In New York City’s Chinatown, the exotic and the practical attract tourists and locals — all looking for a piece of China on every corner. But hidden from public view on these busy streets is a secret that has captured the attention of the U.S. government.
That secret first came to light this past fall when the European human rights organization Safeguard Defenders revealed the locations of more than 100 suspected Chinese police "service stations" around the world, including in New York. The group says Chinese law enforcement quietly set up these outposts to track, harass and repatriate Chinese citizens. In the U.S., the FBI has set its sights on Manhattan’s Chinatown — and a single building that’s home to a Chinese outfit known as the America Changle Association. It promotes itself as a place that helps Chinese nationals in New York. But attorney Mike Gao says something more nefarious is at play.
"Changle Association's number one job is get a personal information and then give [it to the] Chinese government," said Mike Gao, an immigration attorney in New York.
Gao once worked in China's Public Security Ministry, conducting criminal investigations, but after participating in protests against the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square in 1989 he fled to the U.S. Now, he represents Chinese citizens in New York who say they have been persecuted by their government and that the Changle Association has become in effect a long arm of China.
"They even say, 'we have a camera everywhere. We take video everywhere, and we can send this stuff back to China,'" Gao said.
It’s not only Changle. Gao says China, half a world away, has run operations that have targeted his clients because of their wealth or history of dissent.
SCRIPPS NEWS' SASHA INGBER: Are they going after men and women, young and old?
MIKE GAO: They don't care whether or not are you a man or a woman. A young man, an old man, they don't care.
A client, Maohua Yan, knows what it’s like to be threatened on U.S. soil. He showed Scripps News a photo that he says police in China texted him two years ago, after he refused to return.
"It’s a picture of my daughter — caged," he says.
He was so frightened of what the authorities might do next — he stopped communicating with his family in China.
"China has the strategic intent to influence worldwide," said Jon Darby, former director of operations for the NSA.
None of these tactics surprise Darby.
INGBER: How good is China at tracking some of their own down?
JON DARBY: I think it's fair to say China would be very good at tracking down individuals they're interested in. The Chinese population dwarfs the United States and their intelligence, the size of their intelligence services, dwarf that of the United States. So, just in terms of pure volume that they can bring to bear, volume of activity, it's more than others.
He says in a case like Yan’s, the Chinese government likely put him on a target list to monitor his WeChat communications in near-real time.
We wanted to know if Changle associates were involved in the same kind of intimidation campaign, so we headed to the outpost. From the outside, there’s no indication of what may be going on here, above a ramen shop. It’s surrounded by stores, restaurants, hotels — the everyday bustle of New York. We asked for his boss's business card. The name on the card — Jimmy Lu — a campaign donor to lawmakers. We called, texted and emailed. He did not respond. But we did find a video from this past September, and in it, Lu announces that his association was entrusted with setting up a police department inside the Changle Association.
And we also found an image of Changle associates inside the office, with a banner announcing an overseas Police Service Station, posted in Chinese media this past spring. During our visit, the banner was gone.
In a statement to Scripps News, the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington denied the existence of police stations, saying, "they help with driver's license renewals. The venues are provided by local overseas Chinese communities. They are not police personnel from China. There is no need to make people nervous about this."
But a former U.S. national security official familiar with China’s tactics told us FBI agents have warned state and local police that plain-clothed Chinese police may try to approach them for information about Chinese nationals.
MIKE GAO: FBI even has like a long list for those people who support or work on behalf of Chinese government, even only in Flushing area.
INGBER: How many people?
INGBER: And they're here, still in the US?
Scripps News could not independently verify that estimate. But China experts we talked to for this story say New York is likely a pilot project for the rest of America.
INGBER: Where else in the country do you see this happening?
GAO: Everywhere. Los Angeles and Chicago, Miami, everywhere. Boston and even D.C.
This story was originally published on Scrippsnews.com.