Feds Charge Officials from TikTok-Linked Chinese Agency With Espionage

TikTok CEO Shou Chew (Getty Images)
April 18, 2023

A Chinese surveillance agency with an ownership stake in TikTok’s parent company targeted critics of the Chinese Communist Party as part of a "transnational repression scheme," the U.S. Justice Department said on Monday.

Federal prosecutors announced charges against 42 Chinese nationals involved in the espionage scheme, including two who serve at China’s Cyberspace Administration. The CCP agency, which regulates China’s internet, purchased a "golden share" in TikTok parent company ByteDance in 2021 that gives it veto power over certain company decisions. The agency recently put a director from its bureau overseeing data security on ByteDance’s board of directors, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The charges will likely add to concerns with Beijing’s influence over Chinese tech companies such as TikTok that operate in the United States. American officials fear the Chinese government can use TikTok to surveil Americans and peddle pro-Beijing propaganda. The Justice Department is already investigating ByteDance for spying on American journalists, according to reports that allege ByteDance employees accessed journalist IP addresses and location data through TikTok in order to root out leaks about the company’s ties to China.

Officials working with China’s Cyberspace Administration and Ministry of Public Security directed a Chinese national named Julien Jin to disrupt meetings held by Chinese-American dissidents on Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform, according to a copy of the latest charges published by the Justice Department. In a separate but related case also disclosed on Monday, the Justice Department charged two Chinese government agents with "opening and operating an illegal overseas police station" in New York City. Both cases shed new light on the CCP’s efforts inside the United States to police discourse and target Chinese dissidents.

"China’s Ministry of Public Security used operatives to target people of Chinese descent who had the courage to speak out against the Chinese Communist Party—in one case by covertly spreading propaganda to undermine confidence in our democratic processes and, in another, by suppressing U.S. video conferencing users’ free speech," Kurt Ronnow, the FBI’s acting assistant director for the counterintelligence division, said in a statement. "We aren’t going to tolerate CCP repression—its efforts to threaten, harass, and intimidate people—here in the United States."

Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), who first raised concerns about CCP spy operations in America last year, said the Justice Department's investigations followed months of pressure from congressional Republicans.

"It took pressure from a group of House Republicans and six months of hand-wringing for the Biden administration to finally do something about an illegal, Chinese Communist Party police station on U.S. soil," Banks told the Washington Free Beacon. "China was emboldened by Joe Biden’s closure of the Justice Department’s China Initiative, which is one of the most cowardly and short sighted decisions I’ve ever seen. We’ve seen this administration respond to China’s aggression by sticking its head in the sand again and again. Only public outrage will spur a response to Communist Party aggression."

Jin and the Chinese officials repeatedly terminated video chat meetings held by a New York City-based dissident "who has been a vocal critic of the PRC government and the Chinese Communist Party," prosecutors said. In 2019, Jin collaborated with the Chinese agency officials to block accounts that sought to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

China’s Cyberspace Administration—which the Justice Department identified as a major cog in the Communist government’s spy apparatus—owns a stake in ByteDance through the China Internet Investment Fund. The arrangement provides the agency a "golden share" on the ByteDance board. Beijing has increasingly used the "golden share" arrangement to exercise control of China’s leading tech companies.

The Cyberspace Administration’s intent with its golden share arrangement with ByteDance is to "make sure the government had a say in the fate of TikTok’s algorithm," according to the Wall Street Journal.

The official appointed to serve on the ByteDance board, Chinese Communist Party official Wu Shugang, once expressed his hope that "the Chinese traitors preaching so-called 'human rights and freedom' go to hell," according to the Financial Times.

TikTok’s entanglement with the Chinese government is fueling a push in Congress to regulate the social media app and potentially outlaw its use. This has fueled a massive lobbying and advertisement campaign by TikTok pushing back against the efforts. In March, TikTok hired the Democratic lobbying firm SKDK to handle its communications work. Anita Dunn, a founding partner at SKDK, serves as a senior adviser to President Joe Biden.

A growing number of Democrats have come out against the TikTok ban. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) has accused Republicans who support the ban of "racism" and said he has not seen evidence that China uses TikTok to conduct espionage.