Of the 40 defendants in the sprawling indictments, only the two New York-based MPS officers, Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, have been arrested. The two men are accused of running a front for the MPS in an unassuming building in downtown New York City. “This nondescript building in the heart of bustling Chinatown in lower Manhattan has a dark secret: Until several months ago, an entire floor of this building hosted an undeclared police station of the Chinese national police,” US Attorney Breon Peace said in the press conference.
Prosecutors describe how Lu allegedly participated in pro-China protests, harassed a Chinese national living in the US, and aided in the Chinese government’s investigation of a Chinese pro-democracy activist living in California. “In other words, the Chinese national police appear to have been using this station to track a US resident on US soil,” Peace said. He added that Lu and Chen are also accused of obstructing justice: They allegedly destroyed evidence of their communications with the Chinese government when they learned of an FBI investigation targeting them.
As surprising as it may be to learn that the Chinese government ran a secret police station in America’s largest city, it’s far from the only such operation, says Laura Harth, an activist at the human rights-focused group Safeguard Defenders. Last year, the group published a report on more than 100 such clandestine Chinese police outposts in over 50 countries, many used to pursue Chinese dissidents and critics of the Xi regime abroad.
Harth says that today’s charges against Chinese police in the US are the first of their kind. “Other countries are still pretending this is not an issue,” she says. “We’re quite happy to see this happening, both for people in the US but [also] for the signal it sends to other authorities around the world.”
As for the other two criminal cases announced today that target Chinese trolling, disinformation, and censorship, Harth says Safeguard Defenders hasn’t seen evidence that such troll farms are operated from within the MPS’s secret facilities overseas, but she’s not surprised to learn that they’re linked to the MPS. She says that her organization’s public communications are frequently flooded with criticisms from shady accounts that she’s long suspected were organized by the Chinese state. “It’s very tellingly troll or bot sort of work,” she says.
Prosecutors say that the troll farm of 34 MPS officers—based inside China, though prosecutors didn’t reveal where—is part of a group known as the 912 Special Project Working Group, which they say is devoted to online harassment and disinformation. According to the US Department of Justice, the 912 group posted pro-Chinese disinformation and bombarded critics of China with intimidating messages on Twitter and other platforms. The subjects of their disinformation and provocations included everything from the origins of Covid-19 to the death of George Floyd, to criticisms of the United States’ support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. In other instances, they flooded video conferences held by people critical of China with threatening and intimidating messages. And in one case, they even “drowned out the meeting with loud music and vulgar screams and threats,” according to the DOJ.