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Journalist claims Chinese government attacked him during APEC; Congress demands probe

A man stands on a street corner.
Yan Zhao, former research assistant for the New York Times in Beijing and now a journalist based in Washington, D.C, says he was attacked by Chinese security officials during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation week in San Francisco on Nov. 13. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

A Chinese journalist who used to work with the New York Times claims he was attacked by a member of Xi Jinping's security detail during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in San Francisco last month.

News of the alleged assault by a Chinese government employee comes as a congressional commission demands the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the role of Beijing after protesters claimed they were beaten and harassed by Chinese government agents in November during Xi's visit to San Francisco.

Specifically, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China wants to know if the alleged violence against the anti-Beijing protesters was part of an operation by the Chinese Communist Party and whether the civil rights of the protesters were violated.

A woman screams while in the middle of dozens of people during a protest with Tibetan flags in the background.
A clash between Tibetan protesters and San Francisco Police Department officers ensued as the demonstrators approached a pro-China rally on Third Street near Market Street on Nov. 15. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

RELATED: San Francisco Cleaned Up for APEC: See Before and After Photos

Yan Zhao alleges he was attacked on Nov. 13 around noon at Mission and Third streets, not far from Moscone Center from where APEC was held. Xi was staying at the St. Regis hotel on that corner, and his presence attracted multiple protests.

Zhao, who is the CEO of the Association to Protect Journalists of China and formerly worked with the New York Times, alleges the man who attacked him is the head of security of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

A police report filed by Zhao and reviewed by The Standard identifies the alleged assailant as Zhongpeng Fan, 39.

Zhao said he was elbowed in his right side, unprovoked, and when Zhao asked why the man hit him, the man said Zhao had hit him first. "I didn't even see them coming. I was on my phone," Zhao said, speaking to The Standard through an interpreter.

Zhao said after the exchange, the man called him a "traitor" and said he would run him over with his car, to which Zhao claims he responded, "You stole China. You are the robber of China."

This escalated the fight, Zhao said, and he was hit by "seven or eight" people, who Zhao claimed were all security staff of China's Embassy in Washington.

Zhao said police intervened and ended the fight but did not arrest the man who hit and threatened him. "They should have arrested him on the spot," Zhao said. "He threatened to hit me with his car."

Cars wait at stop lights at a four-way intersection.
Yan Zhao claims a member of Xi Jinping's security detail attacked him at Mission and Third streets during APEC. | Source: Google Street View

The police report says the attack occurred around 12:10 p.m. on Nov. 13 and says Fan allegedly hit Zhao in the right side from behind with his shoulder. Zhao did not know the name of his assailant but recognized him from previous encounters in Washington, according to the police report.

The police report says Fan allegedly had "caused issues" in the past with Zhao in Washington and that police had been involved in those incidents.

Fan told a responding officer he had been in verbal arguments with Zhao "over the past few days" and claimed he had acted in self-defense but did not elaborate further, according to the police report. Fan went on to claim he was an employee of the Chinese Embassy and has "diplomatic immunity," the report added.

The Chinese Embassy declined to comment on the alleged incident or to confirm if Fan worked there, but said in an emailed statement that provocations and attacks against "Chinese welcoming communities" in San Francisco injured 60 people. The Embassy condemned the attacks and asked the U.S. government to investigate.

A man holds two balloons outside a government office building.
The Rev. Patrick Mahoney holds two white balloons as he protests the Chinese government outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 15. | Source: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

An officer who witnessed the interaction between Fan and Zhao said in the report that he saw Fan "speaking down" to Zhao before pushing him once. The report did not mention anyone other than Fan or Zhao as involved in the incident.

Neither Zhao nor Fan were detained and both left the scene, according to the report. Fan was not cited due to conflicting statements and lack of evidence.

Zhao was one of many demonstrators who flooded into San Francisco during APEC to protest political issues in China, including the treatment of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China, and longstanding political tensions over Taiwan.

Protesters said their attackers’ attire, coordination and strong reaction to anti-Communist Party rhetoric indicated official Chinese involvement. They provided no definitive evidence, but U.S. officials have previously accused Chinese operatives of targeting people in the United States.

The Chinese Embassy denied any involvement and instead accused the protesters of violence. The embassy said people had voluntarily traveled to San Francisco to welcome the Chinese president and show their support for the stabilization of U.S.-China relations as Xi and President Joe Biden met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, but they were met with violence by “rioters.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at