CNN — “We don’t need or want a secret police station in our great city,” said Breon Peace, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York on Monday – expressing the likely feeling of many Americans at the news that the FBI has arrested two alleged agents for the Chinese government accused of working to harass and silence its critics in the US.
The Justice Department also charged 34 officers of China’s national police, all of whom are believed to live in China, with related offenses.
The revelations threaten to pitch already sour US-China relations into further crisis, and had the immediate effect of hardening bipartisan suspicion about Beijing on Capitol Hill in a way that will have serious diplomatic implications.
Prosecutors allege that China opened an “undeclared police station” in New York City that was used at least once to track down a pro-democracy activist of Chinese descent living in California.
The two men Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping — both US citizens — allegedly created the “first known overseas police station in the United States,” on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, according to the Justice Department.
The FBI also accused a group of Chinese officers of flooding an online video conference, screaming at and threatening Chinese dissidents in the US who were discussing democracy.
This is not unsurprising activity by a foreign intelligence agency on foreign soil; Washington’s penchant for engaging democracy activists in totalitarian countries has, for instance, long been seen as meddling by repressive governments.
And the FBI has outposts in many foreign embassies.
The bureau’s work, however, involves fighting organized crime, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, and forging links with local police and law enforcement. It isn’t designed to monitor US expats and police their political activity.
If proven, the two agents’ alleged activities represent an attempt by the Communist Party in Beijing to extend its crackdown on dissent and democracy outside the country and onto the soil of a nation where such freedoms are protected.
“The efforts of the PRC to export authoritarian methods to stifle free expression in the United States is a threat to America’s democracy that we will not abide,” said David Newman, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the National Security Division of the Department of Justice.
There has so far been no comment from Beijing on the charges.
But the notion that Beijing is operating foreign police stations is not new.
According to a new report by Madrid-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders shared with CNN last year, President Xi Jinping’s government set up more than 100 such posts to monitor the activity of large Chinese diasporas, using bilateral security arrangements as a cover.
Beijing has denied such allegations, arguing the offices help expat citizens with services like the issuing of new drivers licenses. Any activity that goes beyond consular services and targets Chinese exiles would infringe international law.
While China has police patrol agreements with several nations, including Italy and South Africa, reports of the undeclared police posts have prompted investigations in at least 13 other countries including Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain.
Dangerous diplomatic fallout
The revelations by authorities in New York on Monday are already having a detrimental impact on China’s already tarnished reputation in Washington and will further complicate efforts by the Biden administration to defuse spiraling tensions with Xi.
The alleged police station scheme is seen as another example of China’s growing global reach, perceived threat to the United States and its values, and willingness to curtail political enemies wherever they might be.
“This is absolutely absurd that the Chinese Communist Party thinks that they can set up their own police station in a place like New York City,” Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, a member of the new House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, told CNN.
“The story out there that the Americans and Chinese are ratcheting up tensions is really not accurate. This is China ratcheting up tensions. This is the Chinese Communist Party trying to exact their repressive regime all over the globe.”
The arrests contribute to a sense in Washington that China is indulging in increasingly provocative behavior and is ever disdainful of American sovereignty.
They follow the flight of a suspected Chinese spy balloon across the North American mainland earlier this year that was viewed by many Americans as an insult and was a first tangible sign of how a potential new Cold War could unfold with a new superpower foe.
Monday’s developments are also likely to increase uncertainty — some might say paranoia — about the level of clandestine activity China might be conducting on US soil.
Every elevation of the standoff between Beijing and Washington takes a diplomatic toll.
The level of antipathy towards China is so strong on Capitol Hill that it makes it hard for President Joe Biden — who is ultimately in charge of managing this critical diplomatic relationship — not to toughen his stance. This in turn causes diplomatic and political after shocks in Beijing, whipping up more anti-US rhetoric and behavior.
To dispute the idea that the US and China are barreling towards a confrontation increasingly looks like heresy in Washington. This is a dangerous new reality since it narrows the room for sober, strategic reasoning about the implications of a potential generations-long showdown across the Pacific.