The suspect had traveled to Germany under a false name on a Russian state-issued passport, the investigative organization Bellingcat claimed. Putin boasted of the killing.
Vitaly Shishov: Belarusian freedom fighter.
Freedom House asserts that China conducts “the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.”
The breadth of overseas targets is astonishingly wide: ethnic minorities, notably Uighurs and Tibetans who chafe under Chinese rule; human-rights activists, journalists and other dissenters; and allegedly corrupt former officials, many of whom were once close to the ruling class but fell out of favor.
The tactics include direct spying, surveillance on the Web, direct online warnings, intimidating personal visits, demands that the subject return to China lest they put relatives in China in danger, a practice known as coercion by proxy. Sometimes the relatives in China are forced to record hostage-like videos to send to enforce the message.
Threats to third-party relatives in order to get confessions from adversaries, real or imagined, were a favored tactic of Josef Stalin during his Great Purge of the 1930s.
China has effectively imposed jurisdiction on its citizens abroad. Things prohibited within Chinese borders – say, criticizing President Xi Jinping – are also forbidden to Chinese outside.
In 2014, China launched a program called Fox Hunt and, a year later, Skynet. Both were aimed at ferreting out citizens abroad supposedly guilty of financial crimes. By 2018, Chinese media reported that 3,000 people had been “repatriated.” Sometimes they were sent home via extradition treaties with foreign countries, and sometimes with the use threats and pressure.
The US government says more sinister motives lie behind Fox Hunt: to politically control Chinese emigrants abroad.
“Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals whom he sees as threats, and who live outside China across the world. We’re talking about political rivals, dissidents, and critics seeking to expose China’s extensive human-rights violations,” Christopher Wray, director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in a speech in June 2020.
China labels these allegations smears. Tracking down Chinese people abroad is necessary because they are criminal suspects – and the US and China do not have an extradition treaty, Beijing officials say.
In a lengthy July 22 report, ProPublica, an American investigative journal, detailed how a team of Chinese agents scoured the United States, from New Jersey, through Texas and to California, to identify and threaten Chinese expatriates.
In one case, having persuaded a man to return to China on a corruption charge, authorities then used him as a hostage to recruit his family members in the US to help snare expatriates.
Several Fox Hunt operatives, and a non-Chinese alleged accomplice, were eventually arrested and charged with being unregistered agents of a foreign government.
China also tries to suppress pro-democracy activism among its tens of thousands of students who study abroad.
In a June 30 report, Human Rights Watch said Chinese classmates in Australia report other students’ activities to authorities in China. Relatives at home were threatened over the student’s activities. Scandals broke out over the unwillingness of university administrators to defend free speech, eager as they were to attract students who pay full tuition and Chinese cash for academic programs.
“It was really heartbreaking how alone these students were and how vulnerable they are so far from home and feeling this lack of protection from the university,” said Sophie McNeill, the report’s author. “Universities really fear a backlash from Beijing, so rather than discuss these issues openly, they are swept under the carpet.”
It takes little to trigger the nightmare of long-distance repression. In February, a Chinese student traveling to Europe posted a comment on the Internet questioning the official number of Chinese deaths that occurred during a firefight with Indian troops on the Chinese-Indian frontier.
The Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo reported the comments to Beijing authorities. Police in the student’s home city of Chongqing raided his parents’ home, handcuffed them, told them to tell their son to delete the post, and also confiscated an iPad, cash and computers. Police in Chongqing told The Guardian newspaper that the student “slandered and belittled the heroes” of the battle with India, and was “causing negative social impact.”
The Middle East is another hotbed of transnational repression. For decades, Iran has engaged in plots to capture or kill political enemies. This month, the US Justice Department charged four Iranian agents operating in the US with trying to kidnap Iranian journalist and human-rights campaigner Masih Alinejad. The conspiracy was allegedly financed by an Iranian living in California.
In the US, there is a focus on the sins of the country’s current main adversaries. But friends are also involved in cross-border repression, too.
In 2018 US-friendly Saudi Arabia assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside its own consulate in Turkey. The most recent Saudi case involves Saad Aljabri, a former aide to a rival of current de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman. Aljabri fled to Canada in 2017. The Saudis have sought to lure him back by forbidding his two adult children to leave the country. In March, the siblings disappeared in police custody.
Egypt, led by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, officially a US “partner,” is suspected of using a similar hostage-like approach to threaten dissident expatriates. In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch said, “Egyptian authorities have carried out arrests, house raids, interrogations, and travel bans against dozens of relatives of dissidents who live abroad.”
On the defensive
Over the past year, suggestions on how to curb transnational repressions have come out of the US Congress; less so out of European governments or the European Union.
American proposals are largely defensive. When an abuse is identified, either sanctions should be imposed on offending officials or lawsuits lodged against governments illicitly pursuing citizens abroad. Congress is proposing loosening measures to make it easier for victims to go to court. Officials are lamenting the inexperience of border agents in identifying foreign agents and suggest more training and funds.
In Europe, police are ill-equipped to handle threats against migrant communities, observers say. Muslim communities that are often suspected by European governments of extremism rarely get a hearing on complaints they are being harassed or threatened.
Moreover, governments in Europe and elsewhere tend to rubber-stamp requests made through Interpol, the international crime information sharing organization, from countries that want to detain its citizens – even if the target is simply a political activist.
In June, authorities in Morocco held Uighur online activist Yidiresi Aishan at the request of China, pending deportation. The request was filed via a so-called Interpol “red notice,” an alert that the fugitive is on a most-wanted list.
After appeals from human-rights groups, Morocco suspended the deportation, pending review of the case.
In the contest between authoritarian determination and scattered democratic response, the dictators have the advantage: For them, control is a way to stay in power. The wider world is but another field of combat beyond the home front.
Cross-border repression, already enjoying a boom, will only grow. Exiled activists ought to be afraid. That’s one of the points of transnational repression.