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As US warns against spy threat, Chinese nationals keep getting arrested in Florida

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Caitlin Yilek

January 23, 2020

South Florida has become a common destination for Chinese nationals to be arrested while taking photographs.

At least six people from China have been charged since September 2018 in connection with incidents at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach and at Naval Air Station Key West.

But, even as the United States increasingly warns about Chinese intelligence activities, none of the cases resulted in charges of espionage or of acting as an agent of a foreign government.

“It’s hard to believe that all of these characters are simply passionate tourists with a photography hobby,” David Laufman, a former senior counterintelligence official at the Justice Department, told the Washington Examiner. Yet, that was the common defense.

Zhao Qianli, a 21-year-old musicology student, waded into the water to get around a security fence at the military base when he was arrested for photographing defense installations in September 2018. Qianli, who was sentenced to a year in prison for illegal photography, claimed he was just a lost tourist, not a spy.


Lyuyou Liao was arrested the following week at the Key West base. Liao, 27, told authorities he was trying to take photographs of the sunrise after he was taken into custody. Witnesses said they spotted him walking around the perimeter fence at Naval Air Station Key West. Liao, who is awaiting trial, was charged with taking photographs of a defense installation.

Authorities arrested two Chinese students earlier this month when they drove onto the military base without authorization. Yuhao Wang and Jielun Zhang, both 24-year-old students at the University of Michigan, were charged with taking photographs at the base.

Nicholas Eftimiades, a retired senior intelligence officer and author of the book Chinese Intelligence Operations, said the four people at Key West could have been seeking details on military communications capabilities.


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