A Global Campaign of Repression, Made in China
The Chinese government is the world’s leading perpetrator of attacks on dissidents abroad.
By Nate Schenkkan and Sarah Cook
February 05, 2021
The Chinese Communist regime, often with the aid of other governments, is systematically hunting down its political and religious exiles, no matter where in the world they seek refuge.
In cases that occurred or have come to light just since December, Nepali police detained five Tibetans when they attempted to discreetly participate in elections for Tibet’s government-in-exile in India. A Chinese-Swedish businessman with ties to the Falun Gong spiritual group was stopped in Poland based on an Interpol red notice, held for 20 months, and threatened with extradition to China. Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas was arbitrarily sentenced to 20 years in prison in China, in apparent retribution for her sister speaking publicly in the United States about the human rights crisis in Xinjiang. And Hong Kong democracy activists and former legislators were named on the Hong Kong police’s “wanted list” under the new National Security Law, despite residing in Europe, Taiwan, and the United States.
Beijing is not alone in these pursuits.
Nonetheless, among the 31 origin governments found to have engaged in transnational repression since 2014, China’s authoritarian regime is conducting the most sophisticated and comprehensive campaign of its kind. The sheer breadth and global scale of the effort is unparalleled. Freedom House’s conservative catalogue of direct, physical attacks during the coverage period includes 214 cases traced to China, far more than any other country and accounting for more than one-third of the total 608 incidents documented worldwide.
The extensive scope of Beijing’s transnational repression is the result of a broad and ever-expanding definition of who should be subject to the CCP’s extraterritorial control. The campaign has certainly pursued political dissidents, human rights activists, and journalists living abroad or attempting to avoid persecution in China by residing in neighboring countries like Myanmar or Thailand.
But the CCP also targets entire ethnic and religious groups, including Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong practitioners, who together number in the hundreds of thousands globally. Among other cases, the report documents the mass deportation of more than 100 Uyghurs from Egypt and Thailand to China; an ethnic Tibetan police officer in New York who was reportedly recruited to spy on exiles; and harassment or physical assaults by members of visiting Chinese delegations or pro-Beijing proxies against peaceful Falun Gong protesters in the United States, the Czech Republic, Taiwan, and Argentina.ADVERTISEMENT
Since CCP leader Xi Jinping launched an aggressive anti-corruption campaign in 2012, the party’s disciplinary apparatus has sought out what may be thousands of former regime officials who are living abroad and accused of malfeasance. And over the past year alone, the list of targeted populations has also come to include ethnic Mongolians and Hong Kongers. In September 2020, for example, a man from China’s Inner Mongolia region who was 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 protests in the region and corresponding repression, including on social media, then he would “be withdrawn from Australia.”
The Chinese government has even sought to assert control over foreign nationals with no direct ties to the People’s Republic – including Taiwanese citizens and ethnic Chinese citizens of other countries – who are critical of CCP influence and human rights abuses.
The CCP’s transnational repression campaign spans the full spectrum of tactics: direct attacks like renditions and beatings, co-optation of other countries’ authorities to detain and render exiles, passport suspensions and other mobility controls, and long-distance threats like online intimidation, spyware, and coercion by proxy using family members still in China.
Notably, the parts of the Chinese party-state apparatus involved in transnational repression are as diverse as the targets of the campaign. The harshest forms of transnational repression by Chinese agents – espionage, cyberattacks, threats, and physical assaults – emanate primarily from the CCP’s domestic security and military services, with their various international branches. Other forms of intimidation are undertaken by Chinese diplomats or officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs bureaucracy.
Nate Schenkkan is director for special research at Freedom House and primary author of “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach.”
Sarah Cook is research director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House.