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Chinese Cops Ran Troll Farm and Secret NY Police Station, US Says

Gone are the days when China was content to merely control speech within its borders and push dissents into exile outside that strict firewall. A new set of US federal charges against dozens of Chinese police officers announced today details how the security forces of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s administration now seek to exert influence and repress critics wherever they are based around the world–with no limits to that reach, digital or physical.

This afternoon, US prosecutors in New York announced charges against 40 Chinese individuals in three different cases, each of which revolves around the alleged efforts of China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to intimidate, harass, and censor critics of China overseas.

Buildings in Chinatown

The building in New York’s Chinatown where China’s Ministry of Public Security allegedly ran a secret police station.

Courtesy of Department of Justice

In perhaps the most shocking of the three cases, two New York-based MPS officers were arrested in New York and accused of running a secret police station in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. The hidden operation, US officials say, was devoted to hunting down and intimidating Chinese dissidents. In another case, the prosecutors announced new charges against a group of MPS officers and staff of China’s “cyberspace administration,” alleging that they had infiltrated the operations of a US tech company to disrupt videoconferences held by Chinese dissidents abroad. And in a third case, 34 MPS officers were charged with running a massive online troll farm that flooded social media platforms with fake accounts spewing disinformation and harassment.

“The trio of cases announced today details how [China] through its MPS has engaged in a multi-front campaign to extend the reach and impact of its authoritarian system into the United States and elsewhere around the world,” David Newman, a prosecutor in the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, told reporters at a Brooklyn press conference today. “It shows the PRC’s efforts to globalize the oppressive tactics used domestically in China to silence dissent.”

FBI poster containing photographs of 9 individuals
Photos of members of the Ministry of Public Security’s troll farm known as the 912 Special Projects Working Group, according to the FBI.Courtesy of FBI

Of the 40 defendants in the sprawling indictments, only the two New York-based MPS officers, Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, have been arrested. The two men are accused of running a front for the MPS in an unassuming building in downtown New York City. “This nondescript building in the heart of bustling Chinatown in lower Manhattan has a dark secret: Until several months ago, an entire floor of this building hosted an undeclared police station of the Chinese national police,” US Attorney Breon Peace said in the press conference.

Prosecutors describe how Lu allegedly participated in pro-China protests, harassed a Chinese national living in the US, and aided in the Chinese government’s investigation of a Chinese pro-democracy activist living in California. “In other words, the Chinese national police appear to have been using this station to track a US resident on US soil,” Peace said. He added that Lu and Chen are also accused of obstructing justice: They allegedly destroyed evidence of their communications with the Chinese government when they learned of an FBI investigation targeting them.

As surprising as it may be to learn that the Chinese government ran a secret police station in America’s largest city, it’s far from the only such operation, says Laura Harth, an activist at the human rights-focused group Safeguard Defenders. Last year, the group published a report on more than 100 such clandestine Chinese police outposts in over 50 countries, many used to pursue Chinese dissidents and critics of the Xi regime abroad.

Harth says that today’s charges against Chinese police in the US are the first of their kind. “Other countries are still pretending this is not an issue,” she says. “We’re quite happy to see this happening, both for people in the US but [also] for the signal it sends to other authorities around the world.”

As for the other two criminal cases announced today that target Chinese trolling, disinformation, and censorship, Harth says Safeguard Defenders hasn’t seen evidence that such troll farms are operated from within the MPS’s secret facilities overseas, but she’s not surprised to learn that they’re linked to the MPS. She says that her organization’s public communications are frequently flooded with criticisms from shady accounts that she’s long suspected were organized by the Chinese state. “It’s very tellingly troll or bot sort of work,” she says.

Prosecutors say that the troll farm of 34 MPS officers–based inside China, though prosecutors didn’t reveal where–is part of a group known as the 912 Special Project Working Group, which they say is devoted to online harassment and disinformation. According to the US Department of Justice, the 912 group posted pro-Chinese disinformation and bombarded critics of China with intimidating messages on Twitter and other platforms. The subjects of their disinformation and provocations included everything from the origins of Covid-19 to the death of George Floyd, to criticisms of the United States’ support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. In other instances, they flooded video conferences held by people critical of China with threatening and intimidating messages. And in one case, they even “drowned out the meeting with loud music and vulgar screams and threats,” according to the DOJ.

In a separate indictment that was previously filed in 2020 but amended today, prosecutors accuse Xinjiang “Julien” Jin of working as an agent of the Chinese government inside a US telecommunications company that they refer to only as “Company-1.”

Jin, along with nine other agents of the MPS and the Cyberspace Administration of China, allegedly worked to censor Chinese dissident users of Company-1’s platform. Jin and his codefendants–nine of whom are based in China and one in Indonesia–are accused of trying to terminate meetings started by users who were critical of China, block their accounts by faking terms-of-service violations, and put them on a “quarantine” server with slower response times.

“In the virtual sense, the threat from the PRC manifested as its agents and operators seeking to interfere with online gatherings, online organizing, and other social media critiques of the PRC regime, going so far as to conspire with an employee of a US-based technology company to compromise the privacy of online virtual meetings used as a modern means of public protest and the exercise of freedom of assembly,” Newman, the US prosecutor, told reporters today. The case, he argued, “underscores the insider threat risk facing any US company that does business in China and has employees based in China.”

Together, the three cases illustrate China’s growing desire to control dissent not just domestically, but worldwide, and to project its influence on not only the internet but the physical streets of New York. As it does so, that ambition seems bound to trigger a rare, high-stakes face-off between police agencies on opposite sides of the globe. “The efforts of the government of the PRC to export authoritarian methods to stifle free expression in the US,” said Newman, “is a threat to America’s democracy that we will not abide.”

Update 6:30 pm ET, April 17, 2023: Added additional details about the 912 Special Project Working Group’s alleged activities.

 

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