Fri, May 26, 2023 11:23 PM
By MICHAEL R. SISAK, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. authorities have arrested two suspected Chinese government agents in connection with an alleged plot by Beijing to disrupt and ultimately topple the exiled anti-communist Falun Gong spiritual movement.
John Chen and Lin Feng were charged in an indictment unsealed Friday with scheming to revoke a New York-based Falun Gong organization’s tax-exempt status and paying bribes to a undercover officer posing as a U.S. tax agent.
The undercover officer recorded multiple conversations with Chen, and investigators obtained a wire tap to record phone calls in which Chen and Feng discussed instructions they purportedly received from Chinese government officials, prosecutors said.
In one recording, prosecutors said, Chen referred to Chinese government officials as akin to “blood brothers" and, in another, he said Beijing would be “very generous” in rewarding the undercover officer’s help cracking down on Falun Gong's non-profit status.
Chen, a 70-year-old U.S. citizen, and Feng, a 43-year-old lawful permanent resident, are charged with acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government, bribing a public official and conspiracy to commit international money laundering.
Chen and Feng were both born in China but now live in the Los Angeles area, where they were arrested Friday. Information on an initial court appearance or lawyers who could speak on their behalf was not immediately available.
Messages seeking comment were left with the Chinese Embassy in Washington and with the Falun Gong movement.
China banned the Falun Gong movement in 1999, classifying it as an evil cult and one of the “Five Poisons,” or chief threats to its rule. Since then, Falun Gong practitioners have found refuge at a 400-acre compound called Dragon Springs in upstate New York.
In the U.S., the Falun Gong movement is known mostly for its ties to Shen Yun, a touring performing arts group, and The Epoch Times, a newspaper that has been marketed as an alternative to traditional U.S. media while also coming under fire for amplifying misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The Justice Department has made a series of prosecutions in recent years to disrupt China’s efforts in the U.S. to identify, locate and silence pro-democracy activists and others who are openly critical of Beijing’s policies. Such practices by foreign governments are known as “transnational repression."
“The Chinese government has yet again attempted, and failed, to target critics of the (People’s Republic of China) here in the United States,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement.
The U.S., Garland added, will “continue to investigate, disrupt, and prosecute” China’s efforts to “silence its critics and extend the reaches of its regime onto U.S. soil.”
In seeking to undermine Falun Gong, federal prosecutors allege, Chen and Feng’s urged the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the organization’s non-profit tax status. In a whistleblower complaint to the tax agency in February, Chen described Falun Gong as a “gigantic mega cult” — echoing language China’s government uses to describe the movement.
Chen and Feng then turned to the undercover officer to make sure the IRS acted on the complaint, offering a $50,000 reward — and handing over $5,000 in cash as a down payment — if the tax agency conducted an audit, prosecutors said.
Chen met with the officer at a restaurant north of New York City on May 14, prosecutors said. A few days later, the officer sent Chen a letter on fake IRS letterhead that stated the agency had opened a case on Falun Gong, prosecutors said. Chen relayed the news to Feng in a wire tapped phoned conversation, indicating that he was planning to update Chinese government officials on their progress, prosecutors said.
Chen and Feng's arrest comes a month after the Justice Department charged two men with establishing a secret police station in New York City on behalf of the Chinese government. Around the same time, federal prosecutors charged about three dozen officers with China’s national police force with using social media to harass dissidents inside the U.S.
In 2020, the Justice Department charged more than a half-dozen people with working on behalf of the Chinese government in a pressure campaign aimed at coercing a New Jersey man wanted by Beijing into returning to China to face charges.
Associated Press reporter Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.