Chinese agents hatched brazen plot to kidnap RFA cartoonist

An Australian report alleges that Cambodia’s Prince Group played a central role in the effort.
RFA Staff
2024.05.13
Chinese agents hatched brazen plot to kidnap RFA cartoonist RFA cartoonist Rebel Pepper.
RFA

Updated May 15, 2024, 9:14 a.m. ET.

Chinese security forces once sought to kidnap Radio Free Asia cartoonist Rebel Pepper, a defector has claimed to the Australian Broadcast Corporation, or ABC.

A Chinese national who used the pseudonym Eric revealed on the ABC program “Four Corners” that he once worked as an agent in the Ministry of Public Security, or MPS, where he was tasked with luring overseas dissidents back to China for the police. 

Rebel, whose real name is Wang Liming, was one among several dissidents to appear on the program, where Eric revealed to them that they had been the subject of attempted kidnappings or police surveillance.

Eric told Wang that a request the artist received to attend a job interview in Southeast Asia in 2017 had been a ruse. Had he gone to the interview, Wang would have been forcibly taken back to China, Eric said.

Wang was living and working in Japan at the time, having fled China as a political dissident. 

Wang told RFA of the disclosure: "I was shocked, frightened. If I had actually gone, I might not be standing here today... I can't even imagine if I'd still exist.” 

He had seriously considered going to the “job interview” but ultimately decided to turn it down due to the high risks associated with traveling to Southeast Asia, he said.

Eric also disclosed that security forces attempted to use a Chinese-owned conglomerate that has become one of the fastest-growing companies in Cambodia – the Prince Group – to carry out the scam. RFA has verified that Prince was the company used for the recruitment and has also spoken to “Eric.”

An earlier investigation from RFA uncovered evidence of expansive crimes by the company, which has offices throughout Asia and continues to operate. 

The failed plot is an example of Chinese police attempts to use overseas companies to orchestrate so-called job traps to capture overseas dissidents. 

The defected agent

Eric, 39, said he had been an agent of the Chinese MPS for 15 years before defecting to Australia in early 2023. 

As an agent, he worked for a division known as the First Bureau, tasked with infiltrating and tracking overseas dissidents. RFA could not independently verify his claims, but ABC disclosed that he provided hundreds of documents to the outlet and to Australian intelligence that proved the veracity of his story. 

In some cases, agents were directed to orchestrate missions to lure them to Southeast Asia, where overseas Chinese police operate with greater freedom and can bring them back to China through illegal means.

In April 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice brought charges against 40 Chinese police officers, some of whom were affiliated with the First Bureau, in a case of transnational repression. 

The First Bureau was described by U.S. prosecutors as "the PRC’s secret police, with a mandate that includes the suppression and censorship of political dissent, criticism, and other potential threats to the PRC government and CCP," or Chinese Communist Party.

rebel2.jpg
RFA cartoonist Rebel Pepper often comments in his cartoons on the Chinese Communist Party and China’s President Xi Jinping. (Rebel Pepper/RFA)

Eric said he worked with the First Bureau from 2008 to 2023. His missions included infiltrating events for the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, and targeting individuals such as activist New York Liu Guokai; artist Hua Yong, who was in exile in Canada; dissident Yin Ke, now residing in Australia; and Wang, who has been working for Radio Free Asia since his exile to the United States in 2017.

"I believe it's better for the world to be more transparent, and the public has the right to know the dark side of the secretive world," Eric told RFA, explaining his reason for defecting and speaking out about his previous work. 

The job trap

Wang, 51, grew up in China. His cartoons advocating for "one person, one vote to change China" first led to encounters with Chinese police in 2011. 

He defected to Japan in 2014, when, during a summer trip with his wife, Wang discovered that he had been labeled as a "traitor" by a propagandist for the Chinese government mouthpiece The People’s Daily. In the following days, his social media accounts and online business were shut down, so he decided not to return to China. 

In November 2016, while living in Japan, Wang received a Twitter message from a supposed fan named "Xiao Yang,” who praised Wang's courage and suggested further communication via email. 

“Xiao Yang” was actually Eric. He was provided with an apartment in Phnom Penh and the cover story that he was a planning supervisor for the Prince Real Estate Group to lure Wang.

"I had no suspicion," Wang told RFA. "When I looked through his Twitter activity, he seemed to support democracy and showed dislike for the Communist Party." 

Over the next few months, "Xiao Yang" asked for Wang's help with product designs at his company and later offered him a job opportunity as the "global creative director" at Prince Group. In an email seen by RFA, "Xiao Yang" described the company as "a prominent real estate company deeply committed to charity."

Wang applied and received a positive response from a human resources manager at Prince.

Using an official Prince Group email, the manager invited Wang to interview in Cambodia, and when Wang declined out of security concerns, he was offered an interview at the Taiwan office.

"My wife strongly objected at the time, even threatening divorce if I went for the interview," Wang recalled. He ultimately declined the offer.

RFA spoke to the former HR manager, who confirmed they were working for the Prince Group at that time but said they do not remember the incident. RFA is not revealing their name for security reasons, as they claimed they did not know about the MPS operation.

A spokesperson for the Prince Holding Group said: “We categorically deny any involvement in plans or activities intended to lure individuals on behalf of any government or security service.

“Prince Holding Group is a private Cambodian enterprise and maintains no affiliations with any parts of the Chinese government."

“If any individuals previously associated with Prince Holding Group have acted contrary to our governance policies and ethical standards, they have done so independently and without the endorsement or authorization of Prince Holding Group.”

A previous RFA investigation uncovered that Chinese courts convicted lower-level employees of Prince Group of crimes related to illegal gambling and money laundering. (Prince denied involvement in these cases.)

However, Eric told RFA that Prince would have been aware that it was being used as part of an MPS operation. “This company has a very close relationship with the Chinese secret police,” he said, adding: “Of course their big boss knew who I was and what my mission was."

Though Wang did not attend the interview, he could not forget about the incident. In May 2024, a journalist from ABC visited his home in the United States. During the interview, ABC arranged for him to reconnect and speak directly with "Xiao Yang," who had already defected to Australia.

"I was extremely shocked," Wang said. "Xiao Yang told me that every word he said to me was the result of meetings [with the Chinese police]. They had held numerous meetings for this ‘operation,’ and an entire task force had even been sent to Cambodia to prepare."

"I asked Xiao Yang why he was so confident initially about luring me to Taiwan,” Wang added. “He said it was because the Prince Group was deeply involved in the operation, and they were certain they could abduct me from Taiwan to international waters."

An RFA spokesperson declined to comment.

Cases of overseas kidnapping

Twitter and email correspondence between Eric posing as "Xiao Yang" and Wang seen by RFA indicated that both accounts were created in the weeks leading up to the October 2016 outreach. The IP address associated with the creation of the email account indicates it originated in Cambodia.

Southeast Asia has long been a focal point for China's overseas abduction and entrapment operations, according to experts who study Chinese security operations. In recent years, several high-profile cases of dissidents being abducted have occurred in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

These Southeast Asian countries are preferred by Chinese security agencies due to their geographic proximity to China and political alignment, according to Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005.

Chinese-linked companies can provide office buildings or commercial properties as safe houses for the working groups of the security agencies, as "they generally do not dare to stay in hotels during these abduction operations for fear of surveillance footage," Chen added.

In a statement issued May 14, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra said the ABC program was "completely fabricated and nothing but malicious slander."  The Chinese government has previously denied that it carries out extrajudicial abductions.

Experts studying China's public security agencies point out that dissidents, especially those who directly criticize Xi Jinping, are often prime targets for such overseas abductions.

However, those who RFA spoke to were shocked by the brazenness of the planned abduction in the Wang case. Kidnapping a dissident from Taiwan would have been unprecedented, experts said, and indicative of a level of audacity from Chinese police overseas operations not previously known.

"It's chilling that units of China's secret police [would] dare to carry out such cross-border law enforcement actions in Taiwan," said Simon Cheng, a U.K.-based Hong Kong activist and exile. "It's a very, very important and disturbing signal."

Just ahead of the broadcast of the ABC documentary, Eric released a video on social media disclosing his accounts "to prevent phishing by fake accounts." 

Dressed in military attire and standing in a forest, he referred to himself as a "former double agent." He sent a “warning” to the Chinese government, saying: "Of course they know my real name; they may choose to disclose it at will, but I will also reveal the identities of their people."

"I also hope to find more like-minded individuals as soon as possible," Eric told RFA. Asked whether he feared for his own safety, he said: “I will leave it up to fate.”

This story was updated to include a newly issued statement from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. 

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