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China’s Threats Target Regime Opponents Worldwide

Legal tools and anonymous threats are used against dissidents.

By , the editor in chief of Index on Censorship magazine.
Nathan Law speaks at a pro-democracy rally.
Nathan Law speaks at a pro-democracy rally.
Former Hong Kong lawmaker Nathan Law, now in exile in the United Kingdom, speaks at a rally for Hong Kong democracy at the Marble Arch in London on June 12, 2021. Laurel Chor/Getty Images

Benedict Rogers lives in a leafy, quiet suburb of southwest London. Shortly after he founded the human rights nongovernmental organization and website Hong Kong Watch in 2017, he returned home to find an unusual letter on his doorstep. It was postmarked from Hong Kong and simply addressed to “resident.” Inside was a photograph of himself emblazoned with the words “watch him.” It had been sent to everyone on his street.

I spoke to Rogers close to the time, and he joked that until then, none of his neighbors knew who he was. The harassment nevertheless left a bad taste in his mouth, especially when subsequent letters were directed to his mother’s house.

But this March, the threats expanded, when a letter arrived from the Hong Kong Police Force. They accused Rogers of “collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security,” a punishable crime under the draconian national security law. If Rogers returns to Hong Kong, he could face three years in prison.

Benedict Rogers lives in a leafy, quiet suburb of southwest London. Shortly after he founded the human rights nongovernmental organization and website Hong Kong Watch in 2017, he returned home to find an unusual letter on his doorstep. It was postmarked from Hong Kong and simply addressed to “resident.” Inside was a photograph of himself emblazoned with the words “watch him.” It had been sent to everyone on his street.

I spoke to Rogers close to the time, and he joked that until then, none of his neighbors knew who he was. The harassment nevertheless left a bad taste in his mouth, especially when subsequent letters were directed to his mother’s house.

But this March, the threats expanded, when a letter arrived from the Hong Kong Police Force. They accused Rogers of “collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security,” a punishable crime under the draconian national security law. If Rogers returns to Hong Kong, he could face three years in prison.

Rogers is the first known British citizen targeted under the national security law. The threats against him represent an escalation in China’s ambitions to control conversations far beyond its borders.

For decades now, China has taken aim at its diaspora. All over the world, Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Chinese dissidents, whether activists or just exiles, have reported threatening calls and cyberattacks. They’ve been told their families and friends back home will be punished if they don’t keep a low profile. They’ve watched—in extreme circumstances—people being plucked from streets thousands of miles from Beijing, only to appear in Chinese detention.

But today, anyone who advocates for freedoms in China or challenges the government line risks suffering Beijing’s wrath. Rogers is merely one of a growing cohort of non-diaspora people and organizations that Beijing is trying to intimidate into silence.

Take a few recent examples: Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, was the victim of a number of burglaries in 2018 that she believes are linked to her work investigating China’s foreign influence activities. Matej Simalcik, executive director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, was sent threats by Luboslav Stora, the Slovak director of the Chinese Confucius Institute in Bratislava. One read: “Are you sleeping well? You should be under a lot of stress when you’re walking down the street.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime “poses an increasing threat to freedom itself around the world,” Rogers told Foreign Policy last week after a slew of articles in a Hong Kong newspaper targeted him.

Rogers is right. Beijing is sending a message to the world: Shut up unless you’re on our team.

The tactics are working—to an extent. By going to extremes and choosing high-profile targets, these cases fill news headlines and make sure everyone knows the costs of speaking against Beijing. It’s a sort of Streisand effect in reverse: Beijing wants the news to be amplified. As the news spreads, people become more fearful. The result? Self-censorship. From students to corporations, artists to journalists, we’re seeing increasing numbers of people opt for silence on issues related to China.

Rogers, however, remains defiant. Neither himself nor his team will be “intimidated into silence.” “On the contrary, we will redouble our efforts to shine a light on the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong,” he said.

And the U.K. government, which scrapped its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in 2020, has made loud calls to other governments around the world to do the same in the wake of his case.

Of course, it helps that Rogers is in a reasonably privileged position. He’s high profile—plenty of British politicians have come to his defense—and he’s a British passport-holder. In addition to scrapping their extradition treaty, the U.K. government angered Beijing by granting visas to people fleeing Hong Kong following the law. They’re hardly going to hand him over.

But the British government doesn’t always challenge Beijing. When Xi visited London in 2015, police arrested two peaceful protesters who were waving Tibetan flags. And although Britain might currently not have an extradition treaty with either China or Hong Kong, what about the other 50-plus countries that do? The list of countries that have shown willingness to send people back to China is long. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are two of the most prolific, with a woefully long list of people they have detained and sent back. Saudi Arabia has even arrested people partaking in the hajj, the pilgrimage required of all practicing adult Muslims physically and financially able to do it.

To pursue dissidents, China doesn’t just call on bilateral extradition treaties. It abuses international organizations, such as Interpol, the global police agency. Alongside Interpol’s series of databases that contain personal details of people and property, it operates the system of Red Notices: requests “to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition.” In theory, using Red Notices to track down dissidents is against Interpol rules. In practice, the issuance of Chinese Red Notices has increased tenfold between 2000 and 2020—with dissidents on the list.

In some instances, Interpol and extradition treaties complement each other, as was the case of ethnic Uyghur Idris Hasan. Hasan worked for several Uyghur human rights organizations in Turkey. He was arrested on entry to Morocco in July 2021 after fleeing from Turkey, where he had also been detained. He was sent to a prison after China issued an Interpol Red Notice against him on false charges of terrorism. Interpol suspended the Red Notice, only for Moroccan courts to still try him due to an extradition treaty signed with China in 2016. In December 2021, Morocco ordered his extradition.

Fears are this trend could get worse following the appointment of Hu Binchen to the executive committee of Interpol last November. Hu is also a deputy general in China’s Ministry of Public Security, which oversees policing.

It’s of little wonder that Chinese dissidents living abroad talk of daily fear. Take Nathan Law. When I spoke to him at the end of last year, the Hong Kong activist, who was one of the main organizers of the protest movements there, said he never takes a straight route from his home to an event. Looking over his shoulder is now second nature.

Constant threats and attacks are complemented by another offensive: surveillance. The report “China’s long arm: How Uyghurs are being silenced in Europe” features dozens of people whose phones had been tapped and had received strange calls from people pretending to be close relatives or friends. In one instance, a Dutch citizen named Jasur Abibula was lured onto a flight to Dubai. There, he was met by his friend—and several Chinese security officials. After days of questioning, the officials handed Abibula a USB stick, which they wanted him to put on the laptop of his ex-wife, who had recently acquired extremely sensitive and important documents relating to the crackdown in Xinjiang, China.

Abibula was also offered money in a common pattern of coercion and incentive being used to recruit informants in Europe.

Surveillance serves a double purpose: silence and separation. “How can you know you can trust anyone?” the exiled British Uyghur poet, writer, and academic Aziz Isa Elkun asked. And that’s precisely the point. Divide, conquer, rule: three words that could be applied to China’s foreign policy today. It’s a smorgasbord of attacks, which are being directed at everyone, anywhere. All of which begs the question: Who will still be brave enough to speak up?

Jemimah Steinfeld is the editor in chief of Index on Censorship magazine.

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