Fear Across Borders: Chinese Americans and the Shadow of Surveillance

Chinese Americans are being targeted for their political activity.

By Rong Xiaoqing



I. The Encounter

Illustration by Julia Kuo


When she is not serving customers at her store, Yibing Wang ruminates about how she came to cross paths with the FBI. The first time she met with two FBI agents and their interpreter, they came to her shop in South Brooklyn, where she sells Chinese snacks, dried herbs and other items in early 2023. The agents wore surgical masks and understated clothing. One flashed his badge to Wang while the other opened his notebook as the questions began.

What’s your relationship with the Chinese Consulate in New York?

Why did you help the Consulate?

What did the Consulate give you in return?

Do you oppose Taiwan’s independence?

Too nervous to take a close look at the badges they flashed, Yibing did her best to answer their questions, but she began worrying they could be scammers after they left. For a few months after that, she closed her store early and rarely went out when it got dark.

“Now I know they are real FBI agents,” said Yibing with bitter relief.

Often donning traditional Chinese style outfits like Cheongsam dresses with a cascade of black hair coiffed behind her back, Yibing talks at a fast clip with an exuberant personality. A former manager of an insurance company in China, the 47-year-old immigrated to the U.S. with her school-aged son in 2017 after a divorce. She moved to Brooklyn and opened up her store five years after arriving.

On August 30, 2023, she received a letter from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security calling for her to visit their office at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan to discuss an immigration matter. Yibing knew her previous immigration status had just expired, so when she met the immigration officers in September of that year, she was not surprised that they warned her they could arrest her immediately for having been out of status.

But then they presented a document written in English and told her if she wanted to avoid jail, she should sign it. With limited English proficiency, Yibing only understood that she would be handed over to another government agency — the Federal Bureau of Investigation — for further interviews.

The same two FBI officers she met at her store then walked in and took her to an unmarked room furnished with only a table and four chairs. They interrogated her for hours about her relationship with China’s consulate in New York and, in particular, a meeting she helped convene between some Cantonese community leaders and a Chinese consular officer at the end of the previous year.

Years earlier, in 2019, Yibing had established the Chimerica Women Association, a community organization whose name borrows a term coined in 2006 by scholars Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick to define the inseparable ties between the U.S. and China. With members mainly being women from Yibing’s hometown of Taishan, the organization, like many others in New York City’s Chinese community, maintained a cordial relationship with the Chinese Consulate in New York.

Still, the officers wanted to know more. They asked Yibing about her participation in the protests against the visiting Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President Lai Ching-Te earlier in the year. They asserted that she got the Chinese national flags she distributed at the protests from a consular officer, which she denied. At one stage, the officers told Yibing that she worked for the consulate, and that was espionage. Yibing caught the words through an interpreter. “Do you mean I am 007?” she asked, bewildered, referring to the fictional spy James Bond.

If Yibing didn’t look too frightened, it was because she had married a U.S. citizen a few days before, allowing her to stay in the U.S. to file for a new green card application. After the almost five-hour-long ordeal, Yibing was let go by immigration officers to present her immigration case to a judge at a later date — a regular procedure for immigrants whose status is questioned.

Yibing believes that someone in the community might have filed complaints against her to the FBI because she supported one candidate over another in a bitter local election. She had also heard through the grapevine at community events that a dozen or so other Chinese community leaders had been approached by the FBI in the past year.

Although she is against Taiwan independence — far from an unusual stance for people born in China — and has attended rallies to express her views, Yibing believes her work to support the community and political activities would not have raised any eyebrows in a normal time. But she also knows this is not a normal time.


Yibing Wang at her shop in Brooklyn. Photo: Janice Chung for Documented


Since 2018, the relationship between the U.S. and China has fallen to a historic low since the two countries resumed their relationship in 1979 after a 30-year freeze when the Chinese Community Party took over China. It started with former President Donald Trump’s trade war against China, in which the U.S. accused China of stealing American intellectual property. The accusation was met with vehement pushback from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both countries then proceeded to intensify their operations against influence and espionage activities from the other.  As a result, Chinese immigrants on both ends of the political spectrum have become haunted by government agents in China and the United States. Their political activity is now cast under a magnifying glass and is causing immense repercussions for them and their families. Paranoia and fear are spreading in New York City’s Chinese communities, pushing once-active members of the community to focus their time on benign pursuits.

“Some community leaders I know have bought fishing rods and spend most of their time fishing now,” said Gang Yong Wang, honorary general counsel of the Fujian Foundation in the USA, a community organization serving immigrants from Fujian Province in China.

In the U.S., concerns about CCP infiltration have also reached new levels. Trump alleged in a Fox News interview last month that the CCP has been sending asylum seekers to the U.S. on purpose — a notion that many in the Chinese community thought absurd as China has intensified operations to curb the exodus.

Meanwhile, the FBI’s operations in the Chinese community have generated more chilling headlines. On April 17, 2023, Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, executives of the America Changle Association, a haven in Manhattan’s Chinatown for immigrants from Changle County in Fujian Province, were arrested and charged with helping China open and run a police station. This was after a few other recent arrests of Chinese community leaders in New York and other American cities who allegedly harassed Chinese dissidents based in the U.S. or helped China collect information about them, according to the announcements from the Department of Justice.

After Lu and Chen were arrested, some community organizations close to the Chinese Consulate were quieter than before, and some began hesitating to invite Chinese counsellors to their events, as immigrant community organizations usually do.

“Some regular activities can be portrayed as if you were working for the CCP,” said Jimmy Cheng, former president of the United Fujianese American Association. “So community leaders would rather do nothing than get themselves in trouble.”


II. The Dissident 

Illustration by Julia Kuo


It was April 9, 2008, and the Olympic torch relay for the Beijing Olympic Games was passing through San Francisco. Zhou Fengsuo, six feet tall and well-built, stood with his colleagues in the middle of a flood of tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants who were cheering for the torch. When Zhou and a handful of Chinese dissidents unfurled banners to call attention to China’s human rights abuses, he recalled that a man in a dark suit approached them and tried and failed to talk them out of the protest.

Right after the man walked away, they were surrounded, kicked and punched by the greeters standing beside them. “That moment, I realized they may look like ordinary immigrants, but they were all under the control of the CCP,” Zhou, a former student leader of the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989, told Documented at the June 4th Memorial Museum in Manhattan, which he helped build in 2023 to commemorate the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Zhou and other Chinese dissidents in the U.S. who have been harassed here by the CCP say most Chinese community organizations have been helping the CCP promote its agenda through control of the Chinese consulate. They believe American law enforcement’s recent intensified operations in Chinatowns should have begun years ago.

“This is the first time that the Chinese dissident community feels that their grievance is heard by the American public,” Zhou, who has been living in the U.S. since 1995, said at a rally in front of the America Changle Association last February after its two leaders were arrested.

What Zhou encountered in 2008 has happened again and again, according to Chinese dissidents who have protested against China in the U.S. Moreover, recent court cases suggest the CCP does actively target dissidents overseas. In March 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York filed charges against Qiming Lin, an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security, for hiring a private investigator in the U.S. to destroy the congressional campaign of Yan Xiong, a New York-based former Tiananmen demonstration leader. According to court documents, Lin was caught on tape suggesting the investigator “…beat him until he cannot run for election…” Lin is at large, and the case has not been resolved.

And in an indictment against four Chinese nationals working for China’s Ministry of State Security in October 2022, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey accused some of them, among other alleged violations, of having pressed an American citizen to help stop planned protests along the U.S.’s Olympic torch route in 2008. The case is also pending.

Human rights organizations say China’s repression of overseas dissidents has only been growing in recent years. A report released by Freedom House last April listed the government of China as “the world’s most prolific perpetrator of transnational repression” for having initiated 253 direct, physical transnational repression incidents since 2014, accounting for 30% of all recorded cases from the 38 countries researchers looked at for the report.

Today, pro-democracy Chinese students in the U.S. seem to be more wary about repression from the CCP compared to older generation dissidents like Zhou, partly because they are more likely to still be Chinese citizens with families in China, and therefore, more vulnerable.


Zhou Fengsuo at the June 4th Memorial Museum in Manhattan. Photo: Janice Chung for Documented


For their safety, they frequently do not publicize their events to discuss taboo topics in China. For example, Zephyr Society, a New York organization that arranges discussions of social movements in China, only sends times and locations of events to verified participants using an encrypted app. The organization urges participants not to reveal their real names or take photos or videos at the events. The precautions have proven to be necessary.

On June 29 last year, while studying at Georgetown University, Jinrui Zhang said his sister urgently requested that he talk to her through Zoom. What she told him terrified him to his core. “I felt like I was being sent to the gallows,” he said.

Two months earlier, some Chinese students at George Washington University formed the GWU Independent Chinese Student Union and declared in their manifesto that “the CCP is not our legal representative.” Zhang, who had penned pro-democracy posts on social media, said he was not involved in the formation of the group. But police in China thought otherwise. They visited his sister on that day and took his father in for a multi-hour interview a few days later. Zhang said the incident won’t change his political stance, but added, “I don’t think it’s safe for me to go back to China anytime soon.”

Zhang believes his name was handed to the Chinese police by students belonging to a pro-China student organization at GWU.

“To turn people against one another is a typical tactic of the CCP,” said S. Z., a co-founder of Zephyr Society who asked to be identified by her initials only.

Ironically, the FBI’s counteractions against the CCP’s transnational repression have achieved a similar effect in the Chinese community. Fear has grown in Manhattan’s Chinatown as rumours about informants circulate, and cases of Chinese immigrants being targeted by scammers impersonating FBI agents are increasing.

The FBI declined to comment on this or Yibing Wang’s experience, but added that investigations “are based on facts and rely on due process; an individual’s race, nationality, origin, or ethnicity play no role in the FBI’s initiation of an investigation.”


III. The Disillusion

Illustration by Julia Kuo


Baijmadajie Angwang, an officer with the New York Police Department, sat at the witness stand in NYPD’s headquarters with a solemn expression. After almost eight years of serving as a cop — an “American dream fulfilled,” in his own words — the ethnic Tibetan immigrant from China was now facing a critical moment in his career. Earlier, federal prosecutors charged him with collecting information about exiled Tibetans for China. But even with those charges dropped, the NYPD called for a trial on a rainy day last September to kick Angwang out of the force.

In the trial room, Angwang wore a navy blue suit and a lapel pin with the insignia of the U.S. Marines, for which he served in Afghanistan between 2013 and 2014. He told an NYPD disciplinary judge that even though he felt the NYPD treated him unfairly, he still had positive feelings toward the department. “I still want to be a police officer. I still want to serve,” Angwang told her.

A few months later, on Jan. 29, Angwang was fired.

The hearing that day lasted about eight hours, a gruelling session. For Angwang, it was a mild day compared to Sept. 21, 2020, when a handful of FBI agents pointed M4 rifles at his head and handcuffed him in front of his wife and 2-year-old daughter at his home on Long Island. It also wasn’t comparable to the six months he spent in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he was only allowed two individual one-hour meetings with his family and lawyer. What surprised him was that the NYPD continued its internal investigation against him based on the dropped federal charges, and, later, terminated his employment.

“Most internal investigations based on court cases would be dropped after the court cases are dismissed,” said Angwang, who worked as a community affairs officer at the 111 precinct in Queens before he was arrested. “It’s hard to believe in the city most welcoming to immigrants, they’d treat a new immigrant cop like me in this way.”

Angwang’s case is part of a wave of prosecutions of Chinese immigrants living in the U.S. under the umbrella of the China Initiative, a program the DOJ launched at the end of 2018 to fight economic espionage activities by China. The program was the first country-specific enforcement program in the DOJ’s history. It targeted mainly scholars and scientists and had gained a reputation for being racially biased and ineffective. An analysis by the MIT Technology Review at the end of 2021 found that only about a quarter of the defendants were charged with violations against the Economic Espionage Act, while many others faced integrity issues, such as failing to reveal their affiliations with research institutes in China in grant applications.

Those who have been caught in the maelstrom could lose their jobs, research labs, or the courage to apply for federal research grants. Some won’t be able to recover even after their names are cleared. Feng “Franklin” Tao, a former chemist at the University of Kansas, became the first casualty under the China Initiative in 2019 after he was alleged to have failed to disclose to the school that he was also working for a university in China while doing federally funded research at KU. He is still fighting an appeal case to reverse his conviction of one remaining count of making a false statement after having had nine other charges dismissed. The legal fees for Tao, who has been jobless for more than four years now, have reached $2 million, and his family is struggling to pay.

“The financial burden, the toll on your mental health. Even when your charges are dropped, the impact on your family and your career is far from over,” said Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans, a civil rights organization that has supported Chinese scientists, including Tao, through their legal woes.

Amid an outcry from academics, politicians and activists, and after the embarrassing dismissal or loss of some high-profile cases, the DOJ dismantled the program in February 2022. Congressional Republicans have been trying to bring it back since.

As for Angwang’s case, no one can offer a clear explanation for the dramatic turnaround. Largely based on wiretapped phone conversations, prosecutors claimed Angwang had maintained communications with two officials stationed at the Chinese Consulate since 2018. He used “boss” and “big brother” to greet one of them who, prosecutors said, worked for the United Front Work Department, a CCP entity aiming to mobilize Chinese people overseas for China’s interests. Angwang suggested the official, whom he had called “boss,” reach out to a new Tibetan community organization in Queens and Tibetans who had experience in local politics. Angwang also invited him to the annual banquet for the NYPD’s Asian Jade Society, an association of Asian police officers.

Angwang told Documented that these conversations, which the prosecutors perceived as being between an informant and his handler, were indeed normal chats between a former Chinese citizen and an official working for the consulate of his home country who happens to be in charge of granting visas to overseas Tibetans. “Many ethnic police officers in the NYPD maintain normal interactions with the consulates of their home countries,” Angwang said. “Why are they not charged? It’s only because of my home country.”

Whether being from China played any role in Angwang’s ordeal remains a mystery.

In January 2023, six months after Angwang’s lawyer John Carman was called to a secured room at the U.S. district court in Brooklyn to review some classified evidence, the prosecutors abruptly dropped the charges with no more than a vague note that newly discovered evidence supported the dismissal.

“I certainly don’t think they would have arrested him if he wasn’t Chinese,” Carman explained, who called the strength of the evidence that they had against him “incredibly weak.”

A defence lawyer in federal criminal cases for almost 30 years, Carman, who also represents Lu Jianwang in the Chinese police station case, said he has seen more Chinese clients in the last five years than in the previous 25.


Baimadajie Angwang in Manhattan. Photo: Janice Chung for Documented


“This philosophy that China is engaged in a hundred years war to take over the United States of America from the inside without a war is something that many people in power believe in,” Carman said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, which prosecuted Angwang’s case, declined to comment.

Back in the NYPD’s trial room on that September day, Daniel Cutter, the NYPD lieutenant in charge of Angwang’s internal investigation, said the NYPD worked with the FBI on Angwang’s case, but he had never heard of the China Initiative program. When Angwang, based on his lawyer’s advice that the order was unlawful, decided not to show up on June 5 during the internal investigation to answer the 1,700 questions the NYPD prepared largely based on documents provided by the FBI. Since he did not attend the hearing, the NYPD immediately charged him for insubordination that day.

The NYPD confirmed Angwang’s termination through its public information office but did not respond to Documented’s question about why he was fired. But Angwang knows that with or without the job, nothing could have brought his old life back. His daughter, who just turned six in November, still panics when a group of adult strangers walk toward her. He still hasn’t found a good way to talk to her about what has happened in the past few years. News stories about his arrest and charges are still one click away, stored in the internet’s permanent memory.

Angwang said he spends most of his time studying civil rights history and the recent cases against Chinese scholars and community figures. Somewhere deep in his heart, some of the attraction that brought him to the U.S. 20 years ago is crumbling.

“My experience makes me look at the U.S. in a new light,” Angwang said. “I had never expected things like this would happen in this country.”


IV. The Patriots 

A parade celebrating July 4 in Chinatown. Photo: Rong Qiaoqing


On July 2, 2023, a few hundred Chinese immigrants marched down the bustling streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown. They held signs saying “God bless America” and “Happy Birthday U.S.A.” and danced. While community organizations have held small-scale indoor celebrations every year, this was the first major parade in Chinatown to celebrate the independence of the United States in recent memory. In most parades and celebrations in Chinatown, participants often hold both Chinese and American flags. But for this one, organizers decided to make a change. The participants only held American flags.

In the crowd was 82-year-old C. H. Hua, an organizer of the parade who came up with the idea of the single flag code. “Chinese Americans’ loyalty to the U.S. is being questioned now,” said Hua, an honorary president of the New York Association for the Peaceful Unification of China. The parade was meant to show that Chinese immigrants, despite their emotional ties with their home country, are grateful to be part of the U.S.

“If we wave Chinese flags like in previous parades, this message would be diluted,” Hua said.

The last time Chinese Americans felt the urge to publicly declare their loyalty to the U.S. was in the 1950s, during the Korean War. Baruch College historian Charlotte Brooks dove into that history in her 2015 book, “Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years.” Brooks said that back then, the FBI intensified its surveillance on the Chinese community by monitoring those who might be sympathizers to communist China. Gilbert Woo, a renowned Chinese American journalist at the time, observed that Chinese Americans were “numbed with fear,” as if “being Chinese is itself a crime.”

During the 1951 Lunar New Year parade in San Francisco, Chinese American children were seen holding signs like “rid the world of communism.” At the same time, pro-Taiwan immigrants began reporting China sympathizers around them for immigration fraud to the federal government across the U.S. Those reports triggered the federal government to launch a nationwide investigation of immigration fraud among Chinese immigrants that targeted some pro-Taiwan immigrants as well.

Since then, Taiwan, China and the U.S. have changed significantly, but they remain at the center of these tensions, Brooks explained; the relationships among these three players are probably more delicate today. This January, Taiwan elected Lai Ching-te, the current vice president, to be the president. While Beijing worries Lai will lead the island to independence, some experts believe an official declaration of Taiwan independence could trigger Beijing to try to seize the island by force and, subsequently, begin a war between the U.S., a Taiwan ally, and China.

Zhou Fengsuo, the former Tiananmen student leader and president of Humanitarian China, believes that the current relationship between the U.S. and China will not return to its previous friendly terms after the U.S. designated China as an “adversary country” in 2021. He believes it’s time for Chinese immigrants to cut ties with China.

“If there is a war, our children would have to go to the front line,” said Zhou. “There is no double choice… Every one of us has to choose one side.”

However, the intricate connections between Chinese immigrants and their home country also make it difficult for some of them to make a clean break.

Hua, the organizer of the Independence Day parade, has been participating in pro-China activities in the U.S. since the 1970s when he was an international student from Taiwan at the University of Pittsburgh. Now, with thinning gray hair, Hua exudes energy and is a fast walker.

Organizations promoting “peaceful unification” between Taiwan and mainland China like his own are considered outposts for China’s United Front Work Department and are closely watched by U.S. authorities. Hua said even in the 1970s before the U.S. and China resumed their diplomatic relationship, he had not been bothered by the FBI. But in the past ten years, he has been interviewed by FBI agents twice.

“It all depends on the U.S.-China relationship,” Hua said. “Back then, the U.S. was trying to get close to China to isolate Russia. Now it is worse.”

Hua said that when the agents interviewed him, they asked repeatedly whether he got paid by the Chinese government to organize rallies to greet visiting leaders from China. Each time, he told them he had never taken a cent from the Chinese government.

As Hua explains, his background provides him with motivation beyond money. Growing up in a poor family in Taiwan, Hua came to believe socialism was the solution to the inequality on the island when he was a college student there. “I embraced socialism before I began supporting China,” Hua said. He once held a Chinese passport when Taiwan banned him from entering the island because of his pro-China activities earlier in life.

Connection to their home country is a strong motive for immigrants participating in pro-China political rallies, many Chinese immigrants interviewed for this story said. Last year, when Taiwan President Tsai and Vice President Lai separately landed in the U.S., many of the protesters didn’t hide the fact that they were mobilized by the China-linked hometown organizations they were members of.

When asked about China’s alleged manipulation of Chinese immigrants, Jin Qian, deputy consul general of the Chinese Consulate General in New York, didn’t directly answer specific questions regarding the allegations of payments to rally participants, the establishment of secret police stations, and other infiltration activities in an email response, but said the consulate “strictly observes international laws and respects the judicial sovereignty of the U.S.” when it interacts with overseas Chinese.

In the worst scenario where a war breaks out between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, people like Hua may have to face a painful dilemma. Maintaining equally close ties with both countries, like many immigrants have been doing, would be less practical and more precarious. And picking sides would be like choosing between the palm and the back of their hand. But it is another question as to whether picking sides, be it for genuine beliefs or practical reasons, would be enough to protect Chinese immigrants from being scapegoated in such a dire situation. To many Chinese immigrants, a handy answer comes from the anti-Asian hate waves rising in the pandemic.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Trump’s frequent reference to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” set off waves of attacks against Asian Americans. During the pandemic, some Chinese dissidents redubbed the virus as the “CCP virus” to veer the rage from the innocents. It didn’t seem to make a difference.

Last year, when Wang Juntao, a Tiananmen pro-democracy movement leader and chair of the National Committee of Democratic Party of China, a Flushing-based Chinese dissidents organization, protested against the CCP at Times Square with some of his members, they were harassed and told to “go back to China” by a group of American teenagers. The hecklers likely didn’t realize that most of the protesters, including Juntao, were not allowed to enter China because of their political views.

“They probably didn’t get what we were doing there,” Juntao said.

The presidential election this year will likely build tension again. Both President Biden and Trump have taken hardline stances on China, and the presidential candidates are already being questioned about the relationship. A poll released in November by the National AAPI Power Fund found that more than 60% of voters who are likely to cast ballots this year in eight battleground states believe politicians’ anti-China rhetoric has stoked the fire of anti-Asian violence.

Chinese American candidates in recent elections have had a front-row view of the hostility. Opponents have painted several as being close to China and the CCP. U.S. Rep.  Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) said the so-called red-baiting “has been increasingly worse every year.”

Meng has been outspoken about the harm anti-China rhetoric could do to Asian Americans, and has faced her share of attacks from right-wing media outlets.

“I think it’s really dangerous to put that target on my community. So I feel like it’s my responsibility to stand up,” Meng said.

Meng, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) are now leading a fight against the Republicans’ attempt to revitalize the “China Initiative,” In a statement issued on January 22, Meng called the program “the Chinese Exclusion Act 2.0,” referring to the notorious law that banned most immigrants from China from entering the U.S. for more than six decades until 1943.



  • Rong Xiaoqing is a New York-based journalist, and an Alicia Patterson fellow (2019). She writes for various English and Chinese language publications.
  • This story was published as part of the Isaac Rauch Fellowship.
  • The article was reposted from the Documented.




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