The US Justice Department arrested and charged a Tibetan-American police officer with being an “illegal agent” involved in “intelligence gathering” for China during his past six years in the New York force, after fighting as a US Marine against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Baimadajie Angwang, 33, reportedly told China’s consulate in New York that local Tibetans who did not believe in the Dalai Lama or Tibetan Buddhism would collaborate with Beijing.
After serving in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, Angwang became an Army Reserve staff sergeant at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and received “secret” security clearance from the Pentagon.
The criminal complaint was unsealed on September 21 in a New York federal court. If convicted, Angwang could be imprisoned for 55 years.
His arrest and federal detention in New York comes amid worsening US-China relations, with both nations suspicious of each other for alleged spying, propaganda attacks, unfair commercial competition and other abuses.
Similar allegations involving various nationalities and ethnicities have also resulted in cases in China, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.
Angwang allegedly used his police position to befriend ethnic Tibetans in New York, informed on them to China’s consulate and tried to help Beijing recruit more spies.
China’s consulate responded to his arrest by stating that its staff “performed their duties in accordance with international law and the local laws of the United States.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent Steven Deck testified in a September 19, 2020, sworn statement:
“From August 21, 2014, through August 11, 2017, Angwang called and texted” a Chinese consulate official’s “cellular telephone on at least 53 occasions.
“Between June 2018 through March 2020, Angwang has both called and texted” another official at the Chinese consulate, “whom he regularly refers to as ‘Boss,’ on at least 55 occasions.”
Transcripts of Angwang’s verbal phone conversations quote him telling his “Boss” in 2018 to alert Beijing and “let them know, you have recruited one in the police department.”
Angwang also advised him in 2018 to “develop” contacts among Tibetan Muslims and other Tibetan minorities on the fringes of New York’s Buddhist-majority Tibetan community.
“They are a group that has been discriminated against and neglected in the Tibetan community,” Angwang said, according to Deck’s affidavit.
“They don’t believe in Tibetan Buddhism. When the consulate extends a helping hand to them, they will feel the warmth of the motherland. How wonderful would that be?”
Additional charges against Angwang include “wire fraud” when he used the Internet in 2019 to communicate “false statements” to the Defense Department in his military Questionnaire for National Security Positions, and “obstructing an official proceeding” with those statements.
He allegedly “lied by denying that he had contacts with a foreign government” and about his relatives in China, the department said.
“Angwang’s father is a retired member of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) and a PRC (People’s Republic of China) Communist Party member,” Deck’s affidavit said.
“Angwang’s brother is currently serving as a reservist in the PLA. Angwang’s mother is a retired government official and also a PRC Communist Party member.
Angwang also allegedly received $120,000 in suspicious bank transfers from China.
“According to the allegations, the Chinese government recruited and directed a US citizen and member of our nation’s largest law enforcement department to further its intelligence gathering and repression of Chinese abroad,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers.
“The defendant is charged with violating his sworn oath as a New York City police officer to protect and serve the citizens of New York by instead reporting to PRC government officials about the activities of Chinese citizens in the New York area, and developing intelligence sources within the Tibetan community in the United States,” said Acting Attorney Seth DuCharme.
Angwang was born in China to Tibetan parents and arrived in America at age 17 as a student on a cultural-exchange visa. He later gained political asylum, claiming he had been “arrested and tortured” in China for being Tibetan.
After becoming a naturalized US citizen, he joined the US Marines, then the army’s reservists, and in 2016 became a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer.
“This is the definition of an insider threat,” said FBI Assistant director-in-charge of the New York Field Office William Sweeney.
“As alleged, Angwang operated on behalf of a foreign government, lied to gain his clearance, and used his position as an NYPD officer to aid the Chinese government’s subversive and illegal attempts to recruit intelligence sources,” Sweeney said.
“One of the PRC consular officials at whose direction Angwang acted worked for the ‘China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture,’ a division of the PRC’s United Front Work Department,” the Justice Department said.
“This department is responsible for, among other things, neutralizing potential opponents of the PRC and co-opting ethnic Chinese individuals living outside the PRC.”
Last year, Angwang began hanging out at the nonprofit Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey building, offering to help. Tibetans in that group grew concerned when Angwang allegedly told them it was not a good idea to display, in front of their building, the flag favored by Tibet’s independence activists.
“He was trying to lure us by saying, ‘If you don’t do these kinds of political activities, you might get donations from big Chinese businessmen’,” Tashi Choephel, a former official at the nonprofit, said at a news conference after the arrest.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.