The giant sculpture in the California desert depicts Chinese President Xi Jinping’s head as a larger-than-life coronavirus molecule. Not long after it was unveiled in 2021, it burned to the ground.
Security cameras installed to keep the artwork safe had been disconnected. All that remained of the work was a sign with large red letters that spelled out “CCP Virus,” blaming the COVID-19 pandemic on the Chinese Communist Party.
Soon after the fire, artist Chen Weiming accused the Chinese government of “wanting to shut down our free speech.” But charges filed by federal prosecutors in New York this week allege that three Chinese agents did more to harass the California-based sculptor than simply vandalizing his work.
And he was hardly their only apparent target. Olympic figure skater Alysa Liu and her father, Arthur Liu, were also the focus of covert operations by the Chinese government “to stalk, harass and spy on Chinese nationals,” authorities say.
Chen’s case was one of three filed by federal prosecutors this week accusing five men of acting on behalf of the Chinese government. In the second case, prosecutors allege that a New York congressional candidate was harassed by a member of the Chinese secret police. And the third responsible a former visiting scholar with spying on pro-democracy activists in Queens, NY
“While separate matters, these cases are all very much related,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Matthew G. Olsen said during a news conference in Washington, DC, Wednesday. “One shows an insidious strategy to collect information on dissidents in order to target them and in some cases imprison pro-democracy activists abroad.
“One case describes a conspiracy to derail the congressional campaign of an American citizen and military veteran,” said Olsen, who is part of the Justice Department’s national security division, “and one shows a campaign to surveil and harass an artist engaged in free and peaceful expression.”
In response to the charges, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the United States of “unwarranted denigration and smearing against China.”
“China always asks Chinese citizens to abide by laws and regulations in host countries,” he said at a news briefing. “The accusation of ‘transnational repression schemes’ is totally made out of thin air. The US attempt to hype up ‘China threat’ and tarnish China’s reputation is doomed to fail.”
In a series of communications, Fan “Frank” Liu, Matthew Ziburis and Qiang “Jason” Sun allegedly discussed how they could destroy Chen’s art, which was installed in Yermo, off Highway 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. Ziburis, a former Florida corrections officer, allegedly even posed as a fake art dealer trying to acquire some of the work.
The three also tried unsuccessfully to get Chen’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service, thinking they could get him charged for tax evasion, according to indictments unsealed Wednesday.
Liu, 62, of Long Island, NY, and Ziburis, 49, of Oyster Bay, NY, are charged with conspiring to act as agents of the Chinese government. Liu and Sun, 40, of China, are also charged with conspiring to bribe a federal official in connection with their scheme to obtain the tax returns.
Liu and Ziburis were arrested Tuesday, but Sun’s whereabouts are unknown. Ziburis was released on $500,000 bail Wednesday after a court appearance.
Prosecutors allege that at Sun’s direction, Liu paid a private investigator in Queens to bribe an IRS employee to obtain the artist’s tax returns. Chen is not named — none of the alleged victims are — but his art is easily identifiable in the public complaint.
Unbeknownst to the alleged Chinese spies, the private investigator was cooperating with law enforcement.
According to the criminal complaint, the spying operation planned to publicly disclose Chen’s potential tax liabilities to discredit him. In March 2021, at the direction of the FBI and with the artist’s consent, the investigator allegedly provided the conspirators copies of two tax returns.
“Based on his high price quotes for his [Dissident 1’s] artwork, we believe he definitely took in a large sum and evaded taxes, a major crime in the US After obtaining evidence, spend money for court and attorney fees to totally get rid of him,” Liu wrote to Sun.
In a series of communications, Sun encouraged Liu “to have Ziburis destroy the sculpture,” but they also considered whether that could backfire and give the artist publicity.
When Ziburis posed as an art dealer, according to the complaint, he secretly installed surveillance cameras and GPS devices at the dissident’s workplace and in his car. While in China, Sun watched the live video feed and location data from these devices, the charges lightened.
In an interview, Chen said he is “very happy they found these spies.” He alleged that the Chinese government “has infiltrated America…. They want to destroy free speech, my artwork.”
Arthur Liu told the Associated Press that he was informed the trio had also targeted him as part of their operations. He is identified in the complaint as Dissident 3, and his daughter is “the family member” mentioned in the charges unsealed Wednesday.
Ziburis allegedly posed as an official with the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee and contacted Arthur Liu in Richmond, Calif., asking for his and his 16-year-old daughter’s passport numbers.
According to federal prosecutors, when Liu refused, Ziburis threatened to delay them or deny them international travel. FBI investigators uncovered an identification card with the name of a real official but with Ziburis’ photo, according to the charges, along with communications in which Ziburis arranged to obtain the fraudulent credential.
Liu said his daughter, who finished seventh in the Beijing Winter Olympics, was unaware of the investigation, and he did not want to scare her or distract her in the Olympic run-up. He said he had assurances from the FBI and State Department that she would be protected during the Olympics.
Federal prosecutors also charged Qiming Lin, 59, who works for the Chinese secret police agency, with conspiracy to commit interstate harassment, among other offenses.
They allege that Lin hired a private investigator to disrupt the campaign of a Brooklyn, NY, resident running for US Congress, including by physically attacking the candidate. “Whatever price is fine. As long as you can do it,” Lin allegedly said.
According to the complaint, the unidentified victim was a student leader of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The victim’s description matches that of Yan Xiong, who is a candidate for the House of Representatives, came to the United States in 1992 from China and served in the US Army as a chaplain.
Yan confirmed to the New York Times that he was unaware of an effort to discredit him, adding, “I appreciate the prosecutors who are trying to protect me.”
Shujun Wang, 73, of Queens is charged with acting as an agent of the Chinese government. Wang is a former visiting scholar and author who helped start a pro-democracy organization in Queens. He is accused of spying on pro-democracy activists and reporting damaging information to his handlers. Hong Kong activists he identified and documented were arrested, authorities say.
The complaint also alleviates that, during an interview in Queens on Aug. 2, 2017, Wang lied to federal law enforcement, falsely denying that he had contacts with Chinese agents. However, the indictment said, he “later admitted much of his criminal conduct to an undercover member of law enforcement and during a subsequent interview with agents.”
Wang was arrested Wednesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.