusting.”
As Zhang pulled the flags away from the banner, the men began poking him in the waist, and in the melee, a metal flag pole jabbed a female security officer.
According to Yu, the officer grabbed the flag and angrily told the Beijing supporters they could get arrested if they didn’t stay six feet away from the adherents.
The remarks touched Yu to this day. “Thank you,” she remembered telling that officer. “In China, it was the Chinese police persecuting me.” The police officer hugged her upon learning her story.
Two of Yu’s friends have been tortured to death by the CCP since Yu left China.
‘This Is My Area’
Those interactions in 2015 marked one of many run-ins Falun Gong adherents and other dissidents have had with suspected Chinese front groups and agents over the years. In front of the Chinese consulate in Manhattan, Falun Gong adherents who held banners to protest the persecution were frequently spat on, with one practitioner having their phone kicked out of their hands, multiple witnesses said.
In February, one man, who has for years harassed protesting adherents while displaying red banners with slogans defaming the faith, pushed a sign bearing the words “truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance” off the street curb and demanded practitioners, who were doing meditative exercises nearby, to leave the area.
“You can’t practice exercises here. This is my area,” the man declared, Liu Guofang, one of two adherents at the scene, recounted to The Epoch Times. The man repeatedly tried to spit on Liu and another adherent present, causing both to run onto the road.
Eventually, a construction worker who witnessed the interaction alerted the police. Liu then watched the man flee across the street to the front gate of the Chinese consulate, where he loitered. The man was back the next day and harassed other adherents, Liu said.
Less than two weeks after the incident, a man who spoke Fujianese assaulted a Falun Gong adherent in the Flushing neighborhood, leaving him with scrapes on the neck, hand, and knee.
The 70-year-old Liu suspects that the timing of these occurrences wasn’t coincidental. “They might have gotten some directives,” she said of the men.
Levi Browde, executive director of the New York-based Falun Dafa Information Center, has documented a long list of similar CCP agent attacks during his past two decades of advocacy work.
“This is not something that’s new to us,” Browde told The Epoch Times’ sister media outlet NTD after reading the DOJ documents. “We’ve been dealing with this for more than 20 years—be it death threats, physical assaults, breaking into our homes, online harassment, interfering with our livelihood, threatening family members back in China.”
Besides physical safety fears to adherents, he said, the “thuggish” communist agents would also drum up hatred online, spread propaganda in newspapers, or find other ways to influence the public discourse.
“They are tearing apart the way we interact with each other here in this country,” he said.
‘They Hide in the Dark’
In the eyes of San Francisco lawyer Arthur Liu (no relation to Liu Guofang), the United States is decades late in addressing such threats.
“The CCP’s transnational repression activities have never stopped,” he told The Epoch Times. “It’s decades in the making.”
Liu was a student leader during the pro-democracy Tiananmen protests in 1989. After the regime ordered tanks and guns to quell the movement that June, Liu escaped to the United States, where he raised his daughter, Alysa, a two-time U.S. champion in figure skating.
But the regime didn’t let him off the hook. Not long after Liu arrived in the United States, the CCP sent an agent to befriend him and collect intelligence on him. Liu, who trusted the man, once presented him to his local friend’s home for a temporary stayover. Only about two or three years later did the man reveal that he had “come on assignment.”
“We’d have no idea about it if he didn’t tell me. So could there be spies out there you don’t know about? The answer is probably yes,” Liu said.
That was in the 1990s. He said that the Party has become more “reckless” as it finetunes its repression mechanism.
In November 2021, a man posing as an official for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee called and demanded the passport numbers of Liu and his daughter, which Liu declined to give. That man was allegedly Matthew Ziburis, a U.S. citizen that prosecutors said Beijing had hired to conduct surveillance on the Liu family. Ziburis was arrested last March on charges that include conspiring to commit interstate harassment and criminal use of a means of identification. He was released on a $500,000 bond pending trial.
After the free skate event in Beijing last February, Alysa was approached by a stranger who followed her and asked her to come to his apartment, Liu recalled.
“The CCP never let go of any opportunity to surveil and spy,” he said, adding that he has learned not to concern himself too much with it.
“You can’t live a normal life if you let it consume you,” he said. “They hide in the dark while we are out in the open.”
‘No Time to Waste’
Harth, of Safeguard Defenders, is wary about the long path ahead in protecting the vulnerable from the regime’s reach.
“We all know that this is, in fact, a massive, global operation. We all know that it will take coordinated action also across democratic nations because sometimes a victim might be in the U.S., but the perpetrator might be somewhere in Europe,” she said. And “very realistically, we know … the CCP is effectively holding family members hostage.”
Late or not, an effective counterblow by the United States is still crucial and “entirely possible,” said Zhou Fengsuo, once one of Beijing’s top five “most wanted” over his role in the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
For Harth, that partly involves closing “some gaps in the current criminal codes” to allow the DOJ to prosecute more easily. And for Zhou, it would mean more scrutiny of the potential enablers: the various Chinese immigrant community groups that register as nonprofits but still receive benefits from the Chinese state. Such groups, he said, have stifled pro-democracy activists and “like a crime syndicate, exercise control over the entire ethnic Chinese society.”
Zhou, in 2020, saw the video conferencing app Zoom, which was developed in China, temporarily suspend his account at the behest of Beijing—an incident he cited as one more example of the pervasiveness of the Party’s influence. The DOJ charged a China-based Zoom executive, Julien Jin, for censoring a series of meetings that Zhou and other U.S.-based activists held to mark the Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary.
“There’s no time to waste,” Zhou told The Epoch Times. Zhou founded the advocacy group Human Rights in China, which he says is ready to help any Chinese students who’ve been victims of the regime’s threats.
Browde, meanwhile, says he hopes the recent DOJ action is one of many more to come.
“It sends a critically clear message to the CCP that you can’t bring your thuggish tyranny here to the United States and do all these things that they’ve gotten away with, to a large extent, over the last 20 years,” he said. “You can’t do this anymore. You will be arrested; justice will be served. And even if you are in China, there are things to be done—sanctions and things like that. So we need more of these types of investigations and more of these indictments.”