Two criminal complaints filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York were unsealed yesterday in federal court in Brooklyn charging 44 defendants with various crimes related to efforts by the national police of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) – to harass Chinese nationals residing in the New York metropolitan area and elsewhere in the United States.
The defendants, including 40 MPS officers and two officials in the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), allegedly perpetrated transnational repression schemes targeting U.S. residents whose political views and actions are disfavored by the PRC government, such as advocating for democracy in the PRC.
In the two schemes, the defendants created and used fake social media accounts to harass and intimidate PRC dissidents residing abroad and sought to suppress the dissidents’ free speech on the platform of a U.S. telecommunications company (Company-1). The defendants charged in these schemes are believed to reside in the PRC or elsewhere in Asia and remain at large.
“These cases demonstrate the lengths the PRC government will go to silence and harass U.S. persons who exercise their fundamental rights to speak out against PRC oppression, including by unlawfully exploiting a U.S.-based technology company,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “These actions violate our laws and are an affront to our democratic values and basic human rights.”
“China’s Ministry of Public Security used operatives to target people of Chinese descent who had the courage to speak out against the Chinese Communist Party – in one case by covertly spreading propaganda to undermine confidence in our democratic processes and, in another, by suppressing U.S. video conferencing users’ free speech,” said Acting Assistant Director Kurt Ronnow of the FBI Counterintelligence Division. “We aren’t going to tolerate CCP repression – its efforts to threaten, harass, and intimidate people – here in the United States. The FBI will continue to confront the Chinese government’s efforts to violate our laws and repress the rights and freedoms of people in our country.”
Disclosure: U.S. Attorney Breon Peace for the Eastern District of New York is recused from and has not participated in the case captioned United States v. Julien Jin et al., 20-mj-1103.
United States v. Yunpeng Bai, et al.
The two-count complaint charges 34 MPS officers with conspiracy to transmit interstate threats and conspiracy to commit interstate harassment. All the defendants are believed to reside in the PRC, and they remain at large.
As alleged, the officers worked with Beijing’s MPS bureau and are or were assigned to an elite task force called the “912 Special Project Working Group” (the Group). The purpose of the Group is to target Chinese dissidents located throughout the world, including in the United States.
“As alleged, the PRC government deploys its national police and the 912 Special Project Working Group not as an instrument to uphold the law and protect public safety, but rather as a troll farm that attacks persons in our country for exercising free speech in a manner that the PRC government finds disagreeable, and also spreads propaganda whose sole purpose is to sow divisions within the United States,” said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace for the Eastern District of New York. “I commend the investigative team for comprehensively revealing the insidiousness of a state-directed criminal scheme directed at residents of the United States.”
The complaint alleges how members of the Group created thousands of fake online personas on social media sites, including Twitter, to target Chinese dissidents through online harassment and threats. These online personas also disseminated official PRC government propaganda and narratives to counter the pro-democracy speech of the Chinese dissidents. As alleged, for example, Group members created and maintained the fake social media accounts through temporary email addresses, posted official PRC government content, and interacted with other online users to avoid the appearance that the Group accounts were “flooding” a given social media platform. The Group tracks the performances of members in fulfilling their online responsibilities and rewards Group members who successfully operate multiple online personas without detection by the social media companies who host the platforms or by other users of the platforms.
The investigation also uncovered official MPS taskings to Group members to compose articles and videos based on certain themes targeting, for example, the activities of Chinese dissidents located abroad or the policies of the U.S. government.
As alleged, the defendants also attempted to recruit U.S. persons to act as unwitting agents of the PRC government by disseminating propaganda or narratives of the PRC government. On several occasions, the defendants used online personas to contact individuals assessed to be sympathetic and supportive of the PRC government’s narratives and asked these individuals to disseminate Group content.
In addition, Group members took repeated affirmative actions to have Chinese dissidents and their meetings removed from the platform of Company-1. For example, Group members disrupted a dissident’s efforts to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre through a videoconference by posting threats against the participants through the platform’s chat function. In another Company-1 videoconference on the topic of countering communism organized by a PRC dissident, Group members flooded the videoconference and drowned out the meeting with loud music and vulgar screams and threats directed at the pro-democracy participants.
United States v. Julien Jin, et al.
This amended complaint charges 10 individuals, including a former PRC-based Company-1 employee, six MPS officers, and two officials with the CAC, with conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful conspiracy to transfer means of identification. Nine of the defendants are believed to reside in the PRC and remain at large. The tenth defendant is believed to reside in Indonesia or the PRC and also remains at large.
“The amended complaint charging a former PRC-based employee of a U.S. telecommunications company illustrates the insider threat faced by U.S. companies operating in the PRC,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Pokorny for the Eastern District of New York, who thanked Company-1 for its cooperation in the government’s investigation. “As alleged, Julien Jin and his co-conspirators in the Ministry of Public Security and Cyberspace Administration of China weaponized the U.S. telecommunications company he worked for to intimidate and silence dissenters and enforce PRC law to the detriment of Chinese activists in New York, among other places, who had sought refuge in this country to peacefully express their pro-democracy views.”
“These cases demonstrate that the Chinese Communist Party, once again, attempted to intimidate, harass, and suppress Chinese dissidents in the United States,” said Assistant Director in Charge David Sundberg of the FBI Washington Field Office. “In the United States, the freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the FBI will work tirelessly to defend everyone’s right to speak freely without fear of retribution from the CCP. These complex investigations revealed an MPS-wide effort to repress individuals by using the U.S. communications platform and fake social media accounts to censor political and religious speech.”
In December 2020, the Department first announced charges against Julien Jin in connection with his efforts to disrupt a series of meetings on the Company-1 platform held in May and June 2020 commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Jin served as Company-1’s primary liaison with PRC government law enforcement and intelligence services. In that capacity, he regularly responded to requests from the PRC government to terminate meetings and block users on Company-1’s video communications platform.
As detailed in the original complaint, Jin and others conspired to use Company-1’s U.S. systems to censor the political and religious speech of individuals located in the United States and elsewhere at the direction of the PRC government. For example, Jin and others disrupted meetings held on the Company-1 platform to discuss politically sensitive topics unacceptable to the PRC government – including the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Jin and his co-conspirators fabricated evidence of purported misconduct to cause U.S.-based employees of Company-1 to terminate the meetings.
The allegations in the amended complaint reveal that Jin worked directly with and took orders from defendants at the MPS and the CAC to disrupt meetings on the Company-1 platform and that the co-defendants had targeted U.S.-based dissidents’ speech on Company-1’s platform since 2018.
Starting in 2018, Jin and his co-defendants repeatedly sought to terminate video chat meetings organized by a Chinese dissident residing in New York City who has been a vocal critic of the PRC government and the Chinese Communist Party. After the CAC requested that Company-1 terminate the dissident’s meetings on the Company-1 platform, Jin worked to identify all accounts associated with the dissident, caused meetings related to the dissident to be hosted in a “quarantine zone” – that is, on a server with known lags in response time – and later worked to block all accounts associated with the dissident. Similarly, in 2019, Jin collaborated with the MPS and CAC to block accounts seeking to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The FBI Washington Field Office investigated the cases. Speaking yesterday about these cases and the charges related to the opening and operating an illegal overseas police station of the Chinese government, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the Bureau has been sounding the alarm about the threat posed by the Chinese government for years. “The charges reveal a series of brazen and aggressive criminal schemes directed by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. In all three cases, Chinese officials working for, and at the direction of, the Chinese government were targeting people here, on U.S. soil—through threats, harassment, intimidation, and malign influence.
“All of these individuals are operatives supporting the Chinese government’s campaign to export repression and to undermine the rule of law around the world—including right here in America. The Chinese government will stop at nothing to lie, steal, and cheat its way to wealth and power, to silence those who oppose it, and to project its authoritarian view around the world—and within our own borders.
“People might think of these as two separate dangers—one that threatens corporations and our workers’ livelihoods, and another that threatens individuals and their freedoms. But it’s all part of the same, single danger—the danger that a large country unconstrained by laws grinds down anyone who resists it. Today’s announcement highlights the FBI’s commitment to combating the threat posed by the government of China and protecting the rights of all who call the U.S. home.”
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alexander A. Solomon, Antoinette N. Rangel, Ian C. Richardson, Nicholas J. Moscow and Jessica K. Weigel of the Eastern District of New York, and Trial Attorney Scott A. Claffee of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section are prosecuting the cases.
The FBI has created a website for victims to report efforts by foreign governments to stalk, intimidate, or assault people in the United States.