Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping were “charged with conspiring to act as agents of the [People’s Republic of China] government, as well as obstructing justice by destroying evidence of their communications with [a Chinese Ministry of Public Security] official,” the Justice Department said.
Michael Cunningham, a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, joins today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his thoughts on the arrests, China’s dismissal of the allegations, and the leaked Pentagon documents relating to Taiwan. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below:
Samantha Aschieris: Michael Cunningham, a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center here at The Heritage Foundation is here with us in the studio. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
Michael Cunningham: Thanks for having me again, Sam.
Aschieris: Of course. Now, let’s just dive right in. The FBI on Monday morning arrested two New York City residents in connection with opening and operating an illegal overseas police station. That’s according to a Justice Department press release.
They are charged with conspiring to act as agents of the [People’s Republic of China] government as well as obstructing justice by destroying evidence of their communications with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security official.
Michael, let’s start with your reaction to the arrests and the charges.
Cunningham: My reaction to the arrests and the charges is, it’s about time. I think this is a wonderful development. Wonderful because as disturbing as the allegations are, we know that this stuff is happening. To know that, based on the release, the FBI had been investigating this since at least sometime last year, and it’s just really good to know that they’re taking this seriously.
Aschieris: Yes, absolutely. When we take a step back and just think about some of the national security concerns surrounding this police station, and we’ll obviously hear more and we’ll learn more over the next coming weeks, but from your perspective, what do you see as some of the top national security concerns surrounding this case?
Cunningham: Yeah. The overseas police stations, it’s just part of the bigger problem. So, these stations, ostensibly, they’re there to help out Chinese citizens overseas with their various clerical issues that in China they would go to the police station for, which generally should be housed in an embassy.
So what we see, though, in these police stations is, regardless of what they’re doing, these are police functions that are being done in an unregistered location. It’s a complete disregard of U.S. sovereignty.
The other thing I would say about it is they’re not just doing these benign clerical procedures there.
I’m glad that the FBI really investigated it before going after these people because they documented some of what was going on and how they had direct contact with the Ministry of Public Security, the national police force in China. They were being directed by the Chinese police authorities and they were literally going after people, dissidents, harassing them, surveilling them.
This is a very broad problem that’s happening in the U.S. These police stations are just one small piece of this problem. Much of it is being done virtually from China, but … there are nodes in the United States and the other countries where they do this, and any time you can actually go after one of them and investigate it and crack down on it and actually take people into custody, that’s a great thing.
It’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more where that came from. We should really be taking it seriously, but it’s a great start, I would say.
Aschieris: Yeah. Absolutely. It is a great start that the FBI was able to investigate, make these arrests, bring these charges. The station, I believe, was closed last fall, but as you were just talking about, this is kind of the tip of the iceberg. Do you anticipate that there could be other Chinese secret police stations throughout the U.S.?
Cunningham: Well, we know there are at least two others. These have been already found by a human rights organization. There are probably many more.
I mean, the way this worked was it was one of the defendants, he actually had an office. I don’t recall if he owned the entire building, but essentially, he had a registered business in America that he could house this operation in.
Now, what I hope the FBI is doing is actually understanding from the Chinese American community, the Chinese immigrant community, aware these things are occurring because it’s not top-secret information. These police stations, because of the clerical type work they’re offering as well, they do reach out to the overseas Chinese population and there are people going there to process some of their work.
So I do imagine we will see more of these coming out, but once again, I would emphasize that these are just the tip of the iceberg. A lot more of what’s happening is on university campuses, just in society, people being surveilled, harassed. We’re talking dissidents from China, pro-democracy activists from China, Chinese ethnic minorities. … They’re in the United States illegally. They’re physically present in the United States. They are subject to all of the rights that are listed in our Constitution. And yet America is not able to secure these rights for them because our sovereignty is being violated.
Aschieris: Michael, I’m sure everyone knows the answer to this, but what is the likelihood that the U.S. could just go into China and set up a secret police station?
Cunningham: Essentially zero. Now, with that said, every country engages in espionage. Every country has their own activities that are illegal in the countries where they operate. I don’t know how that works. I don’t have inside knowledge about that. But every country also has police cooperation and there are legitimate channels for U.S.-Chinese police cooperation.
There have been instances where the U.S. has collaborated with China to extradite Chinese outlaws who were in the United States. In legitimate cases, this type of cooperation can happen. This is not a legitimate case.
I mean, to answer your question, what is the likelihood? I mean, when the United States or, let’s say, I don’t know, Canada arrests a Chinese national in their own borders for committing crimes, China throws a huge fit about it, and it’s supposed to be perfectly fine for them to conduct their police operations in other people’s countries. I don’t see how anyone can think that’s OK.
Aschieris: Well, just speaking of China throwing a fit, they did push back on these claims about the secret police station, saying that “China maintains a policy of noninterference in other countries and these alleged police stations do not exist.” Your thoughts?
Cunningham: Well, I think we have two people in custody who can prove that they do exist.
China, they did the same thing with the spy balloon. They do it all the time. They will look you in the eye and say, “I am not here.” They will be that blatant and there’s a reason for that.
The Chinese Communist Party, they don’t believe in truth. They only believe in messaging. They think the whole world operates that way. They’re unable to really comprehend the concept of right and wrong and laws and whatnot, but it’s all about messaging for them and laughable to us because we have those people in custody.
But let’s remember that we’re not necessarily their only target audience. They have these police operations throughout the world. They, in fact, brag about the operations that they conduct and about how many alleged outlaws they get repatriated back to China, but these things are happening throughout the world and they don’t want the rest of the world waking up as well.
Aschieris: Yeah, absolutely.
I wanted to shift topics a little bit. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Taiwan is unlikely to thwart Chinese military air superiority in a cross-strait conflict, while tactics such as China’s use of civilian ships for military purposes have eroded U.S. spy agencies’ ability to detect a pending invasion—that’s according to leaked Pentagon assessments.
We’ve discussed Taiwan on this show before and China’s aggression toward the island. Are you at all surprised by these assessments? What are your thoughts on that?
Cunningham: I’m not surprised by the assessments because we’ve been hearing similar things in the past couple years and because there’s so much focus right now on Taiwan.
Now, what I would say is I did read the reports about these leaked documents. I did not read the leaked documents, but what I saw in the reports basically was that the Taiwanese do not believe that they’re prepared for an attack by China.
I would say, first of all, the Chinese also don’t believe that they’re prepared and they’re not going to make a decision based on a leaked document from the Pentagon. They’re going to make a decision based on their own assessments.
They do not believe that they’re prepared. Even if they could eek out a victory over Taiwan, we’re talking a drawn-out war, massive damage, and then they have to deal with their domestic and international security challenges from the countries that basically surround them that are not necessarily friendly with them.
And so they are very risk-averse that way. They’re not going to make a move unless they’re confident that they can absolutely and fairly, easily win.
With that said, these revelations also should be a wake-up call to America because things aren’t always going to be that way. We have China’s military, which is developing very rapidly, and we’re not following suit. We’re still stronger than they are, but they’re really closing the gap.
Right now, last I checked, I believe the backlog in military deliveries, stuff that has already been approved for sale to Taiwan, was around the order of $19 billion. Essentially, everything that the Trump administration approved to sell to Taiwan, almost all of that has not been delivered, and we don’t know when it will be.
[President Joe] Biden has essentially—the administration has made a big fuss about everything they sell to Taiwan, but as far as numbers go, based on my calculations, it looks like they’re on track to sell about the same value in arms to Taiwan as the George H.W. Bush administration did. So it seems like sales to Taiwan also have fallen off a cliff.
We really have to take seriously our own ability to produce the ships, aircraft, weapons, ammo, everything that would be needed in a fight with China, both for ourselves and for the Taiwanese, but we also have to get to the ability where we’re able to actually deliver to Taiwan the military equipment that they need to show China that an invasion will never be successful.
Aschieris: Yeah, definitely. I also wanted to just ask a follow-up question with this backlog that I believe we’ve talked about it before, but what is causing this backlog? Is it, from a manufacturing perspective, the logistics of getting this equipment to the island? What’s causing that backlog?
Cunningham: This is probably a more technical question to me as a non-military man than I can give, but I would say that the backlog, it existed before the war in Ukraine and it continues to exist now.
What it really comes down to is, back in previous eras, say, especially World War II, we were able to mass produce these things, whether it’s ships, aircraft, other conventional weapons. We were mass-producing them, sending them off to battle. We no longer have that capability.
Supply chains are scattered throughout the world. Many are in China. China does have that capability increasingly and so that’s really scary, but we don’t have that right now. I think that’s probably the main thing that we need to focus on so that we’re able to supply Taiwan and supply ourselves and supply Ukraine. We have a lot of commitments. So yeah, it’s that industrial capacity that we really need to work on.
Aschieris: Absolutely. Michael, just before we go, any final thoughts?
Cunningham: I guess my final thought might be with regards to the overseas police stations again. I’m sorry to switch back again.
Aschieris: Oh, it’s OK. It’s an important topic.
Cunningham: But one thing that I noticed on the Justice Department release was they had, I believe it was the final paragraph, and it essentially highlighted the fact that the FBI has set up a web portal for people to report instances of transnational repression by foreign government. This is very important.
I know that the FBI is starting to try to send the message out, especially to the Chinese community in America, whether they’re American citizens, Chinese citizens, or whatever that they are. There is a high likelihood that they could or someone that they know could be targeted by the Chinese authorities. It’s not just China. Other countries are doing it as well, but China is a really big one.
I would just say I hope everyone realizes that this website is there and that they will feel comfortable to report any instance that they’re aware of to the authorities, to the FBI, because this is a very important issue. These are our neighbors, our friends, classmates, or people who are studying, colleagues that could be targeted by their home governments.
And we shouldn’t be profiling people based on “this person’s probably targeted because of their ethnicity.” But if we notice something, and especially if we’re being targeted, it’s really important. I think it’s great that the FBI is starting to do this and I hope that it can be successful.
Aschieris: Yeah. Absolutely. Michael Cunningham, thank you so much for joining us today. Always appreciate your insight.
Cunningham: Thank you for having me again.
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