China’s rivalry with the U.S. spans politics, the economy, and even sports. Today, we have an exceptional story of intrigue about an untold drama happening at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Lisa Fletcher reports it surrounds a U.S. figure skater and her father— who was a Chinese dissident a generation ago.
Arthur Liu says it all began with a suspicious phone call.
In late 2021, his daughter Alysa, a national figure skating champion, was preparing to travel to Beijing, China as the youngest athlete on the U.S. Olympic team.
The call, Arthur Liu says, came from someone who claimed to be from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Arthur Liu: He actually called me on the phone, and saying that, "I'm from the U.S. Olympic Committee. I need your daughter's and your passport copies, and you can fax or, you know, email to this and that."
Lisa: Did you buy it?
Arthur Liu: No, I didn't buy it. I kind of cut him short. I said, "Okay, I'll take care of it tomorrow." And tomorrow, I didn't do it.
Liu says the true identity of the caller became more clear when, a short time later, the FBI asked to meet with Liu at a Starbucks coffee shop near his house in late 2021. They said the mystery caller was actually a Chinese government agent.
Lisa: Can you describe when the FBI came to you about a year ago and told you you were being spied on?
Arthur Liu: Three agents came, and then they told me, you know, "We are FBI agents. And we are here to tell you that the Chinese government has sent people to gather your information.
It wasn’t his first encounter with an alleged Chinese spy.
For decades, Liu says he’s been the target of Chinese intimidation for his criticism here in the U.S. of China’s communist regime and his activism decades ago as a student protest-organizer in China.
Lisa : How does the Chinese government view you?
Arthur Liu: I was one of the most wanted students in South China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The Tiananmen Square massacre — one of the most infamous days in Chinese communist history. Tanks and heavily armed troops advanced on students who, for weeks, had been protesting government corruption. The Chinese military shot or crushed those who got in their way.
Arthur Liu: And then, after the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4th, we heard about the massacre from radio. And then we demonstrated even more. So in Guangzhou, we organized protests and blocked traffic on the bridges, railroads, major public transportation. We just really wanted to express our anger towards the government.
Lisa: How risky was that for you?
Arthur Liu: That was very risky, because in Beijing, the students — thousands of students and residents had been killed. I think that's why they followed me all the way to America and tried to learn what I was doing, you know, with all the protests.
Since then, such large-scale public demonstrations have been rare in China — which is why many were surprised when thousands of Chinese citizens took to the streets in late November to protest China’s aggressive “Zero Covid” policy, where citizens often were prohibited from leaving their homes.
Following those demonstrations, Chinese authorities agreed to loosen Covid measures, but they also appear to be increasing surveillance, and several protesters have been detained.
Lisa: How has it changed from 1989 until now, when we're thinking about the tolerance that the Chinese government has for a protest?
Arthur Liu: It hasn't changed at all. The government really nowadays has even more tighter control of the people than back 30 years ago. At that time, we had no phones. Nowadays, the government completely knows who you are, where you are, what you are doing.
Lisa: Technology has given them more power.
Arthur Liu: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Liu escaped China and came to the U.S. as a political refugee shortly after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Not knowing then, of course, that he would later have a daughter travel to his birth country to participate as a U.S. athlete in the 2022 Beijing Olympic games.
At age 13, Alysa became the youngest female ever to win a national title, and is the first woman to ever land both a triple axel and quadruple lutz – involving four mid-air rotations – in a single program.
For Arthur Liu, keeping his daughter focused on her Olympic dreams, and keeping her protected, meant keeping his encounter with the FBI a secret. He asked the agency not to arrest the alleged Chinese government operatives until his daughter’s safe return from Beijing.
Lisa: What were you afraid of if they made the arrests prior to her coming back?
Arthur Liu: Well, I was afraid that the Chinese government might take her or hold her as hostage, because she's on Chinese territory. And you never know who is around her. You know, you never know who the cleaning lady is for the Olympic Village. Let's put it that way.
Alysa took seventh place at the Olympics. Shortly afterward, the justice department announced charges against three alleged operatives, claiming they targeted Arthur Liu and other Chinese dissidents living in the U.S. One is Chinese and based in China, and has not been arrested. Another was arrested and released on a $1 million bond. A third, who admitted in court documents to making the mysterious call to Liu, pleaded guilty in December to two counts of conspiracy.
And like the protesters of 1989 and 2022, Liu says China’s intimidation tactics won’t deter him from showing the world the truth of what's happening there.
Arthur Liu: I think we all need to stand up for what we believe and stand up against injustice.
Sharyl (on-camera): Did China ever admit to spying on him?
Lisa: No. A Chinese spokesperson last year said the allegations were made out of thin air and accused the U.S. of using it to hype up a "China threat."
Sharyl: Sounds familiar.
Lisa: Now, got an interesting footnote on this story though. Two American employees of the Department of Homeland Security, of all places, were also arrested in this crime. One of them for allegedly accessing a law enforcement database, getting Arthur and Alysa's passport information, and then giving it to the other person who was arrested, who allegedly passed that information onto the Chinese.
Sharyl: Homeland Security? Interesting. Thanks, Lisa.