Man Convicted of Spying on Falun Gong in Germany
By Matthew Robertson & Tian Yu 15/06/2011
CELLE, Germany—For the first time a Chinese agent has been convicted of spying on practitioners of Falun Gong, the meditation and spiritual discipline that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1999 vowed to crush. The guilty party, John Zhou, was given a two-year suspended sentence on June 8, along with a hefty fine.
Zhou, 55, a Chinese doctor by profession, was one of the earliest adoptees of Falun Gong in Germany in the late 1990s. He began working with Chinese agents over five years ago. After several years of investigation—including visits from German counterintelligence informing him that he was under suspicion—prosecutors brought him to trial on May 26 in the Niedersachsen State Supreme Court in the city of Celle.
The court handed down a suspended sentence of two years in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros (US$21,530), to be paid to the human rights group Amnesty International.
Zhou’s desire in 2005 to visit his sick father in China first led to his establishing contact with Tang Wenjuan, head of the Chinese Embassy’s Consular Section in Berlin and then to his career as a spy, according to court documents. Tang is actually a member of the Ministry of State Security, a domestic spy agency, according to a May 2010 piece in Der Spiegel. During this meeting Zhou expressed a willingness to help the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “solve the Falun Gong problem,” court documents show.
Months later, in March 2006, Zhou was introduced to three agents of the “610 Office” at a hotel in downtown Berlin. The 610 Office is an extralegal, secret task force with sweeping powers set up by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to coordinate and carry out the persecution of Falun Gong. It also conducts espionage and harassment against Falun Gong practitioners abroad, attempting to reduce the influence of the group’s vocal criticism of human rights abuses against Falun Gong adherents in China.
Falun Gong is a Chinese meditation practice with five meditative exercises and teachings based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance; it has been the target of a vast CCP-led persecution in China since 1999, and soon after also became an important target of the Chinese regime’s overseas espionage efforts.
Chen Yonglin was the former consul for political affairs in China’s consulate in Sydney, Australia, and was tasked with handling the Falun Gong issue. After defecting in June 2005, he testified before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, “The war against Falun Gong is one of the main tasks of the Chinese mission overseas.” Chen listed several examples of how the Sydney consulate attempted to interfere with and restrict Falun Gong practitioners, including strictly “monitoring” Falun Gong activities.
In the initial meeting with the agents it was established that Zhou would report directly to a high-ranking 610 official named Chen Bin. From that point the two men spoke via Skype several times a week; at his sentencing Zhou said that this was because they had a “friendly” connection.
Zhou’s friendship with Chen also extended to regularly forwarding him Falun Gong practitioners’ e-mails—though in 2009 he went a step further than this. Zhou set up another e-mail account for Chen to access, and using his position as a trusted Falun Gong practitioner, had it added to the listserv. This meant that thousands of e-mails from Falun Gong practitioners in Germany were automatically delivered to thee-mail account, which Chen accessed from Shanghai, according to the prosecutor.
Throughout the indictment, trial, and sentencing, Zhou maintained that he had forwarded the e-mails in an attempt to “exert influence” over CCP officials’ view of Falun Gong, with a view to softening the persecution in China.
The prosecutor rebuked the suggestion, saying that Zhou had an “overestimated” sense of his own influence, that the idea was “unrealistic” and “genuinely absurd,” and that the color of Zhou’s contact with Chen was not motivated by altruism. At the very least, the prosecutor said, Zhou had obtained a visa to China in exchange—something denied to regular Falun Gong practitioners.
Beyond forwarding e-mails, Zhou also gathered inside information about other matters of interest to the CCP, according to the prosecutor. He updated agents in China about the dissident broadcaster New Tang Dynasty Television’s lawsuit against Eutelsat, a European satellite company that denied service to NTD TV under suspected pressure from China; he made notes about the European Parliament’s meetings on the matter; and he provided information about Zhang Danhong, an editor of Voice of Germany, being suspended for her pro-Chinese regime comments.
According to Manyan Ng, head of the Falun Gong Association in Germany, Zhou also went to great lengths to discover the password to the online voice server used by practitioners to communicate about sensitive matters. Zhou also managed to produce a 100-plus-page report on Falun Gong practitioners’ “organizational structure” in Germany.
The German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (“Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz” in German, or BfV) and the German federal prosecutor’s office, were on Zhou’s trail after the 2006 meeting. They discovered that one of the men Zhou met at that time had been specifically flown in from Shanghai to groom the new spy asset. He was the head of the 610 Office in Shanghai and carried the rank of vice minister.
Zhou was warned by the BfV not to work for Chinese intelligence after the first meeting, and was given more warnings in October 2009 and January 2010. In April 2010 he flew to Shanghai to meet the spymaster.
For Ng, the Falun Gong spokesman, the saga demonstrates the extent of the anti-Falun Gong campaign waged by the communist regime in China. “To persecute Falun Gong they have exhausted every method. From this case you can see that they use 1,000 ways to persecute Falun Gong, to get Falun Gong practitioners.”
Practitioners in Germany were shocked by the case. “He seemed very trustworthy,” said Elke Doelz from Hildesheim in an interview. “When I heard about the spying activities, a jolt went through my body.” She added, “This makes clear the extent of the spying activities by the CCP abroad.”
The relatively light sentence—Zhou will not see the inside of a prison cell—was slightly troubling to Ng. “I’m not sure this light sentence is good for Germany. He can ‘t be the only Chinese spy here, nor can he be the only one spying on Falun Gong. If the sentence is light, will it deter other spies?”