Justice Department accuses China of spying on, intimidating dissidents living in U.S.

WASHINGTON, March 16 (Reuters) - U.S. federal prosecutors on Wednesday accused Chinese government agents of trying to spy on and intimidate dissidents living in the United States including a congressional candidate.

Justice Department officials said the three criminal cases amounted to "transnational repression" by an authoritarian government, including a discussion of assaulting one dissident.

"These cases expose attempts by the government of the People's Republic of China to suppress dissenting voices within the United States and demonstrate how the PRC attempts to stalk, intimidate and silence those who oppose them," Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told a news conference.

In one of the cases, federal prosecutors said a Chinese government agent approached a U.S. private investigator to help manufacture a political scandal that would undermine a China-born man seeking the Democratic nomination to run for a New York seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At one point, the Chinese agent proposed that the private investigator consider physically attacking the candidate to prevent his candidacy, according to prosecutors.

"You can start thinking now, aside from violence, what other plans are there," the Chinese agent allegedly said. "But in the end, violence would be fine too. Huh? Beat him, beat him until he cannot run for election."

The candidate was not identified in court documents, but fits the description of Xiong Yan, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for a House seat representing the eastern part of New York's Long Island. The seat is held by Republican Lee Zeldin, who opted to run for governor rather than seek reelection.

Yan did not respond to a request for comment.

In another case, prosecutors said a Long Island resident named Frank Liu approached a private investigator about performing due diligence on two Chinese-born dissidents living in the United States. Liu was charged with conspiring to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government.

At Liu's initial appearance in Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday afternoon, his lawyer, Edgar Frankbonner, said Liu is a U.S. citizen who has lived in the United States for 38 years. He said there was no evidence Liu had recent contact with China.

Asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Cho if he understood the charges, Liu said through an interpreter: "I understand it, but I deny all the allegations."

Cho set a $1 million bond for Liu, with conditions including that he not visit China's consulate in New York.

In another case, Chinese government agents are accused of planting surveillance equipment in a California-based artist’s workplace and car to spy on him. The agents also allegedly destroyed artwork created by the artist, a Chinese national residing in Los Angeles.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

"These charges show that both election interference and malign foreign influence remain top priorities for the DOJ," said Brandon Van Grack, a former Justice Department lawyer now at Morrison & Foerster who is not involved in the cases.

The United States last year sanctioned Russia for having tried to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, a claim that Russia denies.

Last month the Justice Department ended a program focused on fighting Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft at universities, shifting to address threats from a broader array of hostile nations.

Critics said that initiative, put in place during former President Donald Trump's administration, amounted to racial profiling and that it created a culture of fear that has chilled scientific research. read more

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel, Luc Cohen and David Brunstrom; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot, Howard Goller, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman

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