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Founder of pro-democracy group accused in the US of spying for China on prominent Hong Kong politician

Founder of pro-democracy group accused in the US of spying for China on prominent Hong Kong politician

The US Department of Justice building in Washington, DC, on Feb 9, 2022. (Photo: AFP/Stefani Reynolds)

A China-born American citizen who founded a pro-democracy group in the United States has been accused of spying for China on other activists, including a prominent Hong Kong politician.

Wang Shujun was arrested in March and charged with spying on prominent pro-democracy activists, dissidents and human rights leaders, the US Department of Justice said on Wednesday (May 18).

The 73-year-old was a well-known academic who became a US citizen in 2003. While living in China, he was a professor at Qingdao College of Social Sciences.

In 1994, he came to the US as a visiting scholar for a two-year term at a university in New York City, before becoming a citizen less than a decade later.

In 2006, he founded a pro-democracy group in Queens, New York, with the group’s directors being “well-known pro-democracy dissidents” who oppose the Chinese government, said an affidavit to the court. Wang was the secretary general of the group.

But a US investigation found that he was allegedly acting as an agent of the Chinese government, using his position within the Chinese community in New York and the group to collect information about dissidents.

HONG KONG POLITICIAN ARRESTED

One of them was a prominent Hong Kong democracy activist, who was not named in the court documents and was only known as Dissident #1.

The activist was described as a “well-known solicitor and politician” in Hong Kong, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, and the former chairman of the Democratic Party. He was also a former member of the Legislative Council.

Wang told investigators in the US that he knew Dissident #1, and had called him on Nov 16, 2016. They spoke about the Legislative Council's chief executive position, and about the pan-democratic alliance’s candidates running for office.

The politician also asked Wang when he planned to visit Hong Kong again. Wang offered to meet at his daughter’s restaurant after the Chinese New Year, and he offered to treat Dissident #1 and his family. He also offered to host him when he visited New York.

After the phone call, Wang allegedly told an official from China’s Minister of State Security (MSS) about the call, and was ordered to detail the conversation and statements about the activities of pro-democracy organisations in a diary.

Wang also later told an undercover agent that he was ordered to treat Dissident #1 to a meal to ask him about his opinions on the Hong Kong elections. The accused stated that he spent more than US$4,000 to have a meal with the activist and his family and that he wrote up the details of their conversation.

The affidavit to the court said Wang’s reporting to the MSS about the dissident “likely represented only a portion of a multifaceted effort” by the Chinese government to track him.

On Apr 18, 2020, Dissident #1 was arrested for organising a banned protest on Oct 1, 2019.

He was sentenced to two concurrent jail sentences of 18 months on May 28, 2021, for inciting people to participate in an unlawful assembly and organising such an assembly.

On that date, nine defendants, including activists Albert Ho, Figo Chan, Lee Cheuk-yan and Leung Kwok-hung were sentenced to up to 18 months’ jail, Reuters reported. Media tycoon Jimmy Lai was also given a 14-month jail sentence on that date.

Wang was also found in April 2019 to be in possession of names and contact information of other Hong Kong democracy activists.

According to the affidavit, he reported to the MSS information about Chinese dissidents and members of the democracy movement in the US and elsewhere.

Four Chinese intelligence officers were charged with Wang, the US Department of Justice said on Wednesday, including one they referred to as “boss”.

Court documents showed Wang met the MSS officials during trips to China, and used a messaging app to receive messages and files from them.

He would also record information that he collected in email “diaries”, which included details about his private conversations with “prominent dissidents as well as the activities of pro-democracy activists and human rights organisations”.

Among these entries were his “analysis” about possible protests during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US, and an assessment about the pro-democracy movement within the Chinese community in Flushing, Queens.

UNDERCOVER AGENT MEETS WANG

In July last year, an undercover law enforcement agent equipped with a recording device met Wang at the academic’s home in Connecticut.

The agent said he was sent by “boss” to deliver a message to Wang, and gave the MSS officer’s name. He was invited into Wang’s home, where the agent explained he was sent by “the headquarters”.

Wang allegedly confirmed to the agent that he knew two of the MSS officers and that they worked for the government. He claimed he “no longer had frequent contact with them since the pandemic began”, said the court documents.

The agent told Wang that MSS had received information that he was under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and that Wang’s communications may have been monitored.

The academic asked the undercover agent for help, and the agent said he could help Wang get rid of the “diaries” and other messages in certain email accounts.

Wang described how from 2005, he would write the diary entries for “friends”, and that he wrote about two or three entries per month. He allegedly asked the undercover agent to help him “delete the diaries”, and provided the agent with passwords for his email accounts.

He asked the agent to delete one entry, skip the next, and repeat this process. Wang also discussed Dissident #1 with the agent, stating that he was “very close” to the activist and had spent thousands on a meal with the dissident.

On Aug 11, 2021, FBI agents approached Wang at his home and he initially denied much of the interaction he had with the undercover agent, according to court documents.

“However, after further questioning, while denying that he worked for the MSS as a foreign agent, Wang confirmed that he had a relationship with the MSS,” said the affidavit.

The US Department of Justice said about 163 diary entries were found during a search of Wang's residence. 

When asked about the case at a press conference on Thursday, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said he was "not aware of the specific situation".

"I would like to stress in principle that the Chinese side always asks overseas Chinese citizens to comply with host country laws and regulations. We firmly oppose acts by the US that groundlessly malign and smear China," he added.

Source: CNA/mi

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