The huge sculpture in the California desert showed the head of Chinese President Xi Jinping as a larger-than-life coronavirus molecule. Shortly after its unveiling in 2021, it burned to the ground.
Security cameras installed to protect the artwork had been shut down. All that remained of the work was a sign with large red letters that read “CCP virus” and blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on the Chinese Communist Party.
Shortly after the fire, artist Chen Weiming accused the Chinese government of “trying to stop our freedom of expression.” But indictments filed by federal prosecutors in New York this week allege that three Chinese agents did more to harass the California-based sculptor than just destroy his work.
And he was hardly their only apparent target. Olympic figure skater Alysa Liu and her father Arthur Liu have also been the focus of Chinese government covert operations “to stalk, harass and spy on Chinese nationals,” authorities say.
Chen’s case was one of three cases filed by federal prosecutors this week accusing five men of acting on behalf of the Chinese government. In the second case, prosecutors allege that a New York congressional candidate was molested by a member of China’s secret police. And the third accused a former visiting scholar of spying on pro-democracy activists in Queens, New York
“Although these cases are separate, these cases are all very related,” Assistant Atty said. General Matthew G. Olsen said during a press conference in Washington, DC Wednesday. “One shows an insidious strategy of gathering information on dissidents in order to target them and, in some cases, imprison pro-democracy activists abroad.
“One case describes a conspiracy to derail the congressional campaign of an American citizen and military veteran,” said Olsen, who is part of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, “and one depicts a campaign to monitor and harass an artist promoting freelance work.” and peaceful expression.”
In response to the allegations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the United States of “unjustly slandering and defaming China.”
“China always asks Chinese citizens to abide by the laws and regulations in host countries,” he said at a news conference. “The accusation of ‘transnational systems of repression’ was invented out of nowhere. The US attempt to hype the “Chinese threat” and tarnish China’s reputation is doomed to fail.”
In a series of messages, Fan “Frank” Liu, Matthew Ziburis and Qiang “Jason” Sun allegedly discussed how to destroy Chen’s art installed in Yermo off Highway 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. Ziburis, a former Florida corrections officer, allegedly even posed as a fake art dealer trying to purchase some of the work.
The three also tried unsuccessfully to obtain Chen’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service, thinking they might charge him with tax evasion, according to the indictment released Wednesday.
Liu, 62, of Long Island, NY, and Ziburis, 49, of Oyster Bay, NY, are accused of conspiring to pose as Chinese government agents. Liu and Sun, 40, of China, are also accused of conspiring to bribe a federal official in connection with their plan to obtain the tax returns.
Liu and Ziburis were arrested on Tuesday, but Sun’s whereabouts are unknown. Ziburis was released on $500,000 bail after a court hearing on Wednesday.
Prosecutors allege that Liu, on Sun’s orders, paid a private investigator in Queens to bribe an IRS employee to obtain the artist’s tax returns. Chen is not named – neither of the alleged victims – but his art is easily identifiable in the public complaint.
Unbeknownst to the suspected Chinese spies, the private investigator cooperated with law enforcement.
According to the criminal complaint, the spy operation planned to publicly disclose Chen’s potential tax liabilities in order to discredit him. In March 2021, at the direction of the FBI and with the artist’s consent, the investigator reportedly provided the conspirators with copies of two tax returns.
“Based on his high price offers for his [Dissident 1’s] Artwork, we believe he definitely raked in a large sum and evaded taxes, a major crime in the US. After getting evidence, spend money on court and attorney fees to get rid of him completely,” Liu wrote to the Sun.
In a series of messages, Sun Liu encouraged “letting Ziburis destroy the sculpture,” but they also considered whether doing so might backfire and gain publicity for the artist.
According to the ad, when Ziburis posed as an art dealer, he secretly installed surveillance cameras and GPS devices at the dissident’s workplace and in his car. During his stay in China, Sun viewed the live video feed and location data from these devices, the indictment said.
In an interview, Chen said he was “very happy that they found these spies.” He claimed that the Chinese government “has infiltrated America… They want to destroy free speech, my work of art.”
Arthur Liu told the Associated Press he was briefed that the trio had also targeted him as part of their operations. He is identified in the complaint as Dissident 3, and his daughter is “the family member” mentioned in the indictments released Wednesday.
Ziburis, allegedly posing as an official of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, contacted Arthur Liu in Richmond, California, and asked for the passport numbers of him and his 16-year-old daughter.
According to federal prosecutors, when Liu refused, Ziburis threatened to delay them or deny them international travel. FBI investigators discovered an ID card with a real officer’s name but with a photo of Ziburis, the prosecution said, along with notes in which Ziburis arranged to obtain the fraudulent IDs.
Liu said his daughter, who came seventh at the Beijing Winter Olympics, was unaware of the investigation and he didn’t want to scare or distract her in the run-up to the Olympics. He said he has assurances from the FBI and State Department that she will be protected during the Olympics.
Federal prosecutors charged Qiming Lin, 59, who works for China’s secret police, with charges including conspiracy to commit interstate harassment.
They allege Lin hired a private investigator to disrupt the campaign of a Brooklyn, NY resident running for US Congress, including by physically assaulting the candidate. “No matter what the price is fine. As long as you can,” Lin reportedly said.
According to the complaint, the unidentified victim was a student leader of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The victim’s description matches that of Yan Xiong, who is a candidate for the House of Representatives and came to the United States in 1992 from China and served in the US Army as a chaplain.
Yan confirmed to The New York Times that he is not aware of any efforts to discredit him, adding, “I appreciate the prosecutors who are trying to protect me.”
Shujun Wang, 73, of Queens, is accused of acting as a Chinese government agent. Wang is a former visiting scholar and author who helped found a pro-democracy organization in Queens. He is accused of spying on pro-democracy activists and leaking harmful information to his superiors. Hong Kong activists he identified and documented have been arrested, authorities say.
The complaint also alleges that during an interview in Queens on August 2, 2017, Wang lied to federal law enforcement officials and falsely denied having any contacts with Chinese agents. But the indictment said he “later admitted much of his criminal conduct to an undercover member of law enforcement and during a subsequent interview with agents.”
Wang was arrested on Wednesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-03-18/did-chinese-spies-burn-anti-china-sclupture-and-stalk-olympic-skater-and-congressional-candidate Chinese spies plotted to track Olympic skater, FBI agents say