The US has charged 7 people with espionage on behalf of China. One target was in an unlikely place for Chinese politics: A remote sculpture park in the California desert.
DAVID GURA, host:
It’s one of the most unusual criminal complaints in recent memory, involving a giant sculpture, a fake art patron and the Chinese Communist Party. This summer, the US announced it had indicted seven men it says were part of a Chinese spy ring. And as NPR’s Emily Feng reports from California, the alleged spies had some surprising targets.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The wind is howling. The sun burns overhead and the sandslides almost blind me. But of all places, it’s here off a highway in the Mojave Desert that sculptor Chen Weiming has decided to make his art.
CHEN WEIMING: (Through translator) This is a tourist mecca. Tens of thousands of vehicles pass here every day.
FENG: When I met him earlier this summer, Chen was on a ladder, welding the finishes on a massive three-story sculpture woven from steel rebar. Look closely and you’ll see it’s designed to look like China’s leader, Xi Jinping. His skull is studded with red spikes of the coronavirus and a blood-stained hammer and sickle adorns one side.
CHEN: (Through translator) If all these tourists stopped to look at my sculptures, they would see the inconsistencies and untruths in what the Chinese Communist Party says.
FENG: This summer, Chen unveiled this coronavirus statue to a mixed crowd of local Californian officials and Chinese activists.
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WAHATA TODAY: The black wolf in the south…
FENG: Crazy Horse’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter, the renowned Lakota Native American chief, opened the unveiling with a prayer of peace.
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TODAY: (Non-English spoken).
FENG: Her name is Wahata Today, and her face is painted in white, blue and black, the colors of peace. Chen believes his sculptures are in the land once roamed by the Crazy Horse tribe, so he invited a descendant he could find. Ms. Sot is a real estate agent.
TODAY: And I was showing Chen some property and I told him who I was. And he goes, oh, my God, I’ve been looking everywhere for someone related to Crazy Horse Chief.
FENG: The journey to this point has taken many twists and turns because a year ago, his original sculpture went up in flames. Chen immediately suspected sabotage.
CHEN: (Through translator) This week, before it burned, one of my volunteers discovered a chain wrapped around the sculpture, as if someone had tried to take it down.
FENG: Chen says the loss was devastating, but he had a strong suspicion about who destroyed his sculpture because of a phone call he received in 2020.
CHEN: (Through interpreter) The FBI in New York told me that the Chinese Communist Party was very interested in my work.
FENG: Chen immediately decided to build a second identical sculpture, but this time out of steel so it wouldn’t burn. And he had a potential protector.
CHEN: (Through interpreter) It was an American businessman named Matthew. He came to my studio to commission the original work and said it represented a Jewish art lover who wanted to open a museum for democracy in New York.
FENG: Matthew had some strange requests.
CHEN: (Through interpreter) Matthew said his boss wanted to see the sculpting process. I thought that was perfectly reasonable, so I installed a camera for it. A few days later, Matthew said that because the sculpture was three-dimensional, the camera wasn’t getting all the angles. So he came to install more cameras.
FENG: Then in March, the FBI made its move. He charged five men he says were spying on Chen and other Chinese-born activists living in the U.S. One of the accused was a former Florida prison guard named Matthew Ziburis, the man posing as the art collector. In July, a US court indicted two other men, a current and former employee of the Department of Homeland Security, for involvement in the scheme. According to the Department of Justice, Chinese security services have paid more than $3 million to spy on dissidents. Crucially for this story, there appears to be evidence that the men agreed to burn Chen’s first coronavirus sculpture.
ARTHUR LIU: Whatever happens, happens. You know. If they want to hurt me, you know, I can’t stop them.
FENG: This is Arthur Liu, a Chinese-American immigration attorney in New York, who was another target. He is also the father of US Olympic figure skater Alysa Liu. She went to Beijing to compete for the USA in the Winter Games last February.
LIU: I think the Chinese government was really afraid that I might use this opportunity to speak out against some of the human rights violations, just like it did.
FENG: The Chinese dissident community in the US has long claimed that their ranks are filled with Chinese spies. For example, in 2020, the FBI arrested a police officer who was found to be spying for China on Tibetans in New York. Many believe the latest arrests may signal that the US government is getting serious about stopping Chinese espionage on US soil. Back in California, Chen says he’s not intimidated by the Chinese state, but he’s still nervous about his sculptures.
CHEN: (Through interpreter) These past few days, I take my gun with me every day and patrol until dinner. Then I come back with the dogs at night.
FENG: What keeps him going is the contact he feels he’s had with the rarefied local community here in the Mojave. Present at the unveiling ceremony is local school teacher Gay Birch. She brought her entire class of 8 to 11 year olds to the park. Birch says neither of them had any prior interest or connection to China until she met Chen.
GAY BIRCH: And just coming here with strangers and not really knowing what we’re looking at, but just like, hey, this is cool. Hey, that’s cool, you know?
FENG: So she started Googling the people and events that the sculptures depicted.
BIRCH: And as we studied, I myself became an advocate for the liberation of Hong Kong and for Chinese freedom, and it was amazing for the kids.
FENG: Most of the 150 or so attendees, however, are longtime Chinese activists now working in exile. It’s not a big gathering by any means, but one that the Chinese government clearly cares about. Emily Feng, NPR News. Yermo, California.
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