IN-DEPTH: Bribery Case Targeting Falun Gong Reveals CCP’s ‘Covert Warfare’ in US

By Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Reporter
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S. politics, U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights. Contact Eva at eva.fu@epochtimes.com
June 7, 2023Updated: July 3, 2023

Sculptor Chen Weiming is no stranger to Chen Jun, the man recently arrested over a bribery scheme to help the Chinese communist regime carry out its repression in the United States. He had heard Chen Jun‘s threats years ago.

“Let me tell you, if you have a Chinese passport, and we take a photo of you, you can never go back to China,” Chen Jun told him and other Chinese dissidents in Los Angeles during a heated exchange, the sculptor recalled.

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A video screenshot of Chen Jun, also known as John Chen, in a confrontation with Chinese activists on Sept. 15, 2019. (Courtesy of Chen Weiming)

Chen Weiming and others were protesting a pro-Beijing flag-raising event organized by Chen Jun, one of many he had arranged in Monterey Park, California. As in other years, a Chinese flag was hoisted at Barnes Park awash with red decorations in celebration of the regime’s 70th anniversary.

“If you make it back, you will immediately get arrested,” Chen Jun said, amplifying his voice through a megaphone hung around his neck.

That was in September 2019. Three and a half years later, on May 26, it was Chen Jun who found himself arrested by the FBI at his home in Chino. A U.S. citizen, Chen Jun was the subject of a Justice Department probe for his alleged role as an enabler of Beijing’s transnational repression campaign, this time targeting the persecuted faith Falun Gong.

A Global Campaign of Repression

Falun Gong, which includes meditative exercises and moral teachings centered on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, has been a key target of the Chinese regime since 1999, when the regime began a ruthless crusade to eliminate the spiritual discipline. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) viewed the huge popularity of the practice, which had attracted up to 100 million adherents at the time, as a threat to its authoritarian rule.

Inside China, tens of millions of Falun Gong adherents continue to face harassment, arbitrary arrests, torture, and forced organ harvesting. But even practitioners and dissidents outside of China’s borders aren’t immune to the Party’s machinations. From spying and physical assault to blackmailing, the regime has deployed an onslaught of coercive tactics devised specifically to silence and sabotage any voices deemed unfavorable to Beijing.

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Practitioners of Falun Gong meditate at Hunter’s Point in Queens, N.Y., on April 4, 2017. (The Epoch Times)

Such campaigns, collectively known as transnational repression, have recently come to the spotlight as U.S. prosecutors have brought charges against dozens of Chinese agents and U.S. citizens involved in regime-directed suppression plots on U.S. soil.

In just the past six weeks alone, the Justice Department has charged 40 members of China’s national police force with carrying out a cyber propaganda campaign to harass U.S. residents, arrested one Boston man believed to be secretly feeding Beijing a “blacklist” of China critics, and arrested two more in New York who were overseeing one of four known Chinese police stations in the United States.

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Chen Jinping receives a plaque from an official from China’s Ministry of Public Security in a ceremony after Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 2015 visit to the United States. (Department of Justice)

One of the men arrested over the illegal Chinese police operation had been involved in targeting Falun Gong practitioners in the United States, court filings show. In 2015, the man, Chen Jinping, received a plaque recognizing his efforts in organizing paid protesters to counter demonstrations by Falun Gong adherents when Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Washington that year.

In the case of Chen Jun, prosecutors alleged that he and a co-defendant worked with officials in China to concoct a scheme to sabotage a U.S. nonprofit run by Falun Gong adherents by trying to get the organization’s tax-exempt status revoked.

Chen Jun, the court filing said, offered $50,000 to an undercover FBI agent who he thought was with the IRS to try to advance a fraudulent IRS whistleblower complaint against the nonprofit. In a recorded conversation, Chen said his goal was to help the regime “topple” the faith group.

Court filings said that Chen Jun worked under the direction of an unnamed Chinese official and was supplied money for the bribes by the regime.

While the documents don’t state what agency Chen Jun’s handler worked for, they do make multiple references to the megacity Tianjin, where Chen Jun was born and raised. For many years, the city has served as the main base of the 610 Office, an extralegal Gestapo-like agency that oversees the persecution of Falun Gong. Chen Jun’s handler appears to be from Tianjin as well; when Chen Jun called another co-conspirator to discuss payment plans, he said he would “contact Tianjin again.”

He said the official is “the one that is always in charge of these matters.”

“They are like blood brothers,” Chen Jun once told the undercover FBI agent about his Chinese associates, according to the complaint. “We started this fight against [Falun Gong] twenty, thirty years ago. They are always with us.”

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China’s People’s Liberation Army officers stand in front of a window before a welcome ceremony for U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley at the Bayi Building in Beijing, on Aug. 16, 2016. (Mark Schiefelbein/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Covert Warfare’

For China analysts and advocates, the recent case represents but another example of a long-known sprawling campaign by Beijing to silence dissent abroad.

“It’s kind of a pattern that’s emerging,” Laura Harth, campaign director for Safeguard Defenders, a group that focuses on China’s human rights, told The Epoch Times.

The bribery case, she said, is “the tip of the iceberg.”

But even so, Harth was stunned by the tactics used by Chen Jun and his co-conspirators as detailed by the Department of Justice.

The bribery scheme demonstrated the “breadth and creativeness” of the regime’s efforts, she said, as well as the “audacity by which they feel they can get away with” these actions.

The alleged attempt to subvert U.S. institutions also stood out to other China analysts.

“You’re not just talking anymore about organizing some counter-protesters, or trying to convince someone to come back to China, or monitoring a dissident. This was really an attempt to use institutions of the United States, including things like whistleblower systems and protections, to basically go after a perceived enemy of the CCP,” Sarah Cook, a senior China analyst at Freedom House, told The Epoch Times.

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Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, at a panel discussion on ​”Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China” at the Freedom House in Washington on March 19, 2018. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

To her, it reveals both the “degree of effort and resources that the CCP is investing to target Falun Gong, at least in the United States,” and the “the lengths the CCP is willing to go to in terms of using democratic institutions against themselves.”

Nicholas Eftimiades, a former intelligence analyst for the CIA specialized in Chinese espionage, sees the latest case as part of Beijing’s “covert warfare”—an “extraordinarily far-ranging worldwide effort” from China to “influence and corrupt foreign governments and foreign political processes.”

“To actually go get someone in the United States to submit basically a lie like this for truth, have the U.S. government take official action, and to bribe U.S. officials—that’s corruption at its greatest moment,” Eftimiades told The Epoch Times, adding that it’s something often carried out by intelligence services and organized crime groups. “So we see the Chinese government behaving as such.”

‘Canary in the Coal Mine’

In Los Angeles County, 70-year-old Chen Jun, who also goes by John, has developed a reputation among the Chinese diaspora as a talking head for the Chinese regime. A veteran of China’s air force, Chen had been a trade delegate for Tianjin before emigrating to California, where he holds top positions in a slew of pro-Beijing organizations, including two he created himself, according to Chinese media reports. He has hosted roughly two dozen annual flag-raising events like that one in 2019 and penned several books trumpeting the regime’s narratives. He has mobilized local Chinese communities to welcome top Chinese officials during their visits to the United States, as well as organized protests that the regime deemed “patriotic,” the reports said.

With his close alignment with the regime, it was unsurprising to some that he has kept in step with the regime on its suppression of Falun Gong.

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Chen Jun, also known as John Chen, at a pro-Beijing event he organized at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse in California, in October 2016. (Liu Fei/The Epoch Times)

Wu Fan, a former chief editor of pro-democracy Chinese-language magazine Beijing Spring and commentator on China affairs, remembered debating the persecution with Chen Jun on the radio as early as 2001. In their approximately 20 other similar interactions on various China topics, Chen Jun had been parroting the regime’s talking points, Wu recalled.

“It seems that his life goal is to follow the CCP,” Wu told The Epoch Times.

Levi Browde, executive director of the New York-based Falun Dafa Information Center, said the U.S. action on the IRS bribery attempt, which was still unfolding at the time of the men’s arrest, shows that U.S. authorities have “really come up to speed on the sheer scope and scale of CCP infiltration into this country.”

“I’ve met a lot of people who think the Falun Gong issue really is the canary in the coal mine for all Americans,” he told The Epoch Times. In many ways, he said, he believes the Falun Gong community “has been a leading voice in trying to not only expose the persecution themselves, but also divulge the true nature of the CCP on the world stage.”

“Seeing what the CCP does to Falun Gong and understanding what the nature of that threat is and how to counter it, that’s a big lesson for all Americans,” he said. “If anybody, not just Falun Gong, finds themselves on the opposite side of the CCP and is doing or saying something the CCP doesn’t like, who’s to say they won’t do the exact same thing to them?”

A Sculpture Targeted

Three days after the row at Barnes Park in 2019, Chen Weiming filed a lawsuit accusing Chen Jun of violating his free speech rights, although he eventually didn’t pursue it due to a lack of funds.

The California pro-democracy artist found it apt that the Justice Department in its press release described Chen and his co-conspirator as “illegal agents” for Beijing.

“He is a CCP agent, no question,” Chen Weiming told The Epoch Times. “Otherwise, how can he as an individual declare that he can get me arrested? What power does he have?”

Chen Weiming, like others, has experienced the regime’s retaliation firsthand.

In a plot to destroy one of his artworks critical of the regime, Matthew Ziburis, a former correctional officer for Florida and a former bodyguard, approached the Chinese-born New Zealander, who lives in California, while posing as an art dealer interested in getting his works displayed in a New York museum, according to court filings.

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“CCP virus,” a sculpture by Chen Weiming, is seen destroyed at Liberty Square Park in Yermo, Calif., in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Chen Weiming)

The sculpture, a bust statue depicting Xi as a coronavirus molecule, was demolished by vandals in July 2021 after the artist unveiled it to the public in Liberty Sculpture Park in Yermo, California. It’s unclear whether Ziburis, who was in New York City during that arson attack, had any involvement in the sculpture’s destruction, but two of his co-conspirators, one of whom is based in China, discussed such actions in undated conversations cited in the filing.

Regarding the recently publicized tax bribery scheme, Chinese agents paid $1,500 to a purported IRS agent to get tax returns of Chen Weiming, believing they could find evidence of tax evasion to discredit him.

For dissidents, “the CCP tries every possible way to threaten you and destroy your reputation,” said Chen, who on June 4 unveiled his latest work—a statue of an abused mother of eight chained in front of a metal cage welded together with the characters “China,” inspired by a real-life incident that horrified the country last year and at times overshadowed Beijing’s Winter Olympics.

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Poems inscribed on a metal cage as part of a statue by artist Chen Weiming, at Liberty Sculpture Park in Yermo, California. (Courtesy of Chen Weiming)

When Chen Weiming was running a pro-democracy newspaper, New Times Weekly, in New Zealand, police had repeatedly received anonymous tips alleging, without evidence, that the outlet’s office engaged in drug dealing and tax fraud.

‘Wake-Up Call’

In Congress, some lawmakers are also taking note of the covert Chinese influence campaigns.

“The FBI calls this ‘transnational repression,’ but we should be clear that this is a foreign adversary emboldened enough to commit crimes against those it deems to be a threat in the United States,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, told The Epoch Times after the unsealing of the IRS bribery case files.

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Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) speaks at a press conference and rally in front of the America ChangLe Association highlighting Beijing’s transnational repression, in New York City on Feb. 25, 2023. A now-closed overseas Chinese police station is located inside the association building. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), a member of the committee, said the revelation from the case is a “wake-up call to everyone here.”

“There’s nothing more that the Chinese Communist Party hates than people who are pursuing freedom—people who want to practice the religion they want to practice, what we have here in the United States—and that’s a threat to them,” Hinson said on NTD’s “Capitol Report” program.

“So this is happening in our backyard every single day, whether they’re trying to bribe an IRS official, or sneak onto our military bases. They are not a friend to us, and if we don’t hold them accountable, and show them that we’re strong, and we mean business, they’re going to take advantage of that, like they have for decades.”

Assessing the US Response

From the national security perspective, Eftimiades considers the repressive activities from China a reckoning call for nation states to reassess their relationship with China and decide whether the commercial benefits from China are worth the national security risks.

In dealing with such state-sponsored “pervasive criminal activity,” law enforcement alone is not effective, he said.

The U.S. approach has to be comprehensive, strategic, and employing “all elements of national power … because that’s the way China approaches the situation,” he said.

On a broader scale, the United States should also work in concert with allies, be it to issue sanctions or otherwise, to make deterrence effective globally, according to Eftimiades.

In March, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Transnational Repression Policy Act, which aims to hold foreign governments and individuals accountable when they stalk, intimidate, harass, coerce, or assault people in the United States—or U.S. citizens abroad.

Gallagher has also suggested increasing the penalties on executors of targeted harassment if they do so on behalf of a foreign adversary.

Eftimiades supports other penalties, such as placing perpetrators on the “no fly” list and barring investments into regional Chinese governments that are involved.

With the recent spotlight on the regime’s spy balloon and its policing networks across more than 100 countries, which Germany suspects were still operating in their country as of mid-May, the West seems to be paying attention at last.

At the G-7 summit in Hiroshima last month, leaders of the member states called on China “not to conduct interference activities aimed at undermining the security and safety of our communities, the integrity of our democratic institutions, and our economic prosperity.”

“The net is closing in” against Beijing proxies, said the California dissident artist, adding that he’s glad the West has “finally become clear on the matter.”

“The CCP will never embrace Western values. As long as it has money and power, it will want to export its authoritarian model, and with it, reshape the entire world,” he said.

Eftimiades zeroed in on the need for a “whole-of-government” response to Beijing’s covert operation campaigns.

“It’s directed against our own citizens. … The one thing [the government] is responsible for, above all others, is protecting its own people, and we’re failing in that regard,” Eftimiades said.

Linda Jiang contributed to this report.