A Brighton man was arrested Tuesday on charges that he was secretly working with the Chinese government to compile a “blacklist” of Chinese activists and organizations in the United States who participated in protests supporting prodemocracy dissidents.
Li Tang Liang, a 63-year-old US citizen, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and acting as an agent of a foreign government without notice to the US attorney general.
During a brief hearing Tuesday in federal court in Boston, US Magistrate Judge Jennifer Boal ordered Liang held at the government’s request until a detention hearing, slated for Thursday, when she will consider whether to release him pending trial.
The indictment alleges that from around 2018 through at least last year, Liang communicated with People’s Republic of China officials through the messaging app WeChat to provide information about various people and organizations.
Liang’s alleged acts included “providing the PRC government with information on Boston-area individuals and organizations; organizing a counter-protest in the United States against pro-democracy dissidents; providing photographs of and information about U.S.-based dissidents to PRC government officials; and providing the names of potential recruits to the PRC’s Ministry of Public Security,” the indictment says.
The indictment alleges that the purpose of the conspiracy was “to covertly advance the PRC government’s goals and agenda within the United States.”
During his brief appearance Tuesday, Liang spoke through a court-appointed interpreter who translated the proceedings. He acknowledged that he had been given a copy of the 20-page indictment but had not had a chance to read it. He was surprised when he learned that he would remain in jail until Thursday’s hearing.
“Basically am I under arrest and not allowed to go home?” Liang asked as deputy US marshals prepared to escort him from the courtroom in shackles. “I want to protest.”
Aziza Hawthorne, an assistant federal defender appointed to represent Liang, told her client the government may legally hold him without bail until the detention hearing.
“Can I have some clothes? Can I take a shower?” asked Liang, who was assured his questions would be answered as he was led from the courtroom.
Liang’s wife and daughter attended the hearing, but declined to comment on the charges. Hawthorne also declined to comment.
The indictment alleges that in 2018 Liang began providing information about Chinese individuals and organizations in the Boston area to a consular officer who worked at the PRC Consulate in New York and was an employee of the Chinese government.
Liang allegedly sent another Chinese government official photos and videos of a student activist he claimed had destroyed PRC flags during a 2018 protest in Boston’s Chinatown. He’s also accused of providing a list of local Chinese organizations with pro-Taiwan leanings, including the size of the groups’ memberships and the names of group leaders.
In 2019, Liang cofounded the New England Alliance for the Peaceful Unification of China and served as its vice president, according to the indictment. Liang wanted to make it appear as if he was acting as a member of a local community organization, the indictment alleges, “when in fact he was acting at the direction or control of the PRC government.”
Liang allegedly worked with Chinese government officials in 2019 to organize counterprotests in Boston in response to rallies that supported a prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong that opposed the extradition of fugitives to mainland China for prosecution.
After the counterprotests, the indictment alleges, Liang sent a WeChat message to one of the highest-ranking PRC diplomats in the United States, along with a video of one of the prodemocracy dissidents and said, “The guy holding the microphone is the rascal who damaged the national flags last year.”
The indictment alleges that in September 2019, Liang sent photographs of anti-PRC dissidents in front of the Boston Public Library to a Chinese government official, saying they were a “bunch of clowns trying to cause trouble.”
The indictment also alleges that last year, Liang provided a Chinese government official with the names and professional affiliations of two people in the Boston area “who would be the best candidates” for China’s Ministry of Public Security to recruit.
Liang’s indictment comes on the heels of a series of high-profile prosecutions brought by the Justice Department in an effort to disrupt efforts by the Chinese government to target prodemocracy activists in the United States who are critical of China’s policies.
Last month, two men were arrested on charges they helped establish a secret police station in New York City on behalf of the Chinese government, and several dozen officers with China’s national police force were charged with using social media to harass dissidents inside the United States.
In December, a Berklee College of Music student from China was arrested on a federal stalking charge for allegedly making online threats to a fellow Chinese national who had put up a flier near the Boston campus calling for freedom and democracy in their home country. That case is pending.