These Dissidents Thought They Had Escaped. Then China's Long Arm Grabbed Them

Xi Jinping’s regime is forcibly bringing back Chinese citizens suspected of corruption who've fled the country. This practice, which includes kidnapping, targets anyone seen as a threat, says a new human rights group report

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A surveillance camera in Beijing.
A surveillance camera in Beijing.

Tahir Imin, an activist in China’s Uyghur community – a largely Islamic minority that is being persecuted by the regime in Beijing – fled the country in 2017 for Israel, leaving behind his wife and daughter. One day he got a call from the police in Xinjiang, the region in northwest China where the Uyghurs live. They tried to persuade him to return home.

Having firsthand acquaintance with the Chinese government’s harsh oppression of his people, Imin, who is 40 today, was apprehensive that the phone call was only the opening volley of a campaign of relentless pressure that would be brought to bear on him. After being granted a visa by the United States, he moved to Washington, D.C. He tried to stay in contact with his family, but his wife told him that she wanted a divorce so that the police would stop bothering her with questions about him. His daughter called him and told him to stop contacting them because he was a “bad man.” In a 2018 interview to the online news site BuzzFeed, he said he realized that she had been forced to speak to him as she did.

Imin’s story is one example of China’s pursuit of exiles and the regime’s methods of pressure. The persecution spearheaded by political and judicial authorities in Beijing is the subject of a report published on January 18 by the Madrid-based human rights organization Safeguard Defenders. Local Uyghurs are not the primary target in these cases. Indeed, the report describes how an operation to fight corruption, which was promoted by President Xi Jinping from his first years in power, morphed into a government mechanism enabling China to extend its long arm overseas.

It was in 2014 that Beijing launched Operation Fox Hunt, overseen by a unit in the Public Security Ministry. Its mission: to apprehend corrupt officials, including employees of state institutions who had fled China and found asylum in other countries, either formally or clandestinely. The unit was categorized as a task force operating under the auspices of both the general prosecution and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party, which enabled it to take action against party members as well.

A year later, a second body, possessing broader powers, was established. Sky Net, as the new group was called, was integrated into and expanded the activity of Fox Hunt, and worked with Interpol to issue arrest warrants for suspects. In 2018, the National Supervision Commission was created to advance the fight against corruption, as part of what was effectively an extension of the Communist Party’s discipline inspection unit. The new commission, which is not a judicial body, answers directly to President Xi and has authority over both party members and non-members.

According to the Safeguard Defenders report, the national supervision commission augmented “the growing reach of China’s policing overseas.” In addition to persons suspected of corruption and economic crimes, the commission also targeted ostensible opponents of the regime, religious groups – such as the Uyghurs and the Falun Gong – and others perceived by Beijing as threats.

“Involuntary Return,” the title of the Safeguard Defenders’ new report, pinpoints three principal means by which Beijing forcibly brings individuals back to mainland China after they have been tracked down by Sky Net operations.

One method is to threaten family members who remained in China and subject them to intense pressure so that they will persuade loved ones who fled to return home. Another means is by applying direct pressure on those who escaped – either by sending them threatening messages in their current country of residence or by means of agents who actually approach them there. A third method is to kidnap the “fugitives” from the country where they have found asylum or to lure them to a different country and seize them there. In some cases the aim is to get them to enter a country that has a valid extradition treaty with China, or they are simply arrested without an orderly legal procedure.

Wang Jingyu was 18 when he left China for Europe in 2019, in order to start a new life. Last February, he wrote a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, about an exchange of fire that took place in June 2020 along the India-China border, wondering how many casualties had resulted. Within half an hour of the posting of his query, police and/or agents of a security organization arrived at his parents’ home in Chongqing in southwestern China, confiscated computers and took his parents into custody.

Wang Jingyu.

Wang told Safeguard Defenders that his parents were finally released at midnight that same day, but in the days that followed they were summoned repeatedly to the police station and detained for hours. They were ordered to call Wang, so as to persuade him to return to China and turn himself in. “The police also threatened that my suspected crime could be ‘upgraded’ to subversion of state power, if I refused to come back,” he told the Spanish human rights group.

Subsequently, the police contacted him directly and told him that he must return to China urgently because his mother was hospitalized and dying. The harassment went on for weeks, and in April last year Wang was arrested by authorities at the airport in Dubai while awaiting a flight to the United States. He was released only a month and a half later, on May 27, after Western media reported his arrest and the U.S. State Department put pressure on the UAE to free him. Since then, Wang has been in Holland, where his request for asylum is being processed.

Guo Xin, a former history professor, was placed on China’s list of its 100 most wanted individuals – she was accused of bribe-taking – and was coerced into returning to China from the United States in 2017. Before boarding the plane, she posted a letter online in which she related that in 2016 the Chinese authorities had threatened her sister back home, to the effect that the sister’s family “[will] not have a normal life” if Guo did not return. Under these circumstances, Guo decided to go back.

According to the director of Safeguard Defenders, what began as an operation to fight corruption became a major tool in the hands of Xi Jinping to further bolster his power and to get rid of rivals and dissidents.

In 2009, Li Gang, a real estate developer from Wuhan, in central China, moved to the United States with his family. The authorities back home subsequently accused him of embezzlement and afterward added a charge of attempting to subvert state power. In 2017, one of Li’s brothers called him, informed him of the charges and asked him to return home. The Wuhan authorities exerted pressure on his brothers, his mother and his ex-wife’s family in order to compel Li to give himself up.

In March 2018, his younger brother was arrested, but harassment of the family continued. A few months later, his mother died of a stroke. The police told Li’s older brother that if he didn’t return to China and surrender himself to the authorities, the charges against him would be transferred to his younger brother, who would be sent to prison in his place.

That June, Chinese agents contacted Li and said they were organizing a team, consisting of four members of the government task force and his ex-wife’s brother, to meet with him in the United States. The meeting point was subsequently changed to Canada and afterward to Japan. Li agreed the first two times, but refused to go to Japan. In November 2018 an unknown person, who was not Chinese, visited his landlord in the United States and asked if Li was his tenant; someone else also went to his workplace to ask about him.

In January 2019, “a white man, accompanied by a Chinese translator,” visited Li’s (second) wife, saying they were from the FBI and had been sent to protect him. Two months later he changed his phone number, and, “I haven’t heard from them since.”

Bolstering power

According to Peter Dahlin, director of Safeguard Defenders, what began as an operation to fight corruption became a major tool in the hands of Xi Jinping to further bolster his power and to get rid of rivals and dissidents. Since Fox Hunt was launched, in mid-2014, about 10,000 people have been brought back to China from 120 countries, according to official government data. The great majority were in fact accused of economic crimes, but the figures conceal myriad cases of the coerced return of political activists, members of minorities such as the Uyghurs, and others.

In a Zoom interview, Dahlin tells Haaretz that the real number may well be higher than reported, though he is also aware of the possibility that government officials in Beijing inflated the data in order to win the esteem of official Communist Party bodies.

The Safeguard Defenders document recounts the cases of 62 individuals who were targets of one of the regime’s three methods: pressure on relatives, use of agents and kidnapping. Thirty-six of them were ultimately brought back to China. Dahlin adds that his organization identified another 46 cases that were not included in the report for lack of sufficient information. In any event, he notes, his organization’s findings are only the tip of the iceberg. “It’s the visible part, but we do not know how big the iceberg is,” he says.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tiananmen Square, in September.

According to the rights group’s researchers, starting in 2014 there was an uptick in the number of persons who were returned to China. In 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic and worldwide travel restrictions, 1,421 returnees were recorded, the second-highest number since Fox Hunt began; the peak had come the previous year, in 2019, when there were 2,041 such cases. Those who are forced to return are placed on trial and in most cases serve prison terms after being convicted. According to Safeguard Defenders, the conviction rate in China is 99 percent in such instances.

Dahlin explains that Beijing derives domestic PR benefits from these operations. Often the returnees are paraded in front of the media when they are taken off the plane, under police escort. In some cases they state for the cameras that they are happy to return to their homeland, and that life in exile was not good for them. State media outlets, he adds, broadcast programs glorifying the Fox Hunt and Sky Net operations, featuring favorable profiles of the agents involved.

We can’t have a foreign government sending agents to carry out policing activity against an ethnic minority in another country. That’s ridiculous.

Peter Dahlin

“Another thing our report exposes, which was not known until now,” Dahlin says, “is that an official legal document exists that outlines the use of these methods – kidnappings, entrapments, luring people to third countries where it is easier to get them. We have it in black and white.” Though officially these methods are termed exceptional, he adds, their use is not so rare.

“When they [government officials] try to justify such operations, they tend to say that these [third] countries don’t have an extradition agreement with China, ‘so we have no choice,’” he continues. “But we have found that many of these operations take place in countries that do have extradition agreements with China, but are undertaken by means of illegal foreign agents and actual kidnappings. In other words, they use ‘alternate’ methods in countries whenever it suits them, because it’s easier, faster, more successful and cost-effective.”

Such methods, he avers, “violate not just the sovereignty of these countries but also the trust that underlies an extradition treaty or a judicial cooperation agreement.”

Police officers patrol the square in front of Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, May 3, 2021.

Although judicial cooperation with China to extradite corruption suspects is important, Dahlin agrees, the countries that deal with Beijing must have full clarity regarding the situation: “Normally in cases of extradition there is interaction between prosecutorial authorities or between courts. But in these cases, countries are compelled to engage a political body – the ruling party.”

He describes the National Supervision Commission as a “centralized ministry” that “stands above the police, the Supreme Court and the state prosecution. It is expanding rapidly, and taking more and more control over areas that should be the responsibility of those authorities. They centralize power at the commission especially in regard to the international arena.”

The rights group’s report also notes that under the law that empowers the commission’s modus operandi, China this year “will carry out operations of international cooperation against corruption.” The relevant clause in this law does not stipulate exactly how this is to be implemented and against which targets.

For his part, Dahlin is concerned that the international community is not doing enough in the face of China’s aggressive activity. Beijing draws encouragement from this apathy, and sees no reason to desist from its operations. Dahlin and his organization are calling on countries and authorities everywhere, whether or not they have extradition agreements with China, to be vigilant about dealing with Beijing activities, to establish supervisory mechanisms and to upgrade the protection of Chinese citizens who find asylum on their soil.

“We can’t have a foreign government sending agents to carry out policing activity against an ethnic minority in another country,” he declares. “That’s ridiculous.”

A security guard in Beijing, this month.

Official response

The Embassy of China in Israel offered these comments in response: “It is the consensus shared by the international community that efforts should be made to combat cross-border crimes, enhance anti-corruption cooperation and bring back fugitives and recover their criminal assets. No country in the world would like to be a safe haven for the corrupt.

“Operations abroad like the Sky Net and Fox Hunt are important actions taken by the Chinese government to go after corrupt suspects that have fled abroad, and aim to repatriate fugitives and uphold the sanctity of law and social justice.

“Recent years witnessed China’s cooperation with over 120 countries and regions on bringing back suspects. During our cooperation, China has been strictly observing international law and customary practices on international justice and law enforcement, fully respecting other countries’ judicial sovereignty, and protecting the criminal suspects’ lawful rights and interests, which have been widely supported and fully recognized.

“We hope to carry out more cooperation with relevant countries in this regard to advance international anti-corruption cooperation.”

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