China is the world’s biggest perpetrator of transnational repression globally, according to a new Freedom House report.
The report cites “millions of Chinese and minority populations from China in at least 36 countries” affected by intimidation, espionage, threats, cyberattacks, physical assaults, illegal extradition, and rendition.
Written by Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer, the excellent report’s China case study is particularly concerning. The number of democratic countries around the world that cooperate with China’s transnational repression is shocking. The report should be seen as a call to action against any future collaboration with the Beijing regime.
The report, which also highlighted transnational repression by Russia, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Iran, and Turkey, is called “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: The Global Scale and Scope of Transnational Repression.”
China’s transnational repression is marked by three distinctions, according to the authors. “First, the campaign targets many groups, including multiple ethnic and religious minorities, political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, and former insiders accused of corruption,” they wrote. “Second, it spans the full spectrum of tactics: from direct attacks like renditions, to co-opting other countries to detain and render exiles, to mobility controls, to threats from a distance like digital threats, spyware, and coercion by proxy. Third, the sheer breadth and global scale of the campaign is unparalleled. Freedom House’s conservative catalogue of direct, physical attacks since 2014 covers 214 cases originating from China, far more than any other country.”
Mobility controls include, for example, demanding the return of overseas Uyghurs, renditioning or illegally extraditing them to China, and then taking away their passports so they cannot leave China. “At least 109 Uyghurs were deported unlawfully from Thailand in 2015, and 13 were rendered from Egypt without due process; Egypt may have unlawfully deported another 86 during this time,” according to the authors. In March 2020, between 200 and 400 Uyghurs were reportedly detained in Turkey, from which they are sometimes deported. “In August 2019, a Uyghur woman and her two children were deported from Turkey to Tajikistan, and then promptly transferred to Chinese custody,” according to the authors. Saudi Arabia had detained two Uyghurs as late as November 2020 for possible deportation to China. “In November 2020, a Uyghur in Turkey, who had previously come forward as having been pressured to spy on the community, was shot in Istanbul,” according to Freedom House. “He survived, and has accused the Chinese state of targeting him.”
Freedom House documented physical incidents by China in 18 countries, typically to sow fear and self-censorship. In other countries, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intimidated diasporas digitally, including through surveillance, hacking, and phishing attacks, or through lawfare such as the Fox Hunt and Skynet “anti-corruption” campaigns advanced by Xi Jinping himself, or international police alerts (Interpol red notices), which are not subject to judicial review.
“Chinese state media claimed that 3,000 people [accused of corruption] had ‘returned or been repatriated’ from 90 countries,” according to the authors. In the United States alone, hundreds of people were targeted by China’s Fox Hunt.
The authors did an excellent job of showing how China seeks to manipulate international laws, norms, and organizations to achieve its purposes. “China uses Interpol notices to imply international endorsement of its pursuit,” according to the authors. One Chinese state media show “emphasized the legality of the process of repatriation from abroad, including through lengthy legal proceedings in other countries. In line with the CCP’s communications, the overall message of the show was that China’s anticorruption campaign is a fully legal effort accepted by other states as a matter of international cooperation.”
In fact, Beijing uses illegal surveillance, threats, rendition, and family intimidation to force fleeing CCP officials and businesspeople to return to China for prosecution. “In 2018, US intelligence officials alleged off the record to Foreign Policy that Chinese agents had beaten and drugged multiple individuals in Australia, returning them to China by boat,” according to Schenkkan and Linzer.
“The anticorruption campaign is also a vehicle for the CCP to seek to change international norms to better suit its objectives and interests,” according to the authors. “Chinese officials and media present the anticorruption campaign as part of a global effort to shape anticorruption norms.” The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum’s Beijing Declaration of 2014, the G20’s Anti-Corruption Action Plan of 2017-18, the United Nation’s Convention against Corruption, and China’s bilateral legal agreements, are all being used by the CCP for its own malign purposes.
“A 2019 analysis by the Center for Advanced China Research identified 37 countries with which China had extradition treaties, a list that notably includes European Union (EU) member states like Italy, France, and Portugal,” according to the authors. In 2015, Switzerland gave China’s security agents free reign to monitor and possibly intimidate many types of targets.
United Front Work Department
Leaked speeches by Politburo members explicitly prioritize “overseas struggle” against CCP enemies. The speeches specifically advocate “co-opting allies in foreign countries to assist in the effort, using diplomatic channels and relevant laws in host countries, and preventing protests during overseas visits of top party officials,” according to Freedom House.
The cases identified by Freedom House were just the “tip of the iceberg” according to the authors, who wrote that intimidation and other CCP tactics negatively affect millions of overseas Chinese.
Freedom House notes that hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Falun Gong practitioners have long been affected. But that list expanded over the past year to include the Hong Kong and Inner Mongolian diasporas.
“China’s overt transnational repression activities are embedded in a broader framework of influence that encompasses cultural associations, diaspora groups, and in some cases, organized crime networks, which places it in contact with a huge population of Chinese citizens, Chinese diaspora members, and minority populations from China who reside around the world,” according to Schenkkan and Linzer.
The use of pro-Beijing civil society groups to persecute people abroad gives China plausible deniability in its attacks, according to the authors. “Beyond the direct agencies of the party-state, networks of proxy entities—like ‘anti-cult’ associations in the United States, Chinese student groups in Canada, and pro-Beijing activists with organized crime links in Taiwan—have been involved in harassment and even physical attacks against party critics and religious or ethnic minority members.”
The use of civil society groups is best understood, according to the authors, as part of China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD is focused on influencing all those outside the CCP, including inside and outside of China, through various incentives and disincentives, including cultivation, bribes, co-optation, coercion, and threats. For example, “When US authorities arrested a Tibetan New York Police Department officer for spying on the Tibetan community in September 2020, one of his handlers was identified as a Chinese consular employee working for the UFWD,” according to the authors.
CCP’s Extraterritorial Legal Reach
“China’s geopolitical weight allows it to assert unparalleled influence over countries both near (Nepal, Thailand) and far (Egypt, Kenya),” according to the authors. “This produces leverage that the CCP does not hesitate to use against targets around the world.”
Particularly troubling is the increasing latitude that the CCP allows itself in attacking non-Chinese citizens, including Taiwanese, ethnic Chinese, and other foreigners “in response to their peaceful advocacy activities” and “who are critical of CCP influence and human rights abuses.”
The authors note that because of China’s increasing power, including technical capacity, along with its “aggressive claims regarding Chinese citizens and noncitizens overseas, its campaign has a significant effect on the rights and freedoms of overseas Chinese and minority communities in exile in dozens of countries.”
China’s transnational repression poses a threat to the rule of law globally, “because Beijing’s influence is powerful enough to not only violate the rule of law in an individual case, but also to reshape legal systems and international norms to its interests.”
The CCP’s overseas repression is often carried out by its intelligence and security services, including the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and Ministry of State Security (MSS).
“Persecution of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and political dissidents is typically managed by the MSS, but MPS is often involved in threats against family members within China, or cases where regional authorities call exiles to threaten them from within China,” according to the authors. “Anti-Falun Gong activities are led by the 6-10 Office, an extralegal security agency tasked with suppressing banned religious groups, and the MPS, but local officials from various regions are also involved in monitoring Falun Gong exiles from their provinces.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials in embassies and consulates worldwide are also relied upon to persecute people abroad. “China has proven particularly adept at using its geopolitical and economic clout to provoke foreign governments in countries as diverse as India, Thailand, Serbia, Malaysia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Nepal to use their own security forces to detain—and in some cases deport to China—CCP critics, members of targeted ethnic or religious minorities, and refugees,” according to Schenkkan and Linzer.
China’s transnational repression is being codified through the utilization and influence of international organizations, and by a series of Chinese laws that have extraterritorial effects. “A series of new PRC laws passed under Xi have codified the extraterritorial reach of CCP controls, such as the National Intelligence Law, the Hong Kong National Security Law, and the draft Data Security Law,” according to Schenkkan and Linzer.
Tibetans used to be able to flee China through Nepal. But that avenue of escape is now all but closed. “First, stricter mobility controls by China reduced the ability of Tibetans to flee the country, winnowing the number of those reaching Nepal from several thousand per year down to only 23 in 2019,” according to the authors. “At the same time, Tibetans who reached Nepal have been more vulnerable to return, as happened with six individuals who crossed the border in September 2019 but were immediately handed to Chinese authorities.”
An October 2019 border agreement between China and Nepal further expedites the handover of fleeing Tibetans by Nepalese authorities to China. In addition to the U.S. case already mentioned, there have been recent incidents of surveillance and intimidation of Tibetans in Switzerland, Sweden, and Canada.
I myself spoke with a Tibetan in Britain in 2017 who told me that Chinese officials had visited his home and harassed his business, to intimidate him.
Inner Mongolians are also being targeted, according to the authors. “In September 2020, a man from Inner Mongolia living in Australia on a temporary visa reported that he had received a call from local authorities in China warning him that if he spoke out about events in the region, including on social media, then he would ‘be withdrawn from Australia,’” they wrote.
The authors provide details about the regular extraterritorial repression of the Falun Gong, as well. They write that reprisals “include frequent harassment and occasional physical assaults by members of visiting Chinese delegations or pro-Beijing proxies at protests overseas, as in cases that have occurred since 2014 in the United States, the Czech Republic, Taiwan, Brazil, and Argentina.”
The authors continued, “Media and cultural initiatives associated with Falun Gong have reported suspicious break-ins targeting sensitive information, vehicle tampering, and pressure from Chinese authorities for local businesses to cut off advertising or other contractual obligations with them. Multiple Falun Gong practitioners in Thailand have also faced detention, including a Taiwanese man involved in uncensored radio broadcasts to China and several cases of Chinese refugees formally recognized as such by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).”
According to the authors, “In October 2017, a Falun Gong practitioner who had survived a Chinese labor camp and become a high-profile informant on CCP abuses—sneaking a letter into a Halloween decoration when detained and later filming a documentary with undercover footage—died of sudden kidney failure in Indonesia. Some colleagues consider his death suspicious, but no autopsy was performed.”
Beijing’s national security law of June 2020, which targets Hong Kong activists, also has a global reach and is forcing activists to avoid countries with extradition treaties with China. The law criminalizes speech anywhere globally, by people of any nationality, which is critical of China and Hong Kong governments. “Among those who received the first round of arrest warrants under the new law was Samuel Chu, an American citizen, who was charged for his work to gain US government support for the cause of freedom in Hong Kong,” according to Freedom House. “Chu and others like him now must not only avoid traveling to Hong Kong, but also to any country with an extradition treaty with Hong Kong or China.”
Schenkkan and Linzer have provided an impressive summary of not only China’s transnational repression, but its attempt to mold international institutions and laws to its malign and illiberal purposes. That so many democratic countries follow along, arguably due to the economic influence and incentives offered by Beijing, is an astonishing and craven abdication of the values and principles upon which they were founded, and for which their ancestors fought and sacrificed. Much more must be done to end the wrongs that China is committing, and right the moral and ethical foundations of democracies that everywhere collaborate with this illiberal regime. Only through decisive and swift corrections can we protect the future of democracy.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.