• World
  • China

U.S. Charges Chinese Operatives With ‘Transnational Repression’: What to Know

7 minute read

The FBI on Monday arrested two New York residents on charges of opening and operating an “off-the-books” Chinese police outpost in lower Manhattan since February last year to track, intimidate, and stifle dissenters of the ruling Communist Party in China.

That was just one of three “transnational repression” cases the Justice Department unveiled, accusing China of “a multi-front campaign to extend the reach and impacts of its authoritarian system into the United States and elsewhere around the world,” according to Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Newman. Charges were also filed against 34 officials under China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) for allegedly harassing Chinese nationals in New York using fake social media profiles. Another nine individuals believed to be based in China were added to a previous complaint for allegedly conspiring to commit interstate harassment by utilizing a U.S. telecommunications company to target a New York-based CCP dissident.

The trio of cases shows the extent to which China monitors and attempts to stamp out critics, even those outside its borders. The Justice Department’s charges announced Monday mark the first legal proceedings in the world taken against such overseas Chinese outposts, as the U.S. government appears increasingly willing to confront China on its dubious global surveillance apparatus and persistent crackdowns on people’s freedoms.

Spanish civil rights group Safeguard Defenders published a report last year on the existence of more than 100 overseas Chinese police stations sanctioned by the CCP to exert control and influence over its nationals abroad. Safeguard Defenders outlined how these outposts have been used for the “sinister” purpose of evading international procedures in pursuit of those that Beijing considers to be “fugitives.” In a press briefing Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused the U.S. of “slanders and smears” and described the charges as “political manipulation.” China has previously claimed the stations are in fact just “service centers” to offer assistance to the country’s diaspora. Wang added on Tuesday: “The ‘transnational repression’ is an allegation that best matches the U.S.’s own practices.”

Laura Harth, campaign director for Safeguard Defenders, tells TIME that China’s outposts are certainly nefarious. “It’s illegal to start with, but even if it wasn’t, I mean, it’s not even as innocent as it looks as far as they report it to be,” she says.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace (second from left) speaks at a Justice Dept. news conference announcing arrests and charges against multiple individuals alleged to be working illegally in connection with the Chinese government, in New York City on April 17, 2023.Angela Weiss—AFP/Getty Images

“I’d like to say how proud I am,” said Breon Peace, Brooklyn’s top attorney, when announcing the actions taken by the U.S. government, “as we are the first law enforcement partners in the world to make arrests in connection with the Chinese government’s overseas police stations.”

But any celebrations on America’s part would be premature, suggests Harth, who says that the Chinese outposts like the one in New York are merely the “tip of the iceberg,” and that closing a single station down is unlikely to stop “the networks of individuals and organizations underneath it that are engaged in both these kinds of interference and repressive activities.” Harth hopes that this will spur on other countries concerned over these unsanctioned Chinese offices to take action.

Here’s what you need to know about the latest U.S. charges.

Who was arrested?

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York announced that two men were arrested at their homes Monday morning. Charges were filed against Lu Jianwang, 61, from the Bronx and Chen Jinping, 59, from Manhattan, each for conspiracy to act as an agent for the Chinese government and for obstructing justice by destroying evidence upon learning that the FBI was investigating them. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 5 years and 20 years in prison, respectively.

The two men, who ostensibly worked for a nonprofit established in 2013 with the stated mission to serve as a “social gathering place for Fujianese people,” allegedly opened an undeclared “secret police station” in lower Manhattan in early 2022 on behalf of the MPS branch in Fuzhou, Fujian province in China’s east.

Lu, who went by the name Harry, had a “longstanding relationship of trust” with the Chinese government, according to the complaint. When President Xi Jinping flew to the U.S. in 2015, Lu took part in “counterprotests” against demonstrators critical of the Chinese leader. The complaint says Lu also helped Chinese authorities locate multiple persons of interest in the U.S., including a pro-democracy activist who claims to have been “harassed” by “proxies” for the Chinese government.

Little information is available about Chen, but the complaint said he was secretary general of the nonprofit, and he admitted to working with the Fujian police through the overseas office, though he claimed his work had only to do with driver’s license applications and renewals. According to the New York Times, a court-appointed lawyer for Chen said at his bail hearing that he worked as a home health aide and had no property to use as collateral. Both men were released on bail after appearing before a judge on Monday afternoon.

What do we know about the alleged ‘secret police station’?

The complaint said the hidden police station—located at the office of Lu and Chen’s nonprofit at 107 East Broadway, which is within New York’s Chinatown—was opened on Feb. 15, 2022, without diplomatic approval from the U.S. The office was closed in the fall of 2022 amid scrutiny over the legality of its operations.

Investigation outlined in the complaint revealed that Lu flew to Fuzhou in the preceding January for the launch of a police initiative to establish overseas stations, and he seemingly accepted the task, even posing for a picture with a sign that read “Fuzhou Public Security Bureau, Overseas 110 Report to Police Service Station.”

Images included in the complaint depicting the alleged undeclared Chinese office in Manhattan, left, and Lu Jianwang posing with a Chinese police officer and a sign seemingly acknowledging the "overseas station."
Images included in the complaint depicting the alleged undeclared Chinese office in Manhattan, left, and Lu Jianwang posing with a Chinese police officer and a sign seemingly acknowledging the "overseas station."United States District Court Eastern District of New York

FBI searched the New York outpost in October, where they found a “Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station” banner and equipment related to driver’s license renewals. The FBI also seized and accessed the phones of Lu and Chen, as well as other officers of the outpost. They found that exchanges with police officials in Fuzhou had been deleted from their social messaging apps. Lu and Chen later admitted to the FBI that they deleted the conversations.

An open-source video, the complaint says, also revealed that officials from the Chinese consulate in New York visited the outpost’s premises at least once in April 2022.

What are the other cases about?

The other two complaints unsealed on Monday involve charges against more people allegedly involved in China’s expansive campaign of transnational repression, though none have yet been arrested as most of them are believed to be on Chinese soil.

In one case, which is being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s National Security and Cybercrime Section, prosecutors charged 34 named MPS officers with operating “troll farms” to attack Chinese dissidents and “spread disinformation and propaganda.” The officers are alleged to be part of an “elite” Chinese national police task force called the “912 Special Project Working Group,” which used fake profiles on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to promote the “approved narratives” of the Chinese government and discredit anti-China messaging, and to “create and amplify messages with the purpose of aggravating political and social tensions in democratic countries.”

The other case expands charges against Jin Xinjiang, also known as Julien Jin, a former China-based executive at the videoconferencing company Zoom. The U.S. Justice Department charged Jin in 2020 for disrupting and censoring commemorations that May and June of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on the platform. He has been wanted by the FBI since November 2020.

The amended complaint alleges that Jin “worked directly with and took orders from” the Chinese government and police to target U.S.-based dissidents since 2018, and it extends the charges to one other civilian and eight Chinese officials who worked with Jin on the operations.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com