Authorities in the United States have arrested two suspected Chinese government agents in connection with an alleged plot by Beijing against the exiled anti-communist Falun Gong spiritual movement.
China banned Falun Gong, based broadly around meditation, in 1999 after 10,000 members appeared at the central leadership compound in Beijing in silent protest.
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The group has called for people to renounce the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
John Chen and Lin Feng were charged in an indictment unsealed on Friday with scheming to revoke a New York-based Falun Gong organisation’s tax-exempt status and paying bribes to an undercover police officer posing as a US tax agent.
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. Information on an initial court appearance or lawyers who could speak on their behalf was not immediately available.
In seeking to undermine Falun Gong in the US, federal prosecutors allege, Chen and Feng’s urged the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to revoke the organisation’s non-profit tax status. In a whistleblower complaint to the tax agency in February, Chen described Falun Gong as a “gigantic mega cult” – echoing language China’s government uses to describe the movement.
Chen and Feng then turned to the undercover officer to make sure the IRS acted on the complaint, offering a payment of $50,000 – and handing over $5,000 in cash as a down payment – if the tax agency conducted an audit, prosecutors said.
The undercover police officer posing as the tax official recorded multiple conversations with Chen and investigators obtained a wiretap 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 said Beijing would be “very generous” in rewarding the undercover officer’s help in cracking down on Falun Gong’s non-profit status.
Chen met with the officer at a restaurant north of New York City on May 14, prosecutors said. A few days later, the officer sent Chen a letter on a fake IRS letterhead that stated the agency had opened a case on Falun Gong, prosecutors said. Chen relayed the news to Feng in a wiretapped phoned conversation, indicating he was planning to update Chinese government officials on their progress, prosecutors said.
Messages seeking comment were left with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC and with the Falun Gong movement.
The US Justice Department made a series of prosecutions in recent years to disrupt China’s efforts to identify, locate and silence pro-democracy activists in the US and others 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 on Friday.
The US will “continue to investigate, disrupt, and prosecute” China’s efforts to “silence its critics and extend the reaches of its regime onto US soil”, he said.
The charges against Chen and Feng come a month after federal agents arrested two New York residents on suspicion of operating a Chinese “secret police station” in Manhattan’s Chinatown district.