US authorities have arrested two suspected Chinese government agents in connection with an alleged plot to disrupt the exiled anti-communist Falun Gong spiritual movement.
John Chen and Lin Feng were charged with scheming to revoke a New York-based Falun Gong organisation's tax-exempt status and paying bribes to a undercover officer posing as a US tax agent.
The undercover officer recorded multiple conversations with Chen, and investigators obtained a wire tap to record phone calls in which Chen and Feng discussed instructions they purportedly received from Chinese government officials, prosecutors said.
In one recording, prosecutors said, Chen referred to Chinese government officials as akin to "blood brothers" and, in another, he said Beijing would be "very generous" in rewarding the undercover officer's help cracking down on Falun Gong's non-profit status.
Chen, a 70-year-old US citizen, and Feng, a 43-year-old lawful permanent resident, are charged with acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government, bribing a public official and conspiracy to commit international money laundering.
Chen and Feng were both born in China but now live in the Los Angeles area, where they were arrested on Friday.
China banned the Falun Gong movement in 1999, classifying it as an evil cult and one of the "Five Poisons," or chief threats to its rule. Since then, Falun Gong practitioners have found refuge at a 400-acre compound called Dragon Springs in upstate New York.
In the US, the Falun Gong movement is known mostly for its ties to Shen Yun, a touring performing arts group, and The Epoch Times, a newspaper that has been marketed as an alternative to traditional US media while also coming under fire for amplifying misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The Justice Department has made a series of prosecutions in recent years to disrupt China's efforts in the US to identify, locate and silence pro-democracy activists and others who are openly critical of Beijing's policies. Such practices by foreign governments are known as "transnational repression."
"The Chinese government has yet again attempted, and failed, to target critics of the (People's Republic of China) here in the United States," Attorney General Merrick B Garland said in a statement.
The US, Garland added, will "continue to investigate, disrupt, and prosecute" China's efforts to "silence its critics and extend the reaches of its regime onto US soil."
Chen and Feng's arrest comes a month after the Justice Department charged two men with establishing a secret police station in New York City on behalf of the Chinese government. Around the same time, federal prosecutors charged about three dozen officers with China's national police force with using social media to harass dissidents inside the US
In 2020, the Justice Department charged more than a half-dozen people with working on behalf of the Chinese government in a pressure campaign aimed at coercing a New Jersey man wanted by Beijing into returning to China to face charges.
Australian Associated Press
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