Two accused Chinese government spies have been detained by American authorities in connection with an alleged Beijing scheme to sabotage and eventually destabilize the exiled anti-communist Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In an indictment that was made public on Friday, John Chen and Lin Feng were accused of plotting to withdraw the tax-exempt status of a Falun Gong organization with headquarters in New York and of paying bribes to a covert officer acting as a U.S. tax agent.
Prosecutors said that Chen and Feng discussed orders they allegedly got from Chinese government officials in phone calls that were captured on wiretaps and on many occasions by the undercover officer who spoke with Chen.
Prosecutors said that Chen made references to Chinese government officials as being similar to “blood brothers” in one tape and indicated Beijing would be “very generous” in return for the undercover officer’s assistance in eradicating Falun Gong’s non-profit status in another.
Chen, a 70-year-old American citizen, and Feng, a 43-year-old legal permanent resident, are accused of bribing a public official, operating as unregistered agents of a foreign government, and conspiring to launder money abroad.
Although they were both raised in the Los Angeles region, where they were detained on Friday, Chen and Feng were both born in China. There was no immediate information available on a first court appearance or attorneys who could speak on their behalf.
Both the Falun Gong movement and the Chinese Embassy in Washington have received messages requesting comment.
As one of the “Five Poisons,” or main dangers to its authority, and as an evil cult, China outlawed the Falun Gong movement in 1999. Since that time, Falun Gong practitioners have sought safety in the 400-acre Dragon Springs complex in upstate New York.
The Epoch Times, a newspaper that has been promoted as an alternative to conventional U.S. media while simultaneously drawing criticism for spreading false information and conspiracy theories, and Shen Yun, a traveling performing arts ensemble, are two organizations with which the Falun Gong movement is most closely associated in the United States.
A number of charges have been brought by the Justice Department in recent years to thwart Chinese attempts in the U.S. to track down and suppress pro-democracy activists and other people who are outspoken critics of Beijing’s policies. This kind of behavior by foreign governments is referred to as “transnational repression.”
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland stated in a statement that “the Chinese government has yet again attempted, and failed, to target critics of the (People’s Republic of China) here in the United States.”
Garland continued by saying that the United States will “continue to investigate, disrupt, and prosecute” any attempts by China to “silence its critics and extend the reaches of its regime onto U.S. soil.”
Federal prosecutors claim Chen and Feng encouraged the Internal Revenue Service to cancel Falun Gong’s non-profit tax registration in an effort to harm the movement. Chen used the phrase “gigantic mega cult” to characterize Falun Gong in a whistleblower report to the tax agency in February, mirroring how the Chinese government refers to the practice.
In order to ensure the IRS took action on the complaint, Chen and Feng allegedly resorted to the undercover officer and offered a US$50,000 incentive, handing him US$5,000 in cash as a down payment, provided the tax agency launched an audit.
On May 14, according to authorities, Chen met the officer at a restaurant north of New York City. A few days later, the officer allegedly sent Chen a letter on fictitious IRS letterhead claiming that the IRS had started an investigation into Falun Gong. According to the prosecution, Chen informed Feng of the news during a phone call that was wiretapped, suggesting that he intended to inform Chinese government authorities of their progress.
A month after charging two individuals with constructing a covert police station in New York City on behalf of the Chinese government, the Justice Department announced Chen and Feng’s detention. At approximately the same time, federal prosecutors accused about 30 members of China’s national police of using social media to intimidate opposition figures living in the United States.
The Justice Department accused more than a dozen individuals in 2020 of collaborating with the Chinese government in a pressure campaign to persuade a New Jersey citizen sought by Beijing to go back to China to face prosecution.