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US arrests two for setting up Chinese ‘secret police station’ in New York

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -U.S. federal agents arrested two New York residents for allegedly operating a Chinese “secret police station” in the Chinatown district of Manhattan on Monday in what prosecutors said was part of a crackdown on Beijing’s alleged targeting of dissidents.

Lu Jianwang, 61, and Chen Jinping, 59, face charges of conspiring to act as agents of China’s government without informing U.S. authorities and obstruction of justice. They were released on bond following an initial appearance in Brooklyn federal court.

A 2022 investigation published by Spain-based advocacy group Safeguard Defenders reported that China had set up overseas “service stations,” including in New York, that illegally worked with Chinese police to pressure fugitives to return to China.

The Chinese government has said there are centers outside China run by local volunteers, not Chinese police officers, that aim to help Chinese citizens renew documents and offer other services.

The Department of Justice has been ramping up probes into what it calls “transnational repression” by U.S. adversaries such as China and Iran to intimidate political opponents living in the United States.

“We cannot and will not tolerate the Chinese government’s persecution of pro-democracy activists who have sought refuge in this country,” Breon Peace, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, told reporters.

Prosecutors on Monday unveiled charges against 34 Chinese officials for allegedly operating a “troll farm” and harassing dissidents online, including by disrupting their meetings on U.S. technology platforms.

They also added eight Chinese government officials as defendants in a case announced in 2020 charging a former China-based executive of Zoom Video Communications Inc with disrupting video meetings commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The officials charged are all at large.

“By initiating prosecution against Chinese citizens under the pretext of ‘transnational repression’, the U.S. side is exercising long-arm jurisdiction based on fabricated charges. This is sheer political manipulation, and the purpose is to smear China’s image,” said Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the U.S.

HELPING LOCATE ‘FUGITIVES’

Lu and Chen are both U.S. citizens who lead a nonprofit organization that lists its mission as providing a social gathering place for people from China’s Fujian province, prosecutors said.

Before it closed in the fall of 2022, the men’s New York operation occupied a full floor in a nondescript building in Chinatown near the Manhattan Bridge.

Peace said the site was being used “at the very least” for government services like helping some Chinese citizens renew their drivers licenses’ – activity that should have been disclosed to U.S. authorities. But he said it was also used for more “sinister” activities.

In 2022, Lu helped open the so-called police station and was asked by China’s government to locate an individual living in California who was considered a pro-democracy activist, they added. In 2018, Lu had sought to persuade an individual considered a fugitive by China to return home, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Lu and Chen admitted to the FBI that they deleted their communications with a Chinese government official.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told a U.S. Senate committee in November that he was “very concerned” about the presence of such stations in U.S. cities.

Prosecutors previously charged more than a dozen Chinese nationals and others with waging surveillance and harassment campaigns against dissidents living in the United States, including by trying to forcibly repatriate people whom China considered fugitives.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York and Susan Heavey in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Washington and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Rosalba O’Brien, Don Durfee and Lincoln Feast.)

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