(New York, N.Y.)–The recent news that the Justice Department has charged five people for allegedly working with the Chinese government to surveil and target Chinese dissidents living in the United States illustrates how the reach and intensity of Beijing’s efforts to silence its critics extend beyond its own borders, PEN America said today.

“The criminal complaints unveiled by the Justice Department today paint a scary picture: activists targeted for their work, artists being targeted for their art, and human rights advocates being surveilled by those they trust. While these charges must ultimately be proved in court, these cases appear to demonstrate what human rights groups have increasingly noticed and warned about: that powerful authoritarian regimes such as China’s CCP have escalated their tactics of trans-national repression to the point that it directly threatens the freedom of activists living anywhere in the world. The Justice Department is right to defend the rights of those in the United States from unlawful pressure by foreign governments, and to send a message that this type of extra-territorial repression will not be tolerated,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, PEN America’s Washington Director.

“The Chinese government’s efforts to target and harass Chen Weiming – an artist living outside of China is indicative of the regime’s fervent desire to clamp down on any artistic expression that it does not agree with. These tactics of intimidation and harassment send a threatening message to all Chinese artists–including those who have left China to escape censorship or political repression – that their right to create freely and without fear of persecution can cast into doubt anywhere around the globe,” said Julie Trebault, the Director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America.

On March 16, the U.S. Justice Department announced criminal charges against five people it accuses of being involved in efforts to target and harass critics of the Chinese Communist Party. Those who were allegedly targeted appear to a candidate for Congress, not named in the complaints but believed to be former Tiananmen Square protester Xiong Yan, with one of the defendants allegedly proposing to target the candidate through a manufactured scandal or even through “beat[ing] him until he cannot run for election.” One of the defendants is a New York-based pro-democracy activist, who allegedly secretly provided Chinese officials with information about human rights activists he worked with.

Another of those allegedly targeted was an artist who created a sculpture that criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also was not named in the complaints but is believed to be artist Chen Weiming, whose sculpture “CCP Virus” was destroyed last year shortly after he unveiled it. According to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, “All of these victims were targeted because of their pro-democracy views.”

Human rights groups and expert commentators have increasingly warned that authoritarian governments, with China as a prominent example, have increasingly rolled out new and expanded tactics of trans-national repression. Relatedly, debate has arisen within the United States over how best to respond to Chinese espionage and cyberthreats in ways that do not lead to racial stereotyping or discriminatory treatment of Chinese-Americans. Just last month, the Justice Department ended a Trump-era program called the China Initiative that sought to identify alleged Chinese spies in U.S. universities, after a wave of criticism from civil rights groups. PEN America authored an open letter in 2019 addressing the Initiative, declaring: ”Efforts by the United States to fend off the global arm of autocracy must not mimic the very tactics it professes to reject.”

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Pen.org PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

CONTACT: Suzanne Trimel, communications and media consultant, STrimel@PEN.org