On Tuesday, the office of the America Changle Association was quiet. Five Chinese community members sat by a table chatting while having lunch together at noon.
One day prior, the association which was established in 1998 and known for serving Chinese immigrants from Changle, Fujian, a region in southeast China, had been thrust into the national spotlight as U.S. federal agents arrested two of this association’s leaders. The government alleges that they conspired as agents of the People’s Republic of China to open a “secret police station” in Manhattan’s Chinatown and destroyed evidence to obstruct their investigation.
Documented interviewed Jimmy Lu, the president of the America Changle Association, whose offices allegedly house the police station, as well as some Chinese community leaders and members. Jimmy Lu denied the charges of operating a secret police station and said the association tried to help Chinese immigrants who cannot return to China to remotely renew their Chinese driver’s licenses and other documents during the pandemic.
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The criminal complaint alleges that Jianwang “Harry” Lu, 61, of the Bronx, and Jinping Chen, 59, of Manhattan, worked together to set up the first overseas police station in the U.S. in the office of the America Changle Association on behalf of the Fuzhou branch of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The two were released on bond on Monday afternoon after an initial appearance in Brooklyn federal court.
According to the court documents, Harry Lu was the former president of the America Changle Association and Jinping Chen is the current secretary-general of the association. The complaint says Harry Lu and Jinping Chen helped the PRC government surreptitiously open and operate an illegal MPS police station on U.S. soil without informing the U.S. government. Prosecutors said the arrests were part of a crackdown on Beijing’s alleged targeting of dissidents.
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“The PRC, through its repressive security apparatus, established a secret physical presence in New York City to monitor and intimidate dissidents and those critical of its government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a statement on Monday. “The PRC’s actions go far beyond the bounds of acceptable nation-state conduct.”
The current president of the America Changle Association, Jimmy Lu, who is also Harry Lu’s brother, refuted claims that the association was running a covert police station. He clarified that it was a police overseas service station, which was different from an actual police station. According to him, no police officers from China had visited their office and the association was focused on helping Chinese citizens renew and complete forms.
Jimmy Lu explained that during the pandemic, many Chinese immigrants were unable to travel back to China due to restrictions. To aid them, the association collaborated with the local police station in Fuzhou to remotely assist immigrants in renewing their Chinese driver’s licenses, as well as other necessary documents.
Jimmy Lu said that the association offered its office as a venue for Chinese immigrants to have virtual meetings with police officers in China. The staff at the association also assisted in measuring the applicants’ vision and weight to ensure their driver’s license information was up-to-date. The association informed Chinese-language media in NYC when establishing the police service station in 2022. In a picture the association shared with the press, Harry Lu, Jinping Chen and other leaders of the organization sat in front of a desk with a banner hanging on the wall that said, “Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station.”
To coincide with the time zone in China, the office operated at 9:30 p.m. every Thursday from February to September 2022, helping more than 120 Chinese immigrants renew their driver’s licenses, Jimmy Lu said. Federal prosecutors say the police station was closed in the fall of 2022 after those operating it became aware of the FBI’s investigation.
Jimmy Lu said that he and his brother Harry migrated to the U.S. from Fujian Province in the 1980s and worked in the restaurant industry to establish a foothold in New York City.
“My brother and the association were trying to help the Fujianese immigrants who face difficulties here,” Jimmy said in Chinese, “and my brother and Jinping Chen are good guys, I don’t believe that they are guilty.”
Heng Chen, the president of the Fukien American Association, expressed surprise when he learned of Harry Lu’s arrest on Monday when he was supposed to visit an undocumented Chinese immigrant diagnosed with advanced liver cancer with Harry Lu. Heng Chen explained that Harry Lu and leaders of various Fujianese community organizations were fundraising for the undocumented patient and had scheduled to visit him in Brooklyn at 11 a.m. on Monday. However, Harry Lu did not show up as scheduled. “We called him, but nobody picked up the phone,” Heng Chen recalled. They waited for Harry Lu for about an hour until they were informed that the FBI had arrested him.
Heng Chen said he believed Harry Lu had good intentions of helping people during the pandemic and may not have fully understood the laws and processes involved in hosting such events. Heng Chen also mentioned that he was unfamiliar with other issues within the America Changle Association.
The America Changle Association is among many hometown associations in New York City’s Chinese community. These organizations typically consist of immigrants from the same city or region and serve as social alliances.
“This prosecution reveals the Chinese government’s flagrant violation of our nation’s sovereignty by establishing a secret police station in the middle of New York City,” said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace for the Eastern District of New York in a statement on Monday. “As alleged, the defendants and their co-conspirators were tasked with doing the PRC’s bidding, including helping locate a Chinese dissident living in the United States, and obstructed our investigation by deleting their communications. Such a police station has no place here in New York City — or any American community.”
On Tuesday, China foreign ministry spokesperson Wenbin Wang disputed U.S. claims of a Chinese “secret police station” in New York at a routine news briefing. He said China maintains a policy of non-interference in other countries, and these alleged police stations do not exist.
The Justice Department alleges that in 2018, Harry Lu was enlisted in efforts to get a “PRC fugitive” to return to China. The agency also said that Harry Lu also helped an MPS official to locate a pro-democracy activist in California by enlisting the help “of another coconspirator. Later, when confronted by the FBI about these conversations, [Harry] Lu denied that they occurred.”
Winghong Yip, a retired Chinese reporter who covered Chinatown for over four decades, said America Changle Association usually hosts cultural or social events or activities for its members, such as galas, and Chinese festival celebrations, among others. He said the association is also a place where immigrants from Changle hold social gatherings or seek help. Yip noted that the association claimed itself as an organization “loves the country (China), loves the hometown.” Yip said he doesn’t know if the association is involved in any intelligence collection work for the Chinese government, but he doesn’t believe so.
Documented talked to several small business owners on East Broadway, and they said they hadn’t heard about the news and were not familiar with the association.
S.C. Zhang, who moved to New York from Changle in 2001 and preferred to use initials for his first name, said he benefited from the association’s activity as an immigrant. “For example, I got mooncakes from its mid-autumn festival event.” Zhang said he appreciated that the association promotes Chinese culture in the U.S. and brings the Chinese diasporas together, “it brought conveniences to our lives,” Zhang said in Chinese.
Zhang said he believed the case is politically motivated. “I felt there were fewer cases like this when China and U.S. were in a better relationship before, now it seems there are more things like this when the relationship gets intense,” Zhang added.
Meanwhile, some members of the Chinese community feel that the impact of the case will be more negative for community leaders than for ordinary people. H. Yu, a Chinese street vendor who has worked in Chinatown for over 20 years and preferred to use the initial of his first name, stated that he does not think the news will have a significant impact on his life or many of the people he knows. He believes the leaders of some Fujian community organizations may feel worried because of their proximity to the Chinese consulate. Yu said he would not want to live under the influence of Chinese law enforcement agencies as a resident of the U.S.
Yu noted that he had seen the news about members of Fujian community organizations at events welcoming President Xi’s visits to the U.S. or protesting against dissents. He also suggested that the worsening U.S.-China relations may make these organizations easy targets. America Changle Association operated a police overseas service station “too publicly. It just hit the muzzle of a gun,” he said.
Zhang expressed concern that the charges against community leaders like Harry Lu and Jinping Chen may cause some community organizations to become less active in hosting events and activities for fear of getting into trouble. However, Heng Chen stated that the case would not deter his association from continuing to help immigrants, saying, “We will keep serving the community.”
Documented contacted Harry Lu and Jinping Chen for comment, but as of the publication of this article, they had not returned our calls or messages.