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  • Human Rights Research Center

How China Targets Dissidents in the U.S. - A Case Study on Transnational Repression

Author: Xun Jia

March 26, 2024


Transnational Repression refers to actions conducted by a government from a specific state to suppress dissents overseas beyond its jurisdiction. According to Freedom House, China “conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” China was the top state of origin practicing transnational repression in 2022, with 253 on-record cases committed by the Chinese government. Executed by its state-owned agencies and state-sponsored agents, the Chinese government relentlessly carries out various means of suppression targeting dissidents abroad. By studying incidents involving dissenting Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans in the U.S., this report unveils the mechanisms and strategies implemented by the Chinese government, along with the countermeasures taken by the U.S. government.


Tentacles of the Red Octopus: Repressing Organizations


Depending on the targets and the degree of repression that the Chinese government aims at, different affiliated organizations are assigned different tasks. The relationship between the Chinese government and the repressing organizations is similar to the head of an octopus and the tentacles. Each tentacle has its own command component; they process and execute the order given by the head. In order to hunt the prey efficiently, some tentacles choose to collaborate, with or without the approval from the central command. In general, there are two types of repressing organizations: state-owned agencies and state-sponsored agents. The former type are organizations owned by the Chinese government, directly or indirectly, that execute the Chinese government’s command to persecute overseas Chinese dissidents. The latter type are local organizations in the target country, usually sponsored by the Chinese government, to help facilitate ideological propaganda, assist the state-owned agencies in carrying out serious degrees of repression, and carry out a lesser degree of persecution against overseas Chinese and non-Chinese dissidents.


Chinese Embassy and Consulate. The Chinese embassy and consulate are one of the state-owned agencies that the Chinese government operates to conduct transnational repression. In the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Consulate Protection and Assistance (“Regulation”) that took effect on September 1, 2023, article 4 paragraph 2 requires Chinese embassies and consulates (“Embassies'') to “strengthen communication and coordination with relevant national departments and local governments of China”; Article 6 paragraph 1 states that overseas Chinese may pre-register basic information in embassies for future use, but paragraph 2 of the same article requires the sharing of the registered information between embassies and “relevant national departments.” Article 4 paragraphs 2 and 4, Article 18 and Article 20 authorize “relevant national departments'' and embassies to provide “safety training,""safety warning” and “security publicity” to overseas Chinese citizens and entities. On one hand, the regulation claims to cover “the relevant assisting coordination, safety prevention, and supporting activities,” and the purpose is to “defend the legitimate rights of Chinese citizens abroad” in the preamble of the regulation. But, on the other hand, with the aforementioned articles involving the collaboration with national departments and information sharing, and phrases like “implementing the overall national security” in the preamble, the regulation also provides leeway for the Chinese government to exercise transnational repression against dissidents overseas through the embassies.



Ministry of Public Security. Do “relevant national departments” include the Ministry of Public Security (MPS)? In the National Public Security International Cooperation Work Conference held in 2017, MPS emphasized that it “implements the decisions and arrangements of the Party Central Committee, coordinates both domestic and international situations, coordinates both domestic and overseas policing fronts” and “serve[s] the national strategy and overall external work” in order to “make new and greater contributions to safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and development interests.” In addition, a study shows that “the MPS conducts transnational repression operations such as kidnapping and threatening political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, ethnic and religious minorities, and former officials accused of corruption.” Between 2014 and 2022, 10,105 people, including foreign citizens, were forcefully brought to China from 120 countries. But formal, lawful extradition cases only account for 1% of the involuntary returning population. Although MPS purported that Operation Sky Net, the campaign of overseas policing operations, was for “anti-corruption,” evidence suggests that human rights activists and ethnic Uyghurs whose family members were persecuted in China are targeted through the campaign as well.



The Chinese Students and Scholar Association. Besides the direct involvement of the Chinese government, state-sponsored agents like student organizations and local proxies are also responsible for committing transnational repression. The Chinese Students and Scholar Association (CSSA) is a student organization that purports to support Chinese students studying in U.S. universities. With the presence of more than 150 university chapters, CSSA has the most influence in terms of holding activities related to Chinese culture, like the Spring Festival Fair, and connecting Chinese students. However, ever since the Chinese government allowed its citizens to attend universities in the U.S. in the 1970s, “the CCP created…CSSA to monitor Chinese students and mobilize them against views that dissent from the CCP’s stance. That directive has not changed.” In most universities where CSSA operates, it is the only on-campus Chinese student organization certified and funded by the Chinese embassy.


There are numerous incidents in which CSSA was involved in meeting the ideological interests of the Chinese government. In 2007, David Matas, a Canadian human rights lawyer, found himself surrounded by heavy CSSA protests when delivering a speech about the Chinese government’s forcible organ “harvesting” from religious prisoners of consciousness. In 2017, after the Chancellor of the University of California San Diego announced the Dalai Lama’s visit, CSSA on-campus immediately announced: “All behaviors which disgrace politics and history under the flag of spreading religious freedom are carried with intricate motivation and cannot be tolerated, no matter what background they are put into.” CSSA also reached out to the Consulate General in Los Angeles, according to its WeChat announcement. Zhou Fengsuo, a human rights activist and survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, testified in Congress on the difficulty of discussing politics with Chinese students on campus “due to the pervasive presence of CSSAs that monitor and organize the students on behalf of the Chinese Embassy.”



Townsmen Association. Townsmen Association is the local proxy the Chinese government directs to spread propaganda and monitor expatriates. It is usually for those who are from the same place on a local level, such as the same province or city. Because of the shared province of origin, members often have a strong sense of belonging to the association. Townsmen associations in places populated with Chinese ethnicities are often influential culturally, economically, and politically, because of members' shared advocacy based on their shared identity. For example, many prominent political figures, including but not limited to the New York Governor, New York City Mayor, and Congressional Representatives, sent their regards and greetings to the ShaoXing Association of America for the 20th Anniversary Celebration.


Fukien American Association is the largest Townsmen Association for Chinese from the Fujian province. On June 30, 2021, the association held a public seminar in Manhattan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and praised the CCP’s role in modernizing China and leading China to great achievements in areas like politics, economics, technologies, cultures, and so on. However, the association’s ties with the Chinese government reaches beyond merely ideological espousing. Lu Jianwang, a U.S. citizen and the president of the association, was arrested for operating an overseas Chinese police station and supporting the transnational repression conducted by the Chinese government. Lu conceded to the FBI agent that he had frequent communication with the MPS. Along with Che Jinping, another suspect under the same charge, Lu’s court trial was set for January 19, 2024.



How the Red Octopus Hunts: Forms of Repression


From domestic to abroad, local to national, and educational to social, China has a far-reaching and frightening network that nets the dissents overseas. With state-owned agencies like the embassies and MPS, and state-sponsored agents like CSSAs and local townsmen associations, the Chinese government effectively plots multiple successful, yet catastrophic cases of transnational repression. In most circumstances, the degree of the repression depends on the level of the target’s publicity. For targets with high public reputations or profound influences, the Chinese government usually carries severe forms of repression, like assassination and bounty. For targets whose influence is limited, or whose occasional/unintentional voices are politically/non-politically negative, the Chinese government would consider less critical measures, like intimidation, harassment, or defamation. In addition, it is noteworthy that the Chinese government also uses a combination of repressions to maximize the effect.


Assassination. In 2022, Li Jinjin, a 66-year-old U.S. citizen who worked as an immigration lawyer in New York, was stabbed to death by a woman with a knife. When massive protests began to emerge in Beijing in early 1989, Li took the initiative and joined a group of students and workers to advocate for democracy. Although Li survived the Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was arrested and imprisoned by the authorities. After fleeing to the U.S. and obtaining a law degree from UW-Madison, Li started to practice immigration law and represented clients who were under threat of involuntary return by the Chinese government. He publicly denounced the transnational suppression exercised by the Chinese government and was interviewed multiple times by Voice of America to express his concerns over growing human rights abuses in China.



Zhang Xiaoning, the woman responsible for Li Jinjin’s death, was an asylum seeker from China. One month after entering the U.S. on a student visa, Zhang claimed that she was “raped by the Beijing Police” back in China and reached out to Li Jinjin for legal advice. Three days before the assassination, Zhang Xiaoning was in an intense argument with Li Jinjin, and Li escorted her out of his office. A source says that there is a tape of Zhang Xiaoning affirming that she lied about the persecution she allegedly went through. When NY police arrested Zhang Xiaoning at the crime scene, bystanders asked her if she regretted murdering Li. Zhang shouted: “It is you traitors that regret it the most. You (all) are Chinese, but you (all) oppose the (Chinese) communist party. You (all) have already killed countless students, but you are still going to kill more?”


Bounty. Frances Hui Wing-ting, a localist activist from Hong Kong, has a bounty on her freedom. In 2019, up to 2 million Hong Kong citizens went on the streets to protest against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, which would allow the Hong Kong government to deport anyone who violates Chinese law to Mainland China, where the Chinese government has the full legal authority to punish and trail the dissents it targets. To voice for change, Frances made The World is Speaking Up, a short film introducing the context of the amendment and explaining the devastating effect on the democracy of Hong Kong if the amendment bill is passed. On June 9th, she joined a pro-Hong Kong democracy rally in Boston, and since then faced constant harassment from individual Chinese who placed absolute faith in the Chinese authority from members of CSSAs and local pro-CCP Chinese associations. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, she recalled receiving death threats from schoolmates who tailed her to her dorm. On December 17, 2020, Frances announced her exile on social media. On December 14, 2023, due to Frances’s commitment to independent Hong Kong identity in the U.S. and advocacy for democracy in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Police Force charged Frances with committing crimes of “inciting secession, inciting subversion of state power, and colluding with foreign countries or external forces to endanger national security." The Hong Kong authority offered HKD 1 million (equivalent to USD 270,000) for relevant information about Frances Hui Wing-ting.



Harassment. Fear of retaliation is what kept Zhang Jinrui, a Chinese student studying law at Georgetown University, quiet from voicing political opinions against CCP until the implementation of the “zero-Covid” policy. The policy politicizes the COVID-19 pandemic and transforms typical, reasonable epidemic prevention into an infiltrating and pervasive total control of every aspect of life. In late 2022, Zhang encountered insults from fellow Chinese students, accusing him of “being a traitor and paid off by the American government,” when he put up anti-lockdown posters on the school campus. Zhang’s pro-democracy activism led to the harassment of family members by the Chinese authorities. At first, the police reached his sister for basic family information. Then, officers of the Minister of National Security interrogated his father at the doorstep for more than 2 hours. After interviews with Radio Free Asia in September and Voice of America in October, Zhang’s family faced even more relentless harassment and intimidation. The local government summoned his father, where an official showed him Zhang’s WeChat text messages and asked his father to stop him from speaking against the Chinese government.



Defamation. In 2017, the video of the commencement speech of Yang Shuping, a Chinese student studying at the University of Maryland, went viral on Chinese social media. In the speech, Yang said: " The air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious …the moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free …I grew up in a city in China where I had to wear face masks every time I went outside, otherwise I might get sick." A day after the commencement, Huanqiu.com, a state-own media, claimed the speech was “defaming the motherland," "(an attempt of) integrating into the United States," "completely untrue," and "a huge sarcasm.” The People’s Daily, another Communist Party-run newspaper, accused Yang of “bolstering negative Chinese stereotypes.” When asked about the storming public opinions regarding Yang Shuping’s speech and the role of the Chinese embassy, the spokesperson of the MPS stated: “Any Chinese citizen should be responsible for his or her stance on anything,” and said he never heard about the Chinese embassy’s participation in the event. Coincidentally, the CSSA University of Maryland chapter produced a video with pictures of blue skies in their hometowns in China, titled “Proud of China UMD.” However, statistics from 2017 say otherwise. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, China ranks 26th in the world in the mean population exposure to PM2.5, while the U.S. only ranks 178th among 248 countries, regions, and country groups (Note: The higher the rank, the better the overall on-average air quality).



Tearing Down the Tentacles: U.S. Countermeasures


On December 27, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act (TRAP Act). The act aims to fill the loophole that authoritarian governments use to extradite political and religious dissidents. On June 20, 2023, two Chinese citizens and a retired NYPD sergeant were found guilty of assisting the Chinese government’s illegal extradition. The federal jury’s verdict confirmed that the “defendants… acted at the direction of a hostile foreign state to harass, intimidate and attempt to cause the involuntary return of a resident of the New York metropolitan area to the People’s Republic of China, and that defendant Zheng harassed and intimidated that same person and his family.” To address the “soft” agencies that act accordingly to the wishes of the Chinese government on U.S. soil, Representatives Mike Gallagher and Neal Dunn suggested “prohibiting CCSA’s on American university campuses if they receive funding from or act on the instructions of the Chinese government,” since “CSSA’s often engage Chinese students before they arrive in the United States. Once here, they survey their activities, noting who is for and against the party… The students at our roundtable also reported that WeChat groups are used to monitor and report on their peers and on their professors.”


Why the Red Octopus? The Underlying Rationale


Shutting down every voice can be costly, and such a solution can only handle the visible ones; in other words, as long as the Chinese government continuously commits human rights abuses and ignores the call for accountability and transparency, there will always be soil and nutrition for new overseas dissent to grow. That’s why the Chinese government does not follow a fixed, singular pattern when conducting transnational suppression. Its intended goal is to achieve the Chilling Effect, or “repression without repressing.” Although not all overseas dissidents are suppressed, as long as some of them are targeted, there will always be the fear that stops the vast majority from speaking up. And with the presence of the repressing organizations that surveil overseas citizens’ speech and public gestures, no one would want to take the chance unless they felt the overriding necessity. For example, most citizens wouldn’t speak up unless they or their family members became the victim of the state’s wrongdoings. As pointed out in Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem, a similar situation happened when the Nazi German regime gradually took out the opposition: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist; Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.” Dissenting voices that are isolated, minimized, and divided do not constitute fundamental threats to authoritarian rule. This is exactly what the Chinese government desires to achieve through conducting transnational repression selectively and sophistically, rather than eliminating every possible opposition through single, identical means. Although in recent years there emerged executive, legislative and judicial responses from places like the U.S. that provide safe haven to overseas Chinese dissidents, there should be more international awareness and civic engagement, as well as more proactive measures from democratic countries to stop the spread of conducting transnational repression.


 

Glossary


  • Colluding/Collusion: To work together secretly especially in order to do something illegal or dishonest.

  • Defamation: The act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person.

  • Denounce: To pronounce especially publicly to be blameworthy or evil.

  • Dissidents: A person who opposes official policy and/or the ruling authority.

  • Espouse: To take up and support as a cause.

  • Extradition: The surrender of an alleged criminal usually under the provisions of a treaty or statute by one authority (such as a state) to another having jurisdiction to try the charge.

  • Extrapolate: To predict future outcomes based on known facts.

  • Jurisdiction: The power, right, or authority to interpret and apply the law.

  • PM 2.5: An index used to measure air quality. The higher the number, the worse the air quality.

  • Preamble: An introductory statement.

  • Repression: To prevent the natural or normal expression, activity, or development of something.

  • Sovereignty: Supreme power and controlling influence over a politically organized group of people.

  • Subversion: A systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within.

  • Suppression: To put down by authority or force.

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