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Chinese Police Officer Fired Following FBI Spying Investigation

Critics say the NYPD is racially biased, as Steven Li is the second Chinese officer to be fired this year in relation to FBI investigations.

A police officer originally from China has been fired by the New York Police Department after being entangled in a federal investigation of alleged illegal activities of a Chinese foreign agent, according to NYPD disciplinary records first revealed by Documented. Lieutenant Steven Li, who worked at the Internal Affairs Bureau, was kicked out of the force on February 16.

Investigations by the FBI and the NYPD found that between the end of 2019 to the fall of 2021, Li had helped a Chinese national named Sun Hoi Ying to connect with a person targeted by the Chinese government. According to court and NYPD documents, Sun was alleged to have been paid by the Chinese government to come to the U.S. to conduct “Operation Fox Hunt,” a program pursued by China’s Ministry of Public Security to repatriate alleged Chinese fugitives, often by bypassing authorities in foreign countries where these people had settled.

After he was introduced to Sun by an acquaintance, Li brokered meetings for Sun in New York with a person unnamed in the documents, who was accused of having embezzled money from a Chinese state-owned company before moving to the U.S. in 2001. According to the NYPD’s disciplinary document, In the process, Li had made it clear to the victim, whom he knew from community events, that he was a police officer, and that he didn’t represent Sun or the Chinese government, and was only facilitating the communication so the two parties could resolve the dispute. 

Li joins Baimadajie Angwang, as the second Chinese American cop in the city to lose their jobs because of foreign-agent related cases since 2008, the earliest date NYPD’s public disciplinary records are available. Both men have not been found guilty of any criminal activity. Their punishment by the NYPD has sent chills through the Chinese community which is already under increasingly close scrutiny due to the tense US-China relationship.  

Sun was charged in 2022 with working as a foreign agent for China without notifying the U.S. Attorney General in advance, as the law requires and remains at large. Li, who was referred only as co-conspirator-2 in court documents, not by his name, was not charged in the federal case. Documented identified Li in the court case by Sun’s name, which is spelled out in both documents.

According to the NYPD document, the agency’s internal investigation found Li was not guilty of the “foreign agent” related charges the agency’s Department Advocate’s Office pressed on him. There was no evidence to show that Li was aware that Sun was working for the Chinese government when the meetings took place, nor did it find that he took money from China or threatened the victim. The internal investigation did find that he had told the FBI that he didn’t know the purpose of the first meeting of the two parties that he helped to arrange, only to alter the account during the same interview when he realized the FBI might have already known the facts. Li was also found to not have followed internal guidelines by failing to report the FBI’s investigation about him to the NYPD. 

Li, who had served 20 years at the NYPD by January and had no prior disciplinary issue and one medal for excellency, was fired for “false statements” and “failure to report.”  

Li and his lawyer didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Li was terminated less than a month after Angwang, an ethnic Tibetan police officer from China who was charged by the federal government for working for China’s interests. Despite prosecutors dropping all charges against him, the NYPD continued its internal investigation against Angwang. He was fired for failing to show up at an internal interview, which his lawyers had told him was “unlawful” because the NYPD refused to share evidence with them in advance. 

“I see a lot of similarities between his case and mine. It’s like if they want to incriminate you, they can always find excuses,” said Angwang. “I wonder if we were not from China, would we still be treated this way?”

Nationwide, Chinese immigrants have already been under greater scrutiny amid the souring relationship between the U.S. and China. The China Initiative, a program the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched at the end of 2018 to fight against economic espionage activities from China, has been condemned by academics and civil rights advocates of being racially biased by targeting Chinese American scholars and scientists before it was dismantled in 2022. 

Since 2023, 17 states have launched new laws to restrict Chinese citizens from purchasing property. 

In Florida, Chinese citizens are not only banned from purchasing homes, but also working at university labs. At the NYPD, at least one other police officer is under investigation, after he caused controversies on the internet for posting videos supporting an alliance between China and Russia and to show admiration for China’s national anthem when he was in uniform during a Lunar New Year parade.  

Also Read: After FBI Arrests, Chinatown Leaders Deny ‘Secret Police Station’ Allegations

Angwang is not the first person questioning whether the NYPD’s disciplinary criteria is biased. A story by the New York Post in 2022 found that at least 16 police officers arrested between 2017 and 2021 kept their jobs after a department trial judge found them guilty. Some of them had received charges that should have triggered an automatic dismissal by law.

Even after the NYPD reformed its disciplinary matrix in 2021, to make it fairer and more transparent, the agency still had cases that raised eyebrows. Last year, a police officer pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a witness and was found guilty of threatening the witness, and was recommended for firing by an internal trial judge. But the police commissioner Edward Caban, who makes final decisions on such questions, still allowed the officer to keep his job.   

Hugh Mo, an attorney who worked as the first Asian deputy trial commissioner of the NYPD in the 1980s, brushed off questions about the fairness of the punishment decisions applied to Li. He said despite the case’s “political overtone,” lying to the FBI is a violation serious enough to support the dismissal. Others don’t agree. “This is a typical political case. When they cannot crush you in court, they utilize internal tools,” said a retired Chinese American detective who wants to remain anonymous because he is still working for the city. “This is the McCarthy era coming back.”  

Li and Angwang are the only NYPD police officers whose careers were upended by federal investigations of illegal foreign agents working for China as far as the NYPD’s public documents go. But this may only be a start. In recent years, the DOJ has been increasingly using two laws passed in the early part of the 20th century that require people working for the interests of foreign countries to register in advance to combat influence from adversaries.

Also Read: Fear Across Borders: Chinese Americans and the Shadow of Surveillance

At least 36 people have been charged for foreign-agent related violations benefiting China since 2020, topping any other country, while the number was five between 2009 to 2020, based on the DOJ’s announcements, an incomplete archive of federal court cases. 

This means for Chinese American cops, who often participate in community events, the risk of inadvertently stepping into a plot involving China and being accused of acting as a foreign agent is higher than ever. Michael Moy, a former NYPD detective, recommends Chinese American cops to not talk to anyone they don’t know at community banquets, and to not offer advice to any party of a dispute until the case is formally reported to the police. 

Having to live with such jeopardy is unfair to Chinese American cops, but it’s not a unique burden, said Moy, who retired in 2019 after filing a lawsuit against the city that accused the precinct he worked in of tolerating racism against minority cops. “Back to 2001, Muslim police officers had to be careful about who they dealt with,” he said, in reference to the atmosphere after 9/11.

The NYPD and the Asian Jade Society of the agency, which represents Asian police officers, didn’t respond to Documented’s inquiries by press time.

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