Argument

Refugees Are Victims of Chinese Espionage, Not Accomplices

A Tibetan case reveals how the Chinese Communist Party coerces communities worldwide.

Pro-Tibetan supporters
Pro-Tibetan supporters light candles in the shape of the Olympic rings during a protest against the Chinese government's treatment of Tibetans, in New York on Aug. 7, 2008. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Since its occupation of Tibet, the Chinese Communist Party has displaced and murdered tens of thousands of Tibetans with genocidal settler colonial policies. As refugees, Tibetan Americans have worked tirelessly to preserve their language and culture. But it’s a small community of about 26,700 people—and treachery inside it hits particularly hard.

Baimadajie Angwang, a now 33-year-old Tibetan American, traveled to the United States on a cultural-exchange visa when he was 17, which he then purposefully overstayed. He claimed that he would be tortured if he was forced to return to China. His name was a Sinicized version of the Tibetan original, Pema Dhargyal Ngawang, and he couldn’t speak Tibetan, but that’s not unknown for young Tibetans in China, the victims of policies designed to destroy their culture and language. Angwang was granted asylum, and eventually citizenship. He became a police officer, serving as a community liaison in New York, as well as a U.S. Army reservist.

In September, the Department of Justice shocked the Tibetan American community when it charged Angwang with espionage. But this case, disturbing as it is, should mean intensified scrutiny of CCP efforts, especially the support given to them through consulates, not of Tibetan refugees themselves. Efforts by some politicians to use the fear of espionage to  block the arrival of more refugees are deeply misguided.

Although CCP-backed espionage is documented in India, where the Dalai Lama and large numbers of Tibetans reside, the New York espionage case hit close to home for many Tibetans; New York is home to the majority of Tibetans in the United States.

The United States is well aware of major intelligence breaches instigated by Beijing and is constantly seeking to uproot covert Chinese actors. However, the Angwang case is unprecedented. Dharamshala, the home of the Tibetan Indian community, has been the target of many CCP espionage efforts, but this is one of the first prominent cases against the Tibetan American community.

According to a press conference hosted by leaders of the Tibetan Community of New York & New Jersey, Baimadajie Angwang—using the name Ngawang—wooed his way into local Tibetans community members’ lives by promising to help wayward young Tibetans earn secure policing jobs. Tibetan community members were initially confused when Angwang was unable to communicate with them in comprehensible Tibetan, but it was his comments that they found most disturbing.

When Angwang saw the Tibetan flag hanging at the Tibetan Community Center, he advised that the flag should be removed; he reasoned that the flag’s existence at the center alienated non-Tibetans. His comment was highly unusual given that the Tibetan diaspora is profoundly defined by passionate national feeling. A Tibetan flag is more than a symbol for Tibet or Tibetans—its existence is a symbolic rebellion against the CCP, a government that imposes a heavy-handed ban on the flag in Tibet.

Angwang’s suggestions centered on the depoliticization of Tibetan activity in New York. Though Tibetan politics largely revolves around human rights for citizens living in the occupied territory, Angwang repeatedly suggested that Tibetans should refrain from political discussions and only discuss religion. Angwang also reasoned that the Community Center could potentially receive donations from Chinese businessmen if they refrained from political activities. Angwang was publicly present for Tibetan events, such as the celebration of Losar, the Tibetan Buddhist New Year —in one Losar picture, Angwang can be seen just a few feet from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who had also attended. Even during Losar, Angwang made similar comments about depoliticization.

Flustered by Angwang’s behavior, Tibetan community members searched through Angwang’s Facebook page and discovered that Angwang’s wife was affiliated with the New York Chinese Consulate. Angwang’s father and brother are reportedly both linked to the People’s Liberation Army, and both of his parents are registered members of the CCP. Angwang had also repeatedly returned to China, which casted doubt upon his previous claims of Chinese torture. When confronted, Angwang acknowledged his involvement with the Chinese Consulate, and the Tibetan community leaders told Angwang to refrain from returning to the Community Center. Despite the clear intended break, Angwang insistently left calls on the center’s answering service.

This is one of many instances where Chinese consulates have been involved in attempts to threaten or coerce Tibetan life in the United States. A few months ago, for instance, the New York Chinese Consulate sponsored an exhibit that misrepresented Tibet and Tibetans at a Queens Public Library in Elmhurst—the exhibit was shuttered after Tibet interest groups protested.

Tibetan Americans and Americans cannot let Angwang and the CCP win. The Chinese Communist Party relishes in inciting division in Tibetan communities—doing so disempowers Tibetans from forming flourishing livelihoods. Whether it is a library exhibit or the ongoing crusade for self-determination, the dramas between Tibetans and the Chinese government exemplify the modern David and Goliath struggle. Beijing doesn’t want to see Tibetans having any voice of their own.

But the case also illustrates how dominant political priorities are for Chinese operatives—something that can be a useful means of detecting them. Angwang was capable of fooling the U.S. asylum system, but not his fellow Tibetans, in part because he immediately focused on the kind of symbolic objectives that Chinese diplomats and agents of influence want to report to their superiors. The CCP is fixated on flags and maps, for instance, and sees them as priority targets. If Angwang had pretended to hold conventional Tibetan-American politics and wormed his way deeper into the community, he could have done even more damage.

Angwang was also allegedly collecting information on the New York Police Department for the CCP. According to charging documents, Angwang explicitly explained to his official handler that he wished to be promoted within the NYPD to bring “glory to China.” He also planned to condition special Chinese visas to recruit Tibetan Americans for CCP intelligence work. Angwang has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges of espionage. If found guilty, he faces up to 55 years of imprisonment.

As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, the New York Chinese Consulate serves as a major spy hub. The United States must review and assess its relationship with Chinese consulates, where Angwang had been collaborating with officials for years. Other targets of CCP harassment, such as Uighur-Americans, should be offered security protection, since many of them are coerced into silence by the overseas Chinese government. Requiring Chinese organizations to exist by U.S. norms (at the bare minimum, a reciprocity of decorum) would benefit Tibetans, Uighurs, Chinese nationals who wish to study or work in the United States without CCP interference, and many others.

The communities that the CCP terrorizes are its victims, not its accomplices. This espionage case should serve as a catalyst for more rigorous scrutiny upon satellite CCP institutions—not those seeking asylum.

Kelsang Dolma is a recent Yale graduate who works at the Office of Tibet-DC. Twitter: @Kelsang_Dolma_

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