Beijing Uses Involuntary Returns to Quell Dissent in Overseas Communities: Rights Advocate

By Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Reporter
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
and David Zhang
David Zhang
David Zhang
David Zhang is the host of China Insider on EpochTV. He is currently based in New York and Washington DC covering China-related news. He focuses on expert interviews and news commentary on China affairs, especially issues regarding the U.S.–China relationship.
March 25, 2022 Updated: March 25, 2022

China’s communist regime increasingly brings back nationals who have sought refuge abroad against their will while maintaining a pretense that the returns are voluntary. The methods put to use by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) functionaries cross the line from harassment and threats into coercion and kidnapping.

That’s according to Laura Harth, a human rights activist and campaign director of Madrid-based advocacy group Safeguard Defenders, who spoke to EpochTV’s “China Insider” program on March 24.

“China’s transnational oppression has many faces. One of the major areas of focus that Safeguard Defenders has had is looking at the issue of involuntary returns,” she said.

The involuntary returns campaign is carried out under the auspices of the CCP’s “Operation Sky Net,” which began in 2015 with the goal of hunting fugitives whom the CCP claimed to want to bring to justice for economic crimes, Harth said. The undertaking is part of the anti-corruption campaign that Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched with much fanfare in 2013.

But the CCP’s understanding of “anti-corruption” is significantly different from that prevailing in other countries, according to Harth. The CCP uses the term “economic fugitives” to confuse law enforcement officials in other countries about the nature and purpose of their extradition efforts, she said.

Harth detailed how agents of the CCP’s anti-corruption body the Commission for Discipline Inspection are conducting a campaign to return members of overseas diaspora communities, many of them members of religious and ethnic minorities, to China against their will.

“They’re using a series of methods that they’ve actually written into law or into legal interpretation, which includes threatening and harassing family members or loved ones back home directly, sending agents abroad to harass and intimidate people into returning, and even moving up to kidnapping,” she said.

The advocate emphasized how, on the surface, the campaign of involuntary returns tends to make use of ostensibly legal mechanisms and organizations such as Interpol to advance its aims. In some cases, the CCP agents will issue a red notice or an extradition request in order to set in motion the arrest and deportation of the person or people they are after.

The goal is, firstly, to bring about the return of said individuals, and secondly, to stir terror among diaspora communities and make people afraid to tell the world what they know about the CCP regime for fear of bringing attention to themselves and possibly becoming a target.

“People living abroad, even dissident activists, may choose to live in silence rather than give up their freedom of movement or put their family members back home in danger,” Harth said.

CCP officials also want to send a message to those living within China that they can never be free from Beijing’s control even if they flee abroad. Harth said that the day after her organization released a report on involuntary returns, the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry made this message plain. Harth summarized that message as: “We will chase you to the end of the earth. Be sure to know you will not be safe anywhere.”

Harth cited data from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection establishing that the body has conducted search operations in more than 120 countries. The nations on that list include the United States, she said.

Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department’s announced visa restrictions on CCP officials who play a role in human rights abuses and transnational repression.

The move came less than a week after the Justice Department (DOJ) unveiled charges against five individuals allegedly involved in a wide-ranging CCP campaign of harassment, spying, and intimidation targeting ethnic Chinese dissidents in the United States. While the campaign was not run under Operation Sky Net, the methods used were similar, DOJ officials said. A U.S. Congressional candidate, an Olympic figure skater and her father, and a dissident target were among those targeted in the cases.

Harth applauded these recent moves by the Biden administration.

“We’ve now seen that they’ve set up a task force and there’s a whole government effort [dedicated to] trying to counter this transnational repression on American soil,” she said.

But progress in other countries where Chinese people live has not kept pace with developments in the United States.

“What we see is that there is still a lot of awareness-raising to be done,” Harth said.

After the release of Safeguard Defenders’ recent report, Harth said, a Canadian police commissioner said that law enforcement officials in that country were not aware that involuntary returns to China were increasingly a problem.

“Unfortunately, in Europe, the U.K., or Australia, we have not seen the same kind of awareness” about this issue that the U.S. State Department’s recent moves demonstrate, Harth said.

If anyone feels threatened by CCP harassment and intimidation and the threat of involuntary return, Harth urges that person to reach out to the authorities and bring his or her case to their attention.

Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
David Zhang
David Zhang is the host of China Insider on EpochTV. He is currently based in New York and Washington DC covering China-related news. He focuses on expert interviews and news commentary on China affairs, especially issues regarding the U.S.–China relationship.