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Espionage case involves a giant sculpture, a fake art patron and a Chinese spying ring on U.S. soil

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It is one of the most unusual criminal complaints of recent times, involving a giant sculpture, a fake art patron and the Communist Party of China. This summer, the U.S. announced it had charged 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 howls. The sun burns overhead, and gusts of sand nearly blind me. But of all places, it is here off the side of a highway in the Mojave Desert that sculptor Chen Weiming has decided to make his art.

CHEN WEIMING: (Through interpreter) This is a tourist Mecca. There are tens of thousands of vehicles passing by here every day.

FENG: When I met him earlier this summer, Chen was on a ladder, welding the finishing touches on a massive three-story sculpture knitted out of steel rebar. Look closely, and you'll see it's been fashioned to look like China's leader, Xi Jinping. His skull is dotted with red coronavirus spikes, and a bloodstained hammer and sickle adorn one side.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) If all these tourists stopped to take a 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAHATA TODAY: The black wolf to the south...

FENG: The great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Crazy Horse, the noted Lakota Native American chief, opened the unveiling with a peace prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TODAY: (Non-English language 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 on land once roamed by Crazy Horse's tribe, so he invited the one descendant he could find. Ms. Today 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 all over for somebody that's related to Chief Crazy Horse.

FENG: The journey to this moment has taken many twists because a year ago, his original sculpture went up in flames. Chen immediately suspected sabotage.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) This week, before it burned, one of my volunteers discovered a chain wrapped around the sculpture, like someone tried to topple it.

FENG: Chen says the loss was devastating, but he had a strong suspicion about who destroyed his sculpture because of a call he received in 2020.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) The FBI in New York told me the Chinese Communist Party was very interested in my work.

FENG: Chen immediately resolved to build a second identical sculpture but this time made from steel so it couldn't be burnt down. And he had a potential patron.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) There was an American businessman named Matthew. He came to my studio to commission the original piece and said he 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 process of sculpture. I thought it was totally reasonable, so I installed a camera for him. A few days later, Matthew said 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. It charged five men it says were spying on Chen and other activists of Chinese origin living in the U.S. One of those charged was a former Florida prison guard named Matthew Ziburis, the man posing as the art collector. In July, a U.S. court indicted two more men, a current and former Department of Homeland Security employee, for being in on the scheme. According to the Justice Department, Chinese security services paid them more than $3 million to spy on dissidents. Crucially for this story, there appears to be evidence showing the men agreeing to burn down Chen's first coronavirus sculpture.

ARTHUR LIU: Whatever happens happens. You know. If they want to harm me, you know, I have no way of preventing them.

FENG: That's Arthur Liu, a Chinese American immigration lawyer in New York who was another target. He is also the father of American Olympic figure skater Alysa Liu. She went to Beijing to compete for the U.S. in the Winter Games this past February.

LIU: I think the Chinese government really was afraid that I might use this opportunity to, you know, speak up against some of the human rights violations, same as her.

FENG: The Chinese dissident community in the U.S. has long alleged their ranks are riddled with Chinese spies. For example, in 2020, the FBI arrested a cop found to be spying for China on Tibetans in New York. Many believe the most recent arrests may signal the U.S. government is getting serious about stopping Chinese espionage on American soil. Back in California, Chen says he's undaunted by the Chinese state, but he's still nervous about his sculptures.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) These last few days, I bring 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 outreach he feels he's had with the sparse local community out here in the Mojave. Present at the unveiling ceremony is local schoolteacher Gay Birch. She brought her entire class of 8- to 11-year-olds to the park. Birch says none of them had any previous interest in or connection to China until she met Chen.

GAY BIRCH: And just coming over here with strangers and not really knowing what we're looking at but just kind of like, hey, this is cool. Hey, this is cool, you know?

FENG: So she started Googling the people and events the sculptures depicted.

BIRCH: And as we studied, I myself became an advocate for freeing Hong Kong and for Chinese liberty, 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 large gathering by any means, but one the Chinese government clearly cares about. Emily Feng, NPR News. Yermo, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.