Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 20 April 2023


Chinese police stations in NYC are part of a vast influence operation

The former office of the America Changle Association, described by U.S. authorities as a secret Chinese police station in New York City. (Bing Guan/Reuters)
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This week the Justice Department arrested two Americans for operating a secret Chinese police station in New York City and separately charged 44 Chinese officials with enforcing Chinese laws on U.S. soil. These actions spotlight a tiny piece of the network Beijing uses to exert influence inside the United States. Tackling this complex issue will require greater American awareness, sensitivity and action.

Until the FBI raided the facility in October, a Chinese government-controlled police outpost in Manhattan coordinated widespread harassment of U.S.-based critics of the Chinese Communist Party, according to the U.S. government. Although this seems to have been China’s first such operation inside the United States, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security has established more than 100 illegal police stations around the world.

According to the charging documents, the two defendants have acted as Chinese government agents since 2015 in various ways, including by staging public protests against Chinese religious minorities, threatening and pressuring purported Chinese fugitives to return to China, and tracking down Chinese pro-democracy activists. What the criminal complaint doesn’t explain is how this police station fits into the larger picture of Chinese influence operations.

The station’s location offers one clue. The building was rented by the America Changle Association, a charity that claims to assist Chinese and Chinese Americans. The IRS revoked its tax-exempt status last May after it failed to file proper paperwork for three years. Nevertheless, just months later, the group was able to attract several prominent New York politicians to its gala, including Mayor Eric Adams.

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Local associations such as Changle routinely work with Chinese authorities to establish police outposts, suppress criticism of the CCP and repress critics abroad, according to a report by Safeguard Defenders, an investigative group that tracks China’s transnational repression. This is part of the larger CCP influence network known as the “United Front.”

“The United Front system (United Front Work) is the work of Chinese Communist Party agencies seeking to co-opt and influence ‘representative figures’ and groups inside and outside China, with a particular focus on religious, ethnic minority and diaspora communities,” Australian researcher Alex Joske said in the report.

The United Front dates back to the era of Mao Zedong. Xi Jinping called its influence operations one of the party’s “magic weapons.” The operations often run through local proxy organizations that offer services to overseas Chinese (as in this case) or support Beijing’s preferred policies, such as reunification with Taiwan.

For example, last month, when the “China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification” staged a protest in front of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s New York City hotel, the United Front was behind the operation. Leaders of groups like the China Council give lavishly to U.S. politicians in both parties. The Florida branch of this particular group was once headed by Cindy Yang, a former spa mogul who peddled access to Mar-a-Lago during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tracking foreign-influence operations — especially those working within ethnic communities that experience discrimination — requires sensitivity. Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Tex.) failed to demonstrate this when he questioned the loyalty of his Democratic colleague Judy Chu (N.Y.) in February, after one Chinese influence organization claimed her as its “honorary chairwoman.” (Chu denied the affiliation.)

But members of the House’s new Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party showed that it is possible to stand against Chinese transnational repression in a bipartisan way. Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) publicly rebuked Gooden’s statements and has urged against employing McCarthyite tactics. And in February, committee Republicans and Democrats staged a rally with Chinese dissidents and activists outside the illegal Chinese police station.

“We are sending a powerful message that the defense of human rights from the abuses of the CCP is not a Democratic value or a Republican value. It is an American value,” Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), said at the rally.

“This is the first time that the Chinese dissident community feels that their grievance is heard,” Zhou Fengsuo, one of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student leaders, said at the event.

As the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has pointed out, Chinese influence operations and United Front work are designed to be both opaque and complicated, “making those who seek to identify the negative effects of such influence vulnerable to accusations of prejudice.” But China’s main targets have been innocent Chinese, Uyghur, Tibetan and Taiwanese people.

Confronting CCP influence operations is crucial to guarding U.S. sovereignty and protecting vulnerable people from persecution. At the same time, the United States must preserve its own character as an open and tolerant society.

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