One day in September 2020, New York City police officer Baimadajie Angwang kissed his young child goodbye and was about to drive to work when he was surrounded by United States FBI agents with rifles in hand.
“You’re under arrest,” the bewildered officer was told. Accusation: being a secret agent of China.
Angwang, a former US Marine, spent six months in a federal detention center before being released on bail while awaiting trial on charges that he provided information about New York’s Tibetan community to officials at the Chinese consulate in New York.
Then, just as suddenly, it was over. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn dismissed the charges on Jan. 19, saying only that they were acting “in the interest of justice.” They did not explain further.
Now Angwang wants to be reinstated to the police force which suspended him with pay while the case was pending. But more than that, he wants answers.
“Why did you start an investigation against me? Why did you drop all charges?” said Angwang, who was born in Tibet but was granted political asylum in the US as a teenager.
“We want an explanation. We demand it because you owe me,” he said during a conversation in his lawyer’s office.
“You can’t just put me in jail for six months and destroy my name, destroy my reputation and put all this stress on my family members and friends and then say, ‘In the interest of justice.’ Are you just going to leave it at that?”
China has claimed much of the Himalayas as part of its territory since the 13th century, and the Chinese Communist Party has ruled Tibet for seven decades. But the relationship was fraught with tension as many Tibetans – some in exile – sought independence.
The original charge against Angwang was that he began providing information to Chinese officials about Tibetan independence groups in New York in 2018.
In court documents, prosecutors said Angwang was a threat to national security.
He was charged with being an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements to federal investigators, obstruction of justice and fraud. There were no charges of espionage, a more serious charge.
In building their initial case against Angwang, prosecutors alleged that he provided intelligence on ethnic Tibetans who might cooperate with Chinese officials and advised them on how to expand Chinese “soft power” in New York.
Specifically, the government said, he sought a “sweetheart” deal that would have given him a 10-year visa to his homeland in exchange for surveillance information and access to the police department.
The case was built in part on recorded phone calls, including some in which authorities said Angwang called the consular officer “big brother” and “boss.”
Angwang told the Associated Press news agency that his words were either mistranslated from Mandarin or taken out of context. He said he made superficial friends with Chinese officials because he needed a visa to visit his homeland so his parents and other relatives could meet his daughter.
The judge presiding over the case demanded answers about why the charges were dropped, but federal prosecutors refused to release classified information that could provide clues.
The US attorney’s office in Brooklyn also declined to comment.
The judge agreed to dismiss the case without prejudice, meaning the government could re-indict Angwang, a possibility that weighs heavily on Angwang but which his lawyer suggests is unlikely.
Attorney John Carman surmised that his client was caught up in efforts by then-President Donald Trump’s administration to root out Chinese espionage in American institutions, including the economy, academia and other aspects of public life.
Angwang claims there were shades of racism aimed at people with Chinese connections.
“I think our criminal justice system sometimes goes off track when it has a public aspect and when it has a political aspect, and this case had both,” Carman said.
Angwang first visited the US as a teenager on a cultural exchange visa. He returned to Tibet but later returned to the US, saying he was arrested and beaten by Chinese authorities. He moved to live with his uncle in Queens and received asylum at the age of 17.
In his adopted country, Angwang enlisted in the US Marines and served in Afghanistan. After his discharge, he joined the army reserve and entered the police academy.
He said it was his way of giving back to the country that had been so good to him.
After the charges were dropped, he said he wanted to regain the goodwill of his Tibetan community, which remains suspicious.
“I am very proud of my heritage. I love my culture and I love the community,” Angwang said. He said he was wrongly portrayed as a triple traitor.
“So I’m a traitor to my hometown? I’m a traitor to America? I am a traitor to the Tibetan community – that I have never been a traitor. I have never betrayed anyone – my fellow Tibetans, my fellow Americans, nobody,” he said.
Norbu Choezung — president of the Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey, a group with 10,000 members of Tibetan heritage — remains cautious. He also wants the government to provide more details about why it dropped the case.
“It’s a little suspicious,” Choezung said. “We as a community definitely want to look deeper into why his charges were dismissed and how these things happened.”
U.S. District Judge Eric Komitee, who presided over the case, was left with questions but said he was glad Angwang’s ordeal was over.
“In some ways a simple case, but also in some ways, especially given the landscape of contentious statutes, a complicated matter,” the judge said, also noting the “fanfare” with which the case was brought.
“It’s unfortunate, obviously, that Mr. Angwang served as much time as he did in prison or in pre-trial detention,” the judge said, “but better late, as they say, than never.”