It was a pleasant, breezy day in late September 2020 when the FBI showed up outside the home of a man named Baimadajie Angwang. Angwang, who lived in Long Island with his wife and two-year-old daughter, was a community liaison officer with the New York police department, where his role was to build relations with the neighbourhood in the 111th precinct in Queens. He had arrived in the US in 2005, a 17-year-old asylum-seeker from a Tibetan enclave in Chinaw. He joined the marines in 2009 and served one tour in Afghanistan. And then, in 2019, he showed up at the Tibetan Community Center in Queens. He wanted to be part of the community, he told people. He was there to help Tibetan immigrant youth. He was also, according to the charges against him, in regular contact with two members of the Chinese consulate. “Let them know,” he had told a consular official sometime in November 2018, “that you have recruited someone in the police department.”
Certainly, if he was a spy, as charged, by most measures he wasn’t a very good one. According to the documents that outline the charges against him, he contacted consular officials on his personal mobile phone, placing calls while FBI officials were listening in. In the recordings released to the court, Angwang flatters and brags. “I’m thinking, the whole world is promoting diversity,” he tells a man referred to as PRC OFFICIAL-2, suggesting they approach minority groups in the Tibetan community to recruit informants. Angwang tries to convince the official to get him a visa to go back and visit China. Other informants will want them, he says. They will think the PRC doesn’t appreciate them. Especially, he says, the “100%-type” – the real believers. “It is hard to find people like us,” he complains. “So enthusiastic.”
Enthusiasm aside, Angwang seemed to have little real intelligence to offer. The charges filed shortly before he was taken into custody testify to his relatively lowly status. He is facing allegations of wire fraud, making false statements and of acting as an unregistered foreign agent: a section of the US criminal code widely known as “espionage light”. Of the many questions raised by Angwang’s case, perhaps the most striking is why the Chinese consulate would have bothered talking to him at all.
In the past nine years under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) has thrown itself into what Freedom House, a US-based human rights NGO, calls “transnational repression”. Every arm of the PRC government has been called upon to join in the work of influencing opinions, stifling speech and controlling dissent within and beyond its borders. In a tally of direct physical attacks originating from China since 2014, a recent Freedom House report uncovered 214 incidents in 36 different countries, from abductions in Thailand to physical assaults in Canada – far more than any other country in the study.
More numerous than these blatant attacks are the incidences of harassment and intimidation. Exiles and activists all over the world have reported threatening phone calls and cyber-attacks; Chinese students studying in the UK and Australia have reported being threatened and harassed if they criticise the PRC; in California, a man was apprehended driving a car made to look like a Chinese police vehicle through an immigrant neighbourhood; police officers in the PRC frequently make calls to exiles using their relative’s phones (“You must bear in mind that all your family and relatives are with us,” a Chinese officer told one Uyghur exile from China’s Xinjiang province). “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world,” reads the Freedom House report. Of the groups targeted for repression, Tibetans in exile have long been the object of special attention.
Globally, there are about 150,000 Tibetans living outside China’s borders. It’s a small group of people with an outsized international voice, partly thanks to their charismatic leader, the Dalai Lama. The People’s Republic of China took control of Tibet in 1950, and the Dalai Lama escaped to Dharamshala, India, in 1959, where he set up the Tibetan government in exile. Ever since, the Tibetan diaspora has been growing and the PRC has viewed the Tibetan people – with their allegiance to a leader outside the Communist party system and an independence movement with global support – as a dangerous enemy.
One of the biggest Tibetan diaspora communities outside Dharamshala is in and around New York City, where an estimated 15,000 Tibetans live. In Jackson Heights, Queens, Tibetan restaurants and groceries line the streets around the Roosevelt Avenue subway station. There is a community centre, opened in 2019, a temple and a school for Tibetan language and culture. Along a stretch of 74th Street that is hung with strings of lights, Tibetan and Nepali restaurants share sidewalk space, prayer flags flutter, and a discount shop is named Namaste.
Angwang’s arrest seemed to confirm what the Tibetan community had long suspected: that the Communist party of China is watching them. Tibetans in New York applying for visas to visit China are directed to a separate entrance to the PRC consulate in the city, where an official – usually of Tibetan descent – meets them for an extensive interview. They are asked to write a biography, listing all their friends and family in Tibet, along with their jobs, addresses and contact information. Many worry that their applications could harm loved ones in China. They fear their daily activities are documented and tallied. Some applicants have been shown photos of themselves attending a protest, or a teaching led by the Dalai Lama. In one case, a visa applicant in San Francisco found that the interviewer knew the name and breed of their dog.
“We go between overestimating and underestimating the threat (of surveillance),” said Tenzin Dorjee, a PhD student in political science at Columbia and one of the most recognisable faces in New York’s Tibetan community. Dorjee goes by the name Tendor – many Tibetan boys are given one of the Dalai Lama’s names (he has seven), so nicknames are common. Tendor was the child of Tibetan exiles in India and moved to the US as a teenager. He spent four years as the director of Students for a Free Tibet, where PRC surveillance was considered a given.
Tendor has watched as paranoia has grown in his community. Tibetans, he believes, are brave, but in the last decade the PRC has managed to exploit their vulnerabilities: their ties to family and friends still in China, and their hopes of obtaining visas to visit Tibet. The PRC has sowed divisions and left Tibetans in exile frightened and suspicious of each other. “You can basically have no spies in the community,” Tendor told me, “as long as you create the perception that there are spies in the community.”
Not long after Angwang’s arrest, I met Tendor at a restaurant in Jackson Heights on a cold November night. When I arrived, he was sitting outside with two friends, beers on the table in front of them, hats on their heads. Tendor wears rectangular glasses and has a narrow face. A man named Lobsang Tara sat next to him, a mask hanging from one ear, and across the table, the current head of Students for a Free Tibet, Dorjee Tseten, was leaning forward over his empty plate, hands in his pockets. The community was in uproar. Tara was wondering if Angwang really was Tibetan at all. He had met Angwang at a restaurant one night a few months before the arrest. Angwang didn’t look Tibetan, Tara said – he was too pale. He didn’t act Tibetan. (“We’re more … disordered,” Tara told me.)
Across Queens, Tibetan groups were rushing to distance themselves from the alleged spy. “The way he spoke!” Tara said. “Not one clean word of Tibetan came out of his mouth!”
A few weeks earlier, the Tibetan Community Association of New York and New Jersey had held a press conference to explain why Angwang had been attending their meetings. “We knew he was a pro-communist type of guy,” one board member of the association told me. “But we never suspected he could be a spy.” When the New York Post contacted the former head of the board – a man named Sonam Gyephel – he protested that they had shared nothing important with Angwang. “We didn’t give any information to him,” said Gyephel. “We gave him nothing. Nothing.”
Tendor had crossed paths with Angwang once, at the 2019 Losar, or Tibetan New Year, celebration held at the Tibetan Community Center in Queens. That night the guest of honour had been Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new congresswoman representing Queens, and she had been photographed with Angwang, playing with his baby daughter, the two of them wrapped in a single ceremonial white scarf. Now people wanted to know how the community leaders had allowed an alleged spy to sit next to a congresswoman. (“She was bored and went to go play with the baby,” Tendor said. “Sometimes these community events can drag on.”) People had read the FBI affidavit and seen the references to their celebrations, the minority groups in their midst, and the places where they spent time. It was chilling to see their community dissected and discussed like a puzzle to be solved. “They knew us,” Tendor told me.
Despite all the circulating stories about encounters with Angwang – short conversations in broken Tibetan, brief meetings in restaurants and at local events – few people in the community knew much about him. The handful of Tibetans who knew Angwang well had met him some time ago. No one I spoke with wanted their names associated with the alleged spy, but they painted a picture of a stocky, muscular young man who was full of bravado. He flashed money clips and bragged about his parents’ success in China. He was also struggling to adapt to his new home.
According to court documents, Angwang was born in the lowlands, below the Tibetan plateau and outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, in an area of China’s Sichuan province known as Zitsa Degu in Tibetan, or Jiuzhaigou in Mandarin. It’s a place of natural beauty where Chinese tourists come to spend their holidays hiking to waterfalls. It was also part of the Tibetan region where, in 1956, the first uprisings were staged against communist rule. Today, however, the economy in the area is controlled by ethnic Han Chinese and the demographics have changed. “His town is already 80% Chinese,” one of Angwang’s early acquaintances told me. And because the Tibetan population is small, crackdowns are rare. “It’s culturally part of China,” the friend said. “They feel confident about it and go easy on it.”
Ethnic Tibetans from this area speak a local dialect, and their complexion is different from that of Tibetans living on the plateau. So, people would later argue, it was not so strange that Angwang would not speak standard Tibetan, and unsurprising that he looked a little different. Angwang went to high school in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. “He said his teachers and classmates would taunt and exclude him,” one of his acquaintances told me. “They’d say things like ‘Tibetans are dirty’.” Angwang would get so angry that he would take off his clothes and dare them to smell him. In his 2005 asylum application, Angwang said he had been imprisoned unlawfully in Sichuan – he said he had been targeted because of his ethnicity, and that he had been tortured while in jail.
Angwang approached the Tibetan Community Association of New York and New Jersey sometime in November 2018. He had called Gyephel’s cell phone (which was the number listed on the association’s website) and offered a refrain that he would repeat until his arrest: he worked for the NYPD, he was concerned about the state of Tibetan youth in the city, and he was there to help. He didn’t speak much Tibetan, but the board didn’t ask. Here was a Tibetan man in a uniform – a story of success and acceptance in the US.
“We don’t want to get stuck in our own small community,” a former board member told me, trying to explain why they welcomed Angwang in. “We want to be part of the larger city. We want to get connected with everybody.”
According to the Freedom House report, the PRC’s influence campaigns abroad target ethnic minorities and dissidents on a global scale unmatched by any other nation. Their activities, it reports, are best understood as functions of the United Front Working Department (UFWD) – a nebulous part of China’s bureaucracy that oversees all activities aimed at influencing groups not directly controlled by the CPC, inside China and out. These can be civil society organisations, media groups, academics, dissidents or Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang region. They can also be Tibetans. The official on the other end of the phone with Angwang in the FBI recordings was a member of the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture – a group overseen by the United Front.
Under President Xi, the United Front Working Department has been in the ascendant. In September 2014, borrowing a term from Mao, Xi called united front work a “magic weapon”, and launched an effort to reform and increase its power. United Front Work, Xi has said, will help to unite the Chinese people under a single worldview and in a common cause.
The United Front aims to influence Chinese citizens and foreigners, its methods including intelligence gathering, silencing dissent, and cultural exchange. The agencies involved in united front work include the propaganda department and the ministry of education. “Xi Jinping has emphasised that ‘the United Front is about working on people,’” wrote Alex Joske of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in a 2020 report titled The Party Speaks for You. “Co-opting and manipulating elites, influential individuals and organisations is a way to shape discourse and decision-making.” Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and scholar living in New Jersey, puts it another way: “They don’t want to hear any criticism and they don’t want to see independent civil societies which are out of control,” he told me. “They are sending the message that they are everywhere. Nowhere is out of reach.”
Because of the scope of United Front work, it can be difficult to track. There are explicit examples of harassment and abduction. Operation Fox Hunt – an effort to track down and repatriate a list of “most wanted” Chinese dissidents and exiles living abroad – has involved the intimidation and stalking of multiple targets in the US. Internationally, the PRC claims to have located and repatriated 8,000 international “fugitives” accused of financial crimes. (The same year that Angwang was arrested, the FBI apprehended seven people in New Jersey for harassing and stalking a Chinese exile living in the suburbs.) There are also subtler United Front operations. The China Association for the Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture – of which Angwang’s consulate contact was a member – once sponsored a Tibet exhibit at a Queens library focusing on the PRC’s positive role in the region. It was shut down after protests from the Tibetan community. In 2014, an official from the association was banned from the UN Council on Human Rights after intimidating and photographing a woman named Ti-Anna Wang, who was there to testify about the abduction and imprisonment of her father, a pro-democracy activist.
The difficulty of measuring or combating the United Front is maybe most evident in the formation of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations at universities across the world. For the most part the CSSA provides uncomplicated support to Chinese students living abroad, such as listservs (email mailing lists) that help new arrivals find roommates, sell furniture or join study groups. Most Chinese migrants or students will connect with the consulate in a way that is harmless, says Yaqiu Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. In many cases, however, the CSSA is connected and directed by the local Chinese consulate. Students may meet United Front officers while applying for visas, attending consular dinners (the consulates, she noted, always offer the best Chinese food), or joining organisations that help new arrivals build a community. According to Wang, some students have then been asked to keep tabs on their friends and classmates. “You grow up in China, you understand that not criticising the government, not standing up to the government is good for you,” Wang said. “There is this relationship going on … you understand that it is good for you if you are close to the consulate.”
For years, Tibetans in India and the US felt buffered from the influence of the Communist party of China. Tendor’s parents escaped Tibet soon after the Dalai Lama fled China in 1959, and settled in the Kullu valley a few hours’ drive from Dharamshala. They both worked in one of a string of boarding schools established by the Dalai Lama’s sister. Tendor was born in 1980 and grew up steeped in Tibetan history and prayer. In the school’s central courtyard, students would put on plays about the Tibetan revolt of 1959 – one in a string of uprisings and crackdowns that saw an estimated 6,000 monasteries destroyed and tens of thousands of Tibetans killed over the course of 15 years. At school in India, Tendor spoke in Tibetan and worked on his English. Twice a day, in the morning and the evening, all the students attended prayer sessions. (“We all found this part of the day to be a drag,” Tendor joked.) Hardly anyone spoke Mandarin. Tibet seemed close, but China far away.
Inside Tibet, surveillance was increasing. After an attempt at rapprochement in the early 80s, when the TAR was opened to tourism, demonstrations against Chinese rule were violently suppressed by the military, and martial law was declared in the region in 1989. It was around that time that new arrivals at Tendor’s boarding school in India told him what it had been like in their home villages: “Every crack in the wall is an ear.”
Over the years, China’s Tibet policy has combined investment and increased opportunity with military crackdowns and surveillance that has included cameras inside monasteries and 21,000 CPC cadres dispatched into Tibetan villages. A shrinking number of schools in Tibet allow instruction in Tibetan. The region experienced unrest before the Olympics in 2008. Starting in 2011, a series of self-immolations shocked some of the easternmost towns and villages.
When Tendor was a boy, surveillance was defined by informants, by people listening through the walls. Now, he said, it’s eyes – people reading your text messages, looking at your computers, and monitoring daily life in Tibet through CCTV cameras. Technology has made it easier to take surveillance beyond the PRC’s borders. In 2001, a leaked document outlined Beijing’s concern over the international Free Tibet movement. “It is difficult to reverse the present situation where the enemy’s fortune on the international arena is running high and ours low,” it read. By 2009, years before Xi’s rise to power, a group of Canadian researchers reported that China’s large-scale cyber espionage operation, Ghostnet, had focused its attacks on Dharamshala.
In the past two decades, Tendor told me, these incursions have started to erode the security felt by Tibetans living outside China. “The PRC became much better at connecting people to their friends and family still in Tibet,” he told me. “So if you show up at a protest in New York, your family member might call you from China and say: please stop.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of CCP control of Tibet. As part of China’s celebration, portraits of Xi have been hung throughout monasteries and homes (portraits of the Dalai Lama have long been banned). Tibetans have stopped arriving in Nepal. Even in India, Tibetans have been arrested in advance of the arrival of PRC government officials. In September, authorities in Sichuan arrested more than 100 Tibetans for possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama, for “discussing social issues”, and for sharing messages and information with the community outside China.
If convicted, Angwang would not be the first spy to be caught reporting on the activities of a Tibetan exile community. In 2017, the Swedish government arrested a spy who had spent years tracking the movements of Tibetans all over Europe. The man, Dorjee Gyantsan, had long been a part of a tiny population of about 140 Tibetans in Stockholm. Gyantsan had probably connected with a Chinese agent on an international ferry from Sweden to Finland. He collected information on Tibetan immigrants in Sweden, Poland and Denmark, providing information on their living situations, their families and their travel plans to a Chinese embassy official in Warsaw. He was convicted of “illegal intelligence activity” in 2018 and was deported back to China last year.
After arriving in New York City from Sichuan, Angwang, according to his friends at the time, had struggled. He was young and conflicted about his identity. He would approach groups of Tibetans on the street and, when they found he could not speak Tibetan, only Mandarin, they would politely excuse themselves. He could not access the community. Not long after being granted asylum in 2009, Angwang joined the marines and left the city.
When he returned to Queens in 2014, Angwang had been honourably discharged from the marines. In 2015, he met his future spouse. In 2016, they married and Angwang began working at the NYPD. In 2017, his daughter was born. And in 2018, Angwang started attending the community association board meetings. He was outspoken and liked to project an air of authority. It did not take long before other members of the board started to find him off-putting. In one incident, Angwang approached a member of the board and asked him why he was wearing a jacket with “Free Tibet” written on the back. “You’re an up-and-coming type of guy,” Angwang had said. “Why would you wear a jacket like that?”
Later, Angwang showed up in uniform at the new community centre. “He said he was just swinging by,” the same board member recalled. Angwang motioned to the police cruiser outside and said he wanted to show his partner the new centre. He gestured to the set of flags hanging at the entrance. “Why do you keep the Tibetan flag up outside with the American flag?” Angwang asked. “If I were you, I wouldn’t put up the Tibetan flag.” He said that there were some big businessmen who were interested in giving money to the centre. “If you put up that Tibetan flag,” Angwang warned. “You might not get that kind of donation.”
The board member listened quietly. He did not nod, but he didn’t argue. “It was kind of a friendly suggestion,” he told me. “But the seed of suspicion was sown.” Tibetans are proud of their flag, which is illegal in Tibet. “This gentleman is saying he’s a Tibetan,” the man recounted, “and he’s asking us to put down the flag.”
Angwang declined to participate in this article, but his lawyer, John Carman, told me that these incidents had been misunderstood. Angwang was worried not about the Tibetan flag, but the fact that it was hanging without a US flag above it. He worried that a photograph of himself in uniform with a flag, or a Free Tibet logo, would suggest the support of the entire NYPD. He wanted to avoid politics, not find himself involved in the tensions between the US and China.
No matter the reason for his comments, board members had lost trust in Angwang. He had made too many members uncomfortable. Finally, on the same day that Angwang was photographed with Ocasio-Cortez at the Losar celebration, he attended a lunar new year gala at the Chinese consulate. For the Tibetan Association of New York and New Jersey, this was the last straw. They stopped taking his calls. If the consulate was hoping for revelatory new intelligence or even a long-term informant, Angwang was not their man. But even bad spies can be useful.
No one knows exactly when or why Angwang started communicating with PRC officials at the Chinese consulate. In legal documents, Carman argues that anyone with access to the entirety of the FBI tapes would understand: all Angwang was doing was trying to get a visa so he could return to China and visit his parents. He was not a sinister agent, but a man who wanted to take his daughter home to meet her grandparents. (A spokesperson for the Chinese consulate in New York said in a statement after Angwang’s arrest that consulate staff “have been conducting normal exchanges with various sectors of society in its consular district … Their work is above board and beyond reproach.”)
According to Lobsang Tara, Angwang’s reasons for informing are irrelevant. Everyone in the Tibetan community wants to go home. Visas, he told me, are “the achilles heel of the Tibetan people”. Not everyone, however, is in regular phone contact with consular officials. Tara grew up in Tibet, in a small village of 60 people. After an uprising in 1987, when Tara was 13, his father sent him to India on a journey over the Himalayas that meant two weeks of walking, river-crossings and cold nights sleeping rough.
In 1998, Tara trekked back over the mountains and sneaked into Tibet. His grandmother had been heartbroken when she heard he had left for India, but when he returned she spent the first afternoon convinced that he was an impostor sent to inform on the family. Once she was reassured, it was a happy reunion, but Tara worried he would attract attention, and so he returned to India. He hasn’t seen his family since.
Tara came to the US in 2002 and has worked selling shoes and driving cars, and as an interpreter for Tibetan officials travelling to the US. He went to film school and made documentaries about Tibetans. He worked with Tendor at Students for a Free Tibet. And then, he told me, the idea of getting a visa – and a chance to visit his home – lodged in his heart. He tamped down his activism. When he first arrived at the Chinese consulate in New York City for an interview, however, he was led to the back door of the consulate and taken into an interview room. The interviewer asked questions about his family, his activism and his acquaintances. They asked for phone numbers and addresses. Tara was careful with his answers, but his visa was denied. He has so far changed his name six times to try to make it through the application process. “I belong to the Li family now,” he told me.
Following Angwang’s exile from the Tibetan Community Association of New York and New Jersey, he started approaching other community groups. One was the Tibetan Service Center in Queens, which focuses on preserving cultural heritage. At first, the director of the centre, Tsering Diki, saw Angwang as a kindred spirit. “A lot of people are working on the political side,” Diki told me. “Every day they want to talk about a free Tibet. Then there is another group of people like me who want to dedicate themselves to preserving the culture and making the community outside Tibet stronger.”
When Diki met Angwang, she thought he had similar goals. Not long after they met, he called her and told her about an event that was part of Asia Pacific Heritage Month in May 2019. He complained that Chinese performers were planning to represent Tibet. “He told me that the Chinese were always there misrepresenting the Tibetan Culture,” she said. So Diki volunteered a dance group from the Tibetan Service Center, and the event, she felt, was a huge success. “He was right, there was a Chinese group there performing a very fake Tibetan dance,” she told me. Diki’s group had the chance to present something more authentic. “So I felt, oh my God, we kind of saved our culture!”
Diki’s good relationship with Angwang would not last. In late 2019, Angwang started asking Diki why she featured the Tibetan flag and a portrait of the Dalai Lama at the centre. At first, Diki changed the subject whenever he brought it up. When he kept asking, she felt she couldn’t keep ignoring it. Diki stopped answering his calls.
Diki, who was born in Tibet and arrived in the US as a college student, has herself faced growing suspicion from other Tibetans in Jackson Heights. In recent years, she has led an annual group trip for Tibetan exiles back to Tibet. It took her many years, she told me, to obtain tourist visas for her group. She had tried Chinese travel agencies, but none of them could help her. “They would be excited to help you. Then they would find out you were Tibetan Americans and ditch you right there,” she told me. Diki begged a friend who organised tour groups in Lhasa to help her, and was granted her first set of visas in 2014. The itinerary she developed was strictly cultural. “We had a tour guide and there were five or six United Front officers sleeping in our hotel until the day they dropped us off at the airport,” she said.
Diki was thrilled to be showing Tibet to children who had been born in India or the US. But suspicions in New York’s Tibetan community had grown. “People start questioning: why did that person get [the visa]?” Tendor told me. Earlier this year, in a social media post, a Tibetan youth organisation accused Diki of being a spy and working with the Chinese consulate. She wrote a letter denying their accusations and threatened to take them to court. Now that Angwang has been accused of spying and tension are even higher, Diki is considering cancelling her summer trips for good.
“Sometimes I think: ‘Is there a lot of Chinese spy work involved?’” Diki told me. “We are so divided now, and that’s exactly what they want.”
Tendor sighs. Being Tibetan in exile is political – it’s inescapable. Shortly before the pandemic, Tendor was scheduled to speak at an event at Columbia university discussing PRC surveillance, but it was shut down after students from the PRC threatened to protest.
Angwang was no mastermind. He had cracked no codes and unveiled no revolutionary plots. But in Queens, it didn’t matter. His arrest reminded people that the PRC is watching. Today, Angwang is out on bail and awaiting trial. Whether or not Angwang is guilty, the question of spying on communities is creating difficulties in US-China relations.
Tara has started a business selling Tibetan-style beef jerky and barley. With fewer Tibetans making it over the border, Tendor feels responsible for making sure that his daughter will speak Tibetan. It is difficult, however, to find books and videos to show her. (There is one, at least, with a yak that pops up in the Tibetan alphabet.)
China is changing rapidly. But change, Tendor pointed out, isn’t always for the better. “I do not know how to fix it,” Tara told me. “You live life with this fear under everything you do. I have American friends who can talk freely, and even as they are talking freely, I have this fear underneath.”