‘Secret’ New York police station is mere sliver of Beijing’s U.S. harassment push

RFA ventures into the shadowy world of China's U.S. influence operations

By Jane Tang for RFA Investigative

July 7, 2023

NEW YORK CITY - Tucked above a noodle shop and an acupuncture clinic in New York’s bustling Chinatown, the American Chang Le Association would not normally stand out. The building is modern but nondescript; its halls resemble an Elks Lodge, except with Chinese instead of American flags. Most days, elderly men play mahjong in the main meeting room.

But, according to the U.S. Justice Department, this is no innocuous “home away from home” for Chinese immigrants. Rather, it is an overseas police station where association leaders sought to intimidate and spy on dissidents in the U.S., with backing from Beijing.

In April, two men involved with Chang Le – Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, both U.S. citizens – were charged with conspiring to act as agents for the Chinese government and obstruction of justice for destroying communications with an alleged handler. If found guilty, they each face up to 25 years in prison.

Lu, Chen and their counsels declined multiple requests to comment on the charges.

Supporters say the club, named for a populous district in China’s Fujian province, is a place where New York residents from that region can network and get help with access to services or advice on housing.

The volunteers who staff the association “just want to help the community," Lu's brother, “James” Lu Jianshun, the current chairman of the Chang Le association, said.

Yet news of the arrests came as no surprise to nearly a dozen members of the Chinese community in New York who spoke with RFA.

They recounted their own run-ins with the group, which include harassing phone calls and even physical assault.

Though the allegations of spy activity have brought wider attention to the group, members of the New York Chinese diaspora say that subterfuge and surveillance by Chang Le and other groups on behalf of China’s Communist Party have been a growing menace for years.

Prosecution is unlikely to stop it – and some fear it will only grow more subtle, but no less potent.

The American Chang Le Association office is situated in a multi-story building, with a Chinese noodle shop on the first floor, an accountant's office on the second, and an acupuncture clinic on the third. Credit: Jane Tang/RFA
Rising influence

Overseas Chinese immigrant clubs date back to at least the 19th century. For decades, they existed to connect members of the diaspora with one another and to help them navigate a world where discrimination was widespread.

In the 1980s, the groups took on greater importance amid the post-Cultural Revolution Deng Xiaoping era. Deng’s aphorism that “overseas relations are a good thing” sparked a fresh wave of immigration and opportunities to study abroad. Overseas Chinese associations flourished – by 2016, there were over 25,000 groups worldwide.

More recently, a distinctly political undertone has emerged. Where people once used gatherings to make dumplings and chat over tea, members of the associations now put on opulent banquets designed to raise money for city governments in China.

At some of these events, attendees mingle with members from the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a Chinese Communist Party agency that oversees its influence campaigns around the world.

In the 1960s, Mao Zedong viewed the work of the United Front as one of the party’s “magic weapons” for defeating critics of the party’s ideology. Revitalizing that effort has been a key ambition for Xi Jinping since he took office in 2012. Harnessing the influence of overseas ethnic Chinese – regardless of the passport they hold – will play an "irreplaceable role" in China's rise as a global power, Xi said.

Today, a growing number of overseas Chinese associations are involved in United Front work, which can range from organizing study groups on Xi ideology, issuing collective statements when the party faces international pressure and promoting Beijing’s views on issues such as unification with Taiwan.

These activities take place alongside traditional community events, services and programs to help members.

A sign for the American Chang Le Association is affixed to the door of its office. The non-profit was incorporated in New York in 2013 and listed its charitable mission as a “social gathering place for Fujianese people.” Chang Le is a coastal district within the city of Fuzhou, the capital of China’s Fujian province. Credit: Jane Tang/RFA
Connections to Fuzhou police

One Chang Le volunteer, who declined to be named as they were unauthorized to speak to reporters, called the association a “crucial lifeline” for immigrants who find themselves alone and far from home. The association helps translate documents, aids the sick, and facilitates access to employment and housing opportunities, the person said.

But according to the Justice Department, the association has also served as a cover for a Chinese police branch since 2022, helping to track critics of the Communist Party living in the U.S.

A photo showing Lu, Chen and other Chang Le members sitting in front of a “Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station, New York, USA” banner is included in the criminal complaint. The document also includes their admissions to the FBI about their involvement with setting up the station.

A 2022 report by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group based in Spain, found more than 100 similar Chinese police branches embedded within Chinese associations in 53 countries around the world.

Individuals who work at the stations monitor, intimidate, harass, detain and even repatriate immigrants targeted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to the group.

The CCP uses the resources of the overseas Chinese community to suppress dissenting voices, said Cheryl Yu, a senior researcher at the Common Sense Society, a Washington D.C.-based human rights group.

They “monitor, intimidate and harass overseas dissidents,” Yu said. Some scholars have argued that this has been a key part of the CCP’s strategy to promote its narratives in the U.S. and other countries.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied that overseas police stations exist, while China's Ministry of Public Security has lodged formal protests to the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI officials in Beijing.

A violent confrontation

Even before the police station was allegedly established at Chang Le, its members had been actively intimidating members of the Chinese community, according to people who spoke to RFA.

Lu also admitted to the FBI that during Xi's state visit to the U.S. in 2015, he and other Chinese leaders recruited individuals to travel to Washington, D.C., to disrupt demonstrations by Falun Gong practitioners against Xi. According to the complaint, he and the others each recruited 15 people and received $60 in cash for each recruit from the Chinese Consulate.

Brooklyn resident Lin Hai says protesters calling for the reunification of China and Taiwan and then attacking pro-Taiwan demonstrators during a visit by Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen in 2019 reminded him of scenes in China. Credit: Karen Dias

From his Brooklyn apartment, Lin Hai, 44, recalled the violence he says he suffered at the hands of a mob of pro-CCP protestors Chang Le helped rally in 2019.

In his first summer in the U.S., Lin joined a group that had come out to support Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to New York. He wore a new suit and polished his leather shoes, expecting a peaceful, if vocal, demonstration in his new home.

Instead, they were confronted by a pro-CCP crowd. "There were Chinese National flags everywhere, and nationalistic Chinese songs blared from the loudspeakers," Lin said.

"All of a sudden, they crossed the road to our side. I felt it was a targeted and premeditated attack.”

It reminded him of scenes in China, he said. There, Lin had worked for a state-owned company until he helped lead an environmental protest in his hometown, he said. After that, state security agents began to follow him and threaten him, and he fled to the United States in early 2019.

One video from the clash in New York shows Lin after being struck by a two-meter-long Chinese National flag pole swung by a man wearing a red hat. A total of five pro-democracy demonstrators, including Lin, were hospitalized. They filed a complaint to the New York City Police Department, but no charges were brought— the chaotic nature of the incident made it hard to identify the assailants.

Lin traced a scar still etched on his forehead as he recounted the moment he found out about the charges against Lu and Chen: “I felt a bit more comforted in my heart; justice will be served.”

Lin Hai is attacked with a flagpole by a member of a mob that included pro-CCP protesters rallied by the American Chang Le Association to protest a visit to New York by Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen in 2019. Credit: Provided by Lin Hai

When asked by RFA, Chang Le officials did not respond to the allegations that they were responsible for the clash.

Others who belong to New York’s Chinese diaspora told RFA they believed that the group also conducts more subtle methods of harassment.

In China, Ge Bidong, 65, worked as a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Economic Development, but he has dedicated himself to the overseas democracy movement since moving to the United States in 2018. He served as a political advisor for a prominent Tiananmen activist’s New York City Council election campaign.

Ge’s voice rose with anger as he recounted the times he felt like he was being watched – even when he traveled from New York to California.

Once, after attending a pro-democracy event at the Liberty Sculpture Park, a monument for victims of communism in the Mojave Desert, he was faced with two near accidents in quick succession, he said. First, a car almost hit him and then sped away. Then, a truck nearly forced him off the highway and into roadblocks.

Ge said his car tires were slashed on two other occasions. After he published commentary criticizing the Chinese Government online, he received thousands of prank calls in a week. One caller threatened to harm his family.

Ge Bidong, who has worked with the overseas democracy movement since moving to the United States in 2018, has blocked thousands of unknown phone numbers from China on his cell phone.

"I may be overseas, but it feels like the Chinese Communist Party has never stopped targeting me," Ge said. “I moved to the U.S. thinking I can be away from these [types of harassment].”

The Justice Department complaint lists an unnamed victim whom Lu allegedly helped Chinese police track. The victim was harassed in the same ways as Ge and also worked on a political campaign in New York. "I believe it is me — I fit all the descriptions," Ge said.

Just a Chinese DMV?

As James Lu, Lu’s brother, tells it, though, Chang Le’s work with Chinese authorities – including setting up a police station within the club – was done to assist Chinese nationals in need.

The association arranged a video call system with the Fuzhou Public Security Bureau to help Chinese residents of New York obtain documents, like driver's licenses, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"With 1.3 million Fuzhou natives residing in the U.S., over half of whom possess green cards and frequently need to travel to China, they need to renew their IDs,” James Lu said.

He added that the Fuzhou Public Security Bureau has established 38 similar “service stations” in 21 countries to perform similar administrative tasks.

Lu Jianwang, who has been involved with the American Chang Le Association and has been charged with conspiring to act as an agent for the Chinese government and obstruction of justice for destroying communications with an alleged handler, is seen with a Chinese police official. Credit: U.S. Department of Justice Justice Department prosecutors allege that Lu Jianwang was introduced to Fuzhou Public Security Bureau officials through a United Front Work Department official on a visit to China.

The complaint says they discussed the creation of overseas police stations to help with renewing Chinese government documents.

Lu participated in the launch ceremony held in Fuzhou in January 2022. Two days after returning to New York on February 13, the grand opening of the station took place at the American Chang Le Association. Lu asked Chen, then secretary-general of the association, to deal with the logistics of setting up the police station, according to U.S. authorities.

Chen admitted to the FBI that he had connections with Chinese public security and helped operate the overseas station, according to the complaint. He is also alleged to have confirmed that the overseas station operated under the direction of the Fuzhou Public Security Bureau, which is a division of the Ministry of Public Security.

And Chen acknowledged, according to the complaint, that he realized helping collect personal information and giving it to Chinese authorities "might not be a good idea."

Making the hometown proud

Chinese immigrants who spoke with RFA speculated that Lu and Chen may have wanted to help the Chinese government out of deeply ingrained cultural values that emphasize the importance of honoring one’s roots and homeland.

Beijing has exploited those values, turning them into a means for "bringing glory to the party," said Yu, the human rights researcher.

“The CCP intentionally confuses the concepts of the party's interests and the national interests,” she said.

Lin Hai is shoved by a pro-CCP protester at a rally for Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to New York in 2019. The screen subtitle text reads “Tsai Ing-wen's transit through New York triggered an escalation. Xinjiang concentration camp condemned by the international community.” Credit: Screenshot from Bowen Press video

Overseas Chinese who struggle to adapt to a new society while also striving for recognition and status are easy targets, she added.

"Devoted" leaders of overseas Chinese associations were frequently given seats by the Chinese Embassy and consulates to prestigious events like military parades, the World Overseas Chinese Leader Conference and the People's Political Conference in China.

Establishing these kinds of connections is seen as advantageous for personal and business matters in China – friendship with a public official or a place at the government’s table can help with everything from expediting passports to resolving legal disputes.

Lin Hai received injuries to his head and abdomen when pro-CCP protesters attacked him during a rally for Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen during her 2019 visit. Credit: Karen Dias
Striving for success

The Lu family immigrated from Chang Le, Fuzhou, to Chinatown in the Lower East Side in early 1980.

Their start was far from easy, James Lu told RFA, as the family was poor and spoke little English, but they made a life for themselves in New York.

By day, he and his brother went to school. By night, they worked at restaurants alongside their uncles. Sundays were reserved for worship at the Church of Grace to Fujianese, all within a mile of the present-day Chang Le association.

It took decades, but they eventually found success through real estate and the restaurant wholesale business.

In 2016, Lu Jianwang mentioned in an interview with local Chang Le media that he used some of his money to contribute to projects back in his hometown, such as nursing homes, schools, water treatment plants, parks and tourist attractions.

In the U.S., Lu has led overseas Chinese associations in protests against the South China Sea arbitration case, celebrated Hong Kong's return to China in Times Square and participated in the 100th-anniversary celebration of the founding of the CCP.

A photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping adorns the wall of the American Chang Le Association in New York. Other photos include former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and the late Chinese President Jiang Zemin, as well as group pictures featuring other overseas Chinese communities. Credit: Jane Tang/RFA

Lu’s social media accounts are replete with photos of himself with senior Chinese officials.

"Patriotism and love for our homeland are noble traditions, and our strong motherland is our firm support," he told Chinese state media.

Some people who knew Lu said he seemed more like a naive operator caught up in government operations rather than a political ideologue.

They say that the two men are victims of rising tensions between two superpowers. Others think they are pawns manipulated by the Communist Party – or willing participants in Beijing’s influence game.

The ‘Rebrand’

Whatever the case, the Justice Department has made clear that the charges are a serious step in heightening their scrutiny over Chinese government influence in the U.S.

Revealing the complaint in April, U.S. Attorney Breon Peace told reporters: “These defendants did China's bidding in secret while acting under the direction and control of a Ministry of Public Security official in China.”

"We know what you're doing, and we will stop it from happening in the United States of America."

The view from inside the American Chang Le Association office. Credit: Jane Tang/RFA

In the past two years, the Justice Department has shifted the focus of its China investigations from economic and technological espionage to cases involving transnational repression, particularly those using Chinese overseas associations as a cover.

Before 2022, there were no such cases; since then, at least six have emerged that have ensnared leaders of overseas Chinese communities in the U.S.

At the same time, experts and those in America who are targets of Beijing’s repression are skeptical that the court cases will mean an end to Chinese interference.

The CCP’s overseas infiltration tactics may become more cautious, but “they will not diminish,” said Yu of the Common Sense Society. “However, the party’s political perspective won’t change because of the indictments. The CCP may change the names, but it will never change its stripes.”

Chinese officials simply “rebrand” – controversial “Confucius Institutes” that drew ire from the State Department have now become “Centers for Language Education and Cooperation,” for example.

Lu and Chen have not yet entered pleas. Lu was released on a $250,000 bond and Chen on a $400,000 bond following an initial appearance in Brooklyn federal court on April 17. The case is still pending.

Although Lu stepped down from his position as the chairman of the Chang Le Association, he was elected president of another Chinese overseas hometown organization in New York, the Fukien Benevolent Association, in March.

American, Chinese and Taiwanese flags fly over a street in New York’s Chinatown. Credit: Jane Tang/RFA

Its office is just across the street from Chang Le, which continues to operate. In fact, the group is close to raising enough funds this year to cover the cost of a new office they bought, a member told RFA.

After years of living in fear of harassment, Ge Bedong decided to leave New York and settle in a small town in New Hampshire, with the intention of “distancing myself as much as possible from the Chinese community.”

Lin Hai didn't attend the welcome rally hosted for Tsai in New York in April 2023.

"But I made sure to tell people who are going on the street to be careful … and maybe wear running shoes."

Video by Lauren Kim, Karen Dias
Graphic by Amanda Weisbrod
Edited by Boer Deng
Contributing Editors: Jim Snyder, Tara McKelvey
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
Produced by Radio Free Asia
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