Historian. Activist. Spy?

Exclusive: For years, an American academic pushed for democracy in his native China.
The FBI claims it was a front.


By Tara McKelvey and Jane Tang for RFA Investigative

TBD, 2024


Listen to this article. Read by Tara McKelvey


CHAPTER 1

One afternoon in 2016, historian Wang Shujun arrived at Dong Lai Shun, a renowned restaurant in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, near the harbor.

Over the next few hours, he would be courted by Li Ming, an official with a branch of China’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS, and his boss He Feng, an MSS regional director. As the meal concluded, Li flipped open a cigarette case and offered Wang a Double Happiness, an upmarket Chinese brand.

Back home in Queens, New York, Wang was a writer who had worked as a cashier in a gift shop to make ends meet. Here, he was being treated to a sumptuous banquet and feted for his literary and scholarly achievements.

Wang’s face lit up as he recounted the details while speaking to Radio Free Asia in a park outside the Brooklyn courthouse where he will soon face trial on charges related to espionage and lying to the FBI.

“They enjoyed hearing this love story,” Wang said, recalling how he told the men a tale about a Chinese military commander’s affairs. He scooted to the edge of the bench, showing how the agents listened, hands clasped and leaning forward so they could catch all the details.



In March 2022, Wang, a U.S. citizen, was arrested by the FBI on allegations that he told these same men secrets about his friends in the Chinese pro-democracy movement in the U.S. — effectively serving as a spy for Beijing. Two months later, he was charged with federal crimes alongside Li, He, and two other Chinese MSS officials. Wang, the only American in the group, denies the charges, claiming they’d never discussed anything of importance.

Wang could never have predicted this turn of events as he told his stories over the Hong Kong meal. Only much later would he come to understand that his links to these men may well cost him his freedom.

A 'master of deceit'

In the criminal complaint filed against Wang, federal prosecutors allege that he had served as an agent of the Chinese government and violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that requires individuals in the U.S. to disclose activities undertaken on behalf of another government. Among their accusations is that Wang passed on information about a prominent Hong Kong dissident who was later arrested.

The prosecutors said that Wang had also lied to the FBI, when he claimed he hadn't met with Chinese intelligence agents. They called him a “master of deceit.”



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Pages from Wang Shujun’s case file. Wang is expected to stand trial in federal court in July. (RFA)

Wang’s trial is set to begin at the federal court in Brooklyn this July. He has pleaded not guilty. He maintains that the FBI agents have made a mistake casting him in the role of a spy, and says he intends to clear the matter up. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

The case has provided insight into the reach of the MSS, how it appears to run operations in the United States, and how assets are allegedly cultivated and co-opted.

It has also exposed some of the complex incentives underlying the work of U.S. intelligence services. Amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing, U.S. intelligence has stepped up efforts to catch suspected spies, with seemingly improbable figures like Wang sometimes landing in the crosshairs.

Speaking about his arrest from the book-lined conference room of his lawyer’s Queens office, Wang said he did nothing wrong — a claim he would repeat over several interviews with RFA during an eight-week period in the summer and fall of 2023.

“Who could have imagined that it would all be misunderstood just because of a few WeChat messages, and then I became labeled as a spy?” he said. “How could I be misunderstood in this way?”



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Wang Shujun sits in and near his Flushing, Queens, home. As part of his arrest conditions, he wears an ankle monitor and is not allowed to leave New York or Connecticut without permission. (Michael Gan/RFA)

A scholar and a spy?

Wang is trim and broad-shouldered, with a playful manner that makes him seem decades younger than his 76 years. When he speaks — in Mandarin with an occasional English phrase or word woven in — he is animated and insistent, sometimes gesticulating for emphasis.

Born in Qingdao, in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, Wang had worked as a professor at Qingdao College of Social Sciences and wrote books about Chinese military history before coming to the United States. He said his passion for the subject came from his father, who he claimed had served as an interpreter for a U.S. Navy rear admiral at the end of World War II.

Wang’s books were popular enough in China to help him win an invitation to the U.S. as an academic. He arrived in September 1994 for a two-year term as a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

He ended up staying, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen and throwing himself into American life. He traveled around the country, watched American movies and learned the lyrics of Oscar-winning musicals. Midway through one interview, he belted out a decent rendition of “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music.”

In 2006, Wang joined the Hu Zhao Foundation, an organization in New York that puts on lectures and organizes conferences in the U.S. advocating for democracy back in China. Wang volunteered for the group, helping with bookkeeping and administrative duties.

But according to the FBI, he also began keeping tabs on Chinese dissidents in the U.S. for the MSS.


qingdao-shujun-wang-teaching.png Wang Shujun teaches in a Qingdao classroom in this undated photo. The writing on the chalkboard says “thoughts on the development of contemporary Chinese culture.” (Courtesy Wang Shujun)
qingdao-shujun-wang-writing Wang Shujun takes notes from a magazine about fighter jets in this undated photo. (Courtesy Wang Shujun)
1966-00-00-china-group-photo.png In this Qingdao high school photo from 1966, a teenaged Wang Shujun stands in the top row, sixth from the left. (Courtesy Wang Shujun)

The MSS is the Chinese government’s equivalent of the FBI and CIA combined, but with authoritarian undertones, dedicated to upholding the party's absolute power. In its operations abroad, it collects intelligence on foreign governments through assets, or informants, and other means.

U.S. intelligence experts say its work is part of a larger effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping to consolidate power in Beijing. According to these experts, Xi has recently expanded his government’s espionage operations, pressuring the intelligence services to collect even more information about the United States.

Nicholas Eftimiades, a former CIA officer who has spent years studying Chinese intelligence operations and has reviewed court filings about Wang, said the MSS homes in on certain groups when gathering intelligence.

“One of the MSS's responsibilities has been penetrating Chinese dissident groups abroad — what they call the ‘five poisons’: democracy advocates, Taiwan, Tibetans, Uyghurs and Falun Gong,” Eftimiades told RFA.

Officials in Beijing use espionage to reach “strategic goals,” ranging from obtaining secrets about the U.S. government to tamping down criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. By looking to recruit Chinese Americans involved in pro-democracy movements, for instance, Beijing officials try to gain insight into their world so they can find ways to intimidate democracy advocates and ultimately soften the impact of their work.

The expansion of the Chinese espionage services has led to a wider spy net, with Chinese spymasters tapping into a larger pool of assets.

One of the most effective MSS techniques has been to recruit individuals who were born and raised in China and are now living in the United States, according to intelligence experts. Naturalized citizens are targeted because they can be cultivated over time, have the freedom and mobility that citizenship grants and have better access to information.



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Wang Shujun and a companion visit Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in this undated photo. (Courtesy Wang Shujun)

“People who have family ties to China, speak Chinese and make regular trips to China are more likely to be targeted,” Alex Joske, the author of “Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World,” told RFA. “Many ethnic Chinese have no interest in helping the Chinese government, whereas others may be vulnerable to coercion, financial inducements or feel a desire to help their ‘ancestral nation.’”

Chinese intelligence officers try to lure these individuals in different ways, experts say. Sometimes, they offer money and appeal to an individual’s pride in their Chinese heritage, pandering to their vanities. Sometimes, they threaten dissidents’ families in China in order to silence them or to force activists to divulge information about the pro-democracy movement in the U.S.

In the end, the assets and informants range from true believers — individuals committed to the party and its policies — to ordinary people. Whether pressured or wooed by attention, money and prestige, they end up passing information to Chinese intelligence that can be used in a range of ways.

Wang appears to fit the description of an ideal target. He enjoys being the center of attention. Recalling the meal in Hong Kong with the MSS agents, Wang described He as: “Not handsome. Unlike me.” He bragged about how fond the MSS officials were of his jokes. “They laughed and were eager to hear more.” He gave hours of interviews to RFA, telling tales of his renown as a scholar and displaying his books and news clippings about his work.



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Wang Shujun, center joins a pair of protesters outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, in August 2011. (Courtesy Wang Shujun)

His vanity may well have left him vulnerable to manipulation, particularly as he seemed to struggle to make ends meet throughout his decades in New York. At the time of his arrest, he owned a Chrysler and little else, according to a transcript of his arraignment. Yet he would take trips back and forth to China over the years, where he would be wined, dined and feted. According to prosecutors, MSS agents paid for some of his flights and meals.

Wang told RFA his only relationship with the MSS was to have shared an occasional meal. Asked whether the MSS had paid for Wang’s tickets or given him money, his lawyer, Kevin Tung, told RFA: “I don’t know.”





CHAPTER 2

One April afternoon in 2019, border agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York brought Wang into an interview room. He had just arrived back from a trip to China and they asked him about contacts with Chinese intelligence officials while there. According to an FBI agent quoted in the court documents, he stated “falsely” that he’d had nothing to do with the MSS. Wang was allowed to leave — but U.S. authorities would be keeping tabs on him.

Over the subsequent months, Wang continued writing, living his life and working as a volunteer for the Hu Zhao Foundation. During this time, he did not hear from the FBI.

Then, in July 2021, an undercover FBI special agent visited Wang at his daughter’s house in Norwich, Connecticut, where he was staying, according to court documents. At first, Wang said, he thought the person had come to mow the lawn.

Instead, the visitor told him he wanted to talk about the Chinese intelligence services. He spoke Mandarin and claimed he was sent by the MSS. He warned Wang that the FBI was watching him.

According to the court complaint, Wang admitted to the undercover agent that he had met and regularly spoke with MSS officers. The undercover agent said he could help Wang cover his tracks. Unbeknownst to Wang, the conversation was being recorded.

And so, the prosecutors said, Wang gave the person the password for his email account and agreed that he should delete some of the messages written to the MSS. Wang asked him to keep some messages so as not to tip off the FBI that he knew he was being watched.

It was March 16, 2022, and the sun had just risen over the Flushing neighborhood of Queens when someone knocked on the door of Wang’s apartment.

He was startled awake. From inside his apartment, he could hear someone calling his name. “I recognized his voice,” Wang recalled later when speaking to RFA. He opened the door. Standing in the hallway was the man he had met the previous summer — this time with a team of agents in jackets emblazoned with the letters “FBI” who arrested him.

Wang later said he remained "calm and composed," even as he was taken away by the agents to a courthouse in Brooklyn.



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Wang Shujun takes a walk in November 2023 near his Flushing, Queens, home. (Michael Gan/RFA)

By the time the sun set, Wang was back at home with an electronic monitoring device. When RFA spoke with him, he was wearing a strip of terry cloth wrapped around his leg, just above his Hush-Puppies-style shoe, to cushion the device around his ankle.

As he recalled the moment the agents came to the door, a pained look crossed Wang’s face. “I told them, ‘There must be something wrong,’” he said. “I said to them, ‘You can’t be arresting me. I haven’t done anything.’”

A disposable spy?

Prosecutors claim Wang had for years performed tasks for the MSS, such as finding out who individual dissidents were in touch with, passing on information about protests and tracking the movements of persons of interest to the Chinese intelligence service.

Wang openly admitted to RFA that he communicated with MSS agents on WeChat and other platforms. He said he was aware that the people he was talking to were agents, but insisted their back-and-forths were just “casual conversation.”

Federal investigators looked at it differently. The exchanges are part of their evidence that Wang was providing sensitive information to the Chinese intelligence service.

Prosecutors allege that he also used other, more secretive ways, to communicate with handlers. One method involved writing notes and storing them in the “Drafts” folder of an email account. He shared the password with MSS agents, who would later log in to read the unsent emails.

Wang told RFA that he was simply taking notes for a book he planned to write about the Hu Zhao Foundation, the pro-democracy group.



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Wang Shujun (far left) sits beneath a banner honoring a Hong Kong activist in 2007 in New York. (Courtesy Wang Shujun)

But prosecutors said Wang routinely gave sensitive information to his Chinese handlers. Once, Wang told an agent that a human-rights activist from China who spoke regularly with Uyghurs in Xinjiang would attend a meeting of the Hu Zhao Foundation. When the activist arrived, Wang allegedly informed the agent.

In another example, Wang told the MSS agents about a telephone conversation he’d had with an individual described in the indictment as a “Hong Kong Dissident,” a prominent lawyer who was active in politics. According to court documents, Wang passed the person’s phone number to the MSS agents. He also relayed details of a phone conversation they’d had, including remarks they had made about “pro-democracy organizations” and “Hong Kong independence and various candidates in upcoming elections.”

While prosecutors didn’t reveal the dissident’s name in their filings, it has been widely reported that he is Albert Ho, a human rights lawyer who was imprisoned on multiple occasions.

U.S. prosecutors did not say that the information Wang gave directly led to Ho’s arrest, but they argued that it contributed to “a portion of a multifaceted effort by the PRC [People’s Republic of China’s] government to track” the dissident.

Messages intercepted by the FBI sometimes seemed to reflect frustration from MSS handlers, who would press Wang to give better intelligence over time. Experts who study Chinese intelligence say that this is a common approach for the MSS: they start by asking small favors from an asset, and gradually demand more.

But Wang did not have much to give. By his own account and that of others who worked for the pro-democracy foundation where he was a member, he handled only administrative tasks and did not have access to sensitive information.

Why would the MSS bother with someone like Wang? Eftimiades, the former CIA officer, said that MSS agents cultivate individuals like Wang because they do not cost much, and one never knows what an asset will provide. Once they are no longer useful, the agents cut off contact and move on.

“As far as the MSS is concerned, the loss of this asset was no loss to them, really," Eftimiades said.

In spy terms then, Wang was a “throw-away agent.”



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Wang Shujun has been accused of working secretly for a Chinse security ministry. (Michael Gan/RFA)

‘Enough is enough’

In recent years, American intelligence has made a concerted effort to disrupt Chinese spy operations in the United States. Former intelligence officers from the CIA and the FBI told RFA that they believe Wang’s arrest will help show that Chinese spies cannot run agents in the country with impunity.

A few years ago Justice Department officials “were still kind of coming to grips” with the Chinese government’s spying, said David Laufman, a former prosecutor and ex-chief of the department’s counterintelligence and export control section. “The Justice Department and the White House had not come to a boiling point where collectively they said, ‘Enough is enough.’”

“Now, we’re seeing case after case being brought,” said Laufman, now with the New Haven, Connecticut-based law firm Wiggin and Dana. Indeed, in testimony to Congress last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray disclosed that the agency has opened “thousands of active investigations” into Chinese espionage in the United States. He had previously testified in 2021 that the bureau opens a new investigation into China “every 10 hours.”

Meanwhile, the CIA has also ramped up its effort. In a July 2023 speech to the Ditchley Foundation, a U.K.-based association, CIA Director William Burns noted that the agency has more than doubled its spending on the effort to combat Chinese espionage. The agency has also established a China Mission Center and increased its hiring and training of Mandarin speakers, he said.

Amid the heightened tensions, low-level informants are increasingly targeted. According to intelligence experts, this is because the U.S. intelligence agencies now have more resources for spy hunts and also because there are simply more informants, which means it’s easier for federal investigators to find them.

The arrest of even a low-level informant for the Chinese security ministry is viewed as a win for the U.S., experts say.

MSS agents are naturally concerned about protecting secrets, and they will wonder whether the U.S. investigators will find out any sensitive information. “If you want to impede Chinese intelligence services, then this is a way to mess with them,” said Mark Stout, a former CIA officer and intelligence historian.

Meanwhile, the U.S. domestic intelligence service — the FBI — “would like to catch everybody who’s spying from the smallest fish up to the big one,” he added. “Espionage is espionage, and we’re going to run down all these people.”



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Wang Shujun, left, poses in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York in October 1996. (Courtesy Wang Shujun)

Civil rights advocates are concerned, however, that Justice Department officials are pursuing cases with no merit. They say the authorities arrest only small-time operators, leaving the MSS directors free to carry on their work and ultimately causing more harm than good.

“They’re just going after anybody they can,” said Alex Nowrasteh, a vice president at Cato Institute, a libertarian research organization based in Washington, and the author of a 2021 report about espionage.

“A lot of times they catch people who aren’t very careful or who aren’t stealing very valuable secrets,” Nowrasteh said. Prosecutions, especially of individuals who appear to have no access to classified information, can have unintended consequences, he added. Academics and researchers who are originally from China may worry that they will also be scrutinized by federal investigators.

“There’s a possibility that by casting a wide net, you scare a lot of scientists,” Nowrasteh said. “In some cases, they go back to China. There needs to be a balance.”

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy, Liu Pengyu, declined to comment specifically about Wang’s case when asked. But he denied accusations that the Chinese government conducts wide-scale espionage operations in the U.S.

“In recent years, the U.S. government and media have frequently hyped up the topic of ‘Chinese spies,’ many of which later proved to be unfounded,” he said in an email to RFA.

Like their U.S. counterparts, Chinese officials appear to be stepping up their arrests of individuals suspected of espionage.

Indeed, the MSS made its social media debut with a WeChat post in August 2023 asking for “all members of society” to be on the lookout for foreign spies in China. Two highly publicized arrests of Chinese nationals accused to have been recruited by the CIA followed within the month. (Chinese government officials provide no specific information about their trials).

This April, China's MSS released a video on social media titled "Top Ten Spy Cases.” In contrast to the way trials are handled in the U.S., the Chinese government conducted the legal process of these cases entirely in secret.





CHAPTER 3

Long before the FBI agents came calling, some people within diaspora circles viewed Wang as an operator — a Lao Youtiao. Literally, this means “old dough stick,” a term used to describe someone who cannot be trusted.

Cheng Xiaonong, a prominent member of the Chinese diaspora in New York who has known Wang for decades, described him as giving him the impression of having “a slippery personality — the kind that lies without it showing on his face, never raising an eyebrow.”

Wang’s stories frequently did not add up or were not quite what they seem. Speaking to RFA, Wang frequently referred to himself as a “famous professor,” even though his stint as a Columbia University scholar had ended decades earlier. A book that Wang considers his masterwork, “The Legend of Zhang Xueliang,” was found to have been partly plagiarized, according to Chinese court documents seen by RFA. Several associates who had come in contact with him in the pro-democracy movement even told RFA that they had harbored suspicions about Wang’s loyalties for some time.

Li Hengqing, a vice chairman of the Hu Zhao Foundation, said some members of the group thought that Wang was too close to Chinese security officials, but they kept him around because he was useful. He was a “meticulous” worker, Li said, recalling how Wang would plan events and send out paper greeting cards during the holidays.

Yet Wang is hardly the only member of the pro-democracy movement who is alleged to have a complex relationship with Chinese intelligence.



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Wang Shujun poses with the Dalai Lama at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003. (Courtesy Wang Shujun)

The offering of information to Chinese security ministries has occurred more often in pro-democracy circles than has been commonly understood, according to people who are part of the movement.

Xia Ming, 58, a political science professor at the City University of New York, held a senior-level position with the Hu Zhao Foundation for about a decade, starting in 2006. Over time, he told RFA, he began to see signs of trouble. “Somehow I sensed something was not going well.” Then he heard rumors. “People told me, ‘You’re surrounded by spies.’”

“I decided to bow out,” he said. “This is why I resigned.”

Wang, for his part, contended that he himself was the victim of a double-cross.

He stated in an affidavit that someone called “Abrala” from the pro-democracy movement had falsely accused him of being a spy. The prosecutors dismissed Wang’s claims about the person, whose real name was not included in the court documents. “The defendant’s statements simply cannot be credited,” they said in a memo filed to the court.

In reporting this story, RFA discovered Abrala’s true identity and learned that he worked for RFA. Abrala said in an interview that he had not informed on Wang to the FBI. A spokesman for RFA said in early 2024 that Abrala was no longer working for the company.



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Wang Shujun sits outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, New York in August 2023. (Jane Tang/RFA)

Wang has never wavered in his conviction that he is innocent. The charges, he once shouted during an interview with RFA, were “BULL----.”

On the day of a pre-trial hearing late last summer, Wang walked into the courtroom with his lawyer. The alleged “Chinese spy” used a metal cane decorated with an American flag sticker.

“Many of the things that appear in the indictment are remarks that have been misunderstood,” he told RFA at a later interview.

With his trial due to commence in July, Wang said that he has faith in the judicial system. He remained confident that he would be found innocent.

“Deep down, I feel at ease,” he said. “There is no fear in my heart.”

Though he is looking at up to two decades in prison if found guilty, Wang said that his feelings for his adopted country have not changed.

“I still love America,” he said on one occasion and then clasped his hands together, over his heart. As he turned to head home, he looked back and gave a salute.

Edited and produced by RFA Investigative & RFA Creative