boston, Massachusetts — A federal jury in Boston has convicted a Chinese music student on charges of stalking and harassing one of his Chinese classmates after she posted flyers in support of democracy in China around the campus of the Berklee College of Music in the fall of 2022.
According to evidence presented at the trial and court documents, Xiaolei Wu, 25, sent his classmate online messages in late October of that year after she posted flyers that read: “We want democracy,” “We want freedom” and “Stand with the Chinese people.”
Wu threatened to chop off her hands and demanded she tear down the “reactionary posters.”
Wu also told the individual, who was referred to in court as Zooey, that he had informed public security authorities in China about her actions and that they would go to “greet” her family.
During the four-day trial, Wu’s lawyers argued that his comments were not threats but just an “immature” online dispute between two young people who knew each other and had different political views. His lawyers also said he was trying to remind his classmate of the consequences her actions could have back in China.
However, the federal jury Thursday found Wu guilty on charges of cyberstalking and threats. Both charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000. Wu will face sentencing on April 24.
After the guilty verdict was announced, prosecutors requested that Wu be immediately detained, citing concerns that he is a flight risk and that Chinese authorities have repeatedly expressed concern about the case. However, after listening to the opinions of the defense and prosecutors, Wu was granted bail. The judge said that Wu had not previously violated the conditions of his bail and that those requirements would remain in place.
Wu is barred from changing his address, entering the Berklee campus, or contacting those involved in the case. He has surrendered his passport and cannot leave the state of Massachusetts.
Case spotlights efforts to quiet critics
Wu’s trial highlights a growing problem that U.S. and other Western authorities have been working to counter — China’s efforts to silence its critics abroad.
In a U.S. Department of Justice statement following the announcement of Wu’s conviction, Acting U.S. Attorney Joshua S. Levy for the District of Massachusetts noted the Justice Department’s commitment to free speech for all.
“No one in this country should ever be subjected to threats of violence or a cyberstalking harassment campaign for expressing their political views,” Levy said.
Special Agent in Charge Jodi Cohen of the FBI Boston Division added: “What Xiaolei Wu did in attempting to silence and intimidate an activist who expressed dissension with the ruling Communist Party of China is not only criminal, but completely against our country’s democratic values.”
VOA reached out to the Chinese Embassy for comment on the case but has yet to receive a response.
Flyers echo protest banner
Wu’s classmate Zooey posted the flyers around Berklee’s campus at a time when many Chinese around the world were inspired by the courage of a lone man in Beijing. The man, Peng Lifa, hung a large protest banner on a bridge on a busy street in the country’s capital in October 2022 with similar slogans.
Some of the slogans on the large banner, such as “We don’t want [dictatorial] leaders, we want elections” and “We don’t want Cultural Revolution, we want reform,” were protests against Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Other slogans, such as “We don’t want nucleic acid testing, we want food to eat” and “We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom,” highlighted the frustration that many felt at the time with China’s draconian COVID-19 controls.
Peng was quickly arrested after hanging the banner and remains in custody at an undisclosed location. Sources told VOA’s Mandarin Service in October of last year that authorities have yet to deliver any legal documents related to his case, and his relatives and friends have been unable to hire a lawyer to provide him with legal assistance.
According to Weiquanwang, a Chinese blog that posts updates on rights abuses and cases in China, Peng marked his 50th birthday earlier this month in secret detention. His whereabouts and health condition are unknown, the site said, quoting an anonymous source.