Chinese Government Has Coerced 10,000 “Fugitives” Back to China

This week, NGO Safeguard Defenders released a report detailing the Chinese government’s systematic and covert practice of forcing “fugitives” to return to China from overseas. The report is titled “INvoluntary Returns,” in reference to the coercive and often illegal means used to repatriate individuals against their will. Through dozens of case studies, the report demonstrates the extent of China’s transnational repression, as well as the infringement on the sovereignty of foreign nations. 

An introduction to the report provides statistics on the government’s operations. Since 2014, the Chinese government’s overseas policing efforts have resulted in the return of over 10,000 individuals, with the majority of these being involuntary returns. The annual figure increased each year until the pandemic began in 2020; since then, over 2,500 individuals have been forcibly repatriated to China. Very few individuals in these operations were returned through legal means: in 2018, for example, only one percent were returned through extradition. Helen Davidson from Guardian expanded on the methods and scope of the operations:

The methods to force someone back to China, outside formal bilateral agreements on extradition and deportation, can range from refusing to renew a passport, to misusing the Interpol red notice system to have international warrants issued, the report said. They also include exit bans and intimidation of targets’ family members in China, and in-person threats by Chinese agents operating on foreign soil. At the more extreme end of the scale are acts which Safeguard Defenders termed state-sanctioned kidnappings, but which Beijing calls “irregular methods”. These sometimes involved covert operations in conjunction with host country forces, the report said, or tricking the target into going to a third country where they could be extradited.

Safeguard Defenders mapped 80 cases of attempted apprehension, of which it said about half were successful. It identified targets across dozens of countries, including the US, UK, and Australia.

[…] Chinese authorities have publicly lauded the program, with a 2015 notice from the CCDI claiming more than 70 “working groups” had been sent to 90 countries and regions, with the special operations “fully supported by overseas law enforcement agencies, Chinese embassies and consulates abroad, and police liaison officers”. [Source]

Since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, China’s overseas policing operations have gone through several phases. In 2014, the Ministry of Public Security launched Operation Fox Hunt to track those allegedly involved in economic crimes and extend Xi’s anti-corruption campaign abroad. In 2015, Operation Sky Net was created under the Supreme Protectorate, which encompassed Operation Fox Hunt and added several other operations coordinated by state and Party bodies. Then, in 2018, Sky Net was taken over by the National Supervision Commission (NSC), a state organ created that year to extend the power of the CCP’s internal anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, to cover non-Party members. 

The NSC is a non-judicial body leading China’s international judicial cooperation and policing efforts overseas. The Safeguard Defenders report explained that according to the official interpretation of the NSC’s founding law, the NSC is officially allowed to use non-judicial means—including kidnapping—for its “fugitive repatriation” operations

Non-judicial means are then introduced as two further categories of work – first, persuasion – and then, alarmingly, kidnapping. “The fourth category is persuading to return, which means persuading and educating fugitives so that they would return voluntarily to face prosecution, trial, or penalty. Persuading to return is ideological and political work. Its primary method is to persuade and educate criminal suspects, including convincing them with reasons, touching them with emotion, making them know the law, and giving them the prerequisites for lighter punishments to change their minds.” 

Such methods, used alone or concurrently with judicial procedures, are worrying because they undermine the judicial sovereignty of the country where the fugitive is located. However, the fifth category, called “irregular methods” (非常规措施) is the most alarming.

It notes that these methods may “cause diplomatic disputes,” adding “in practice, kidnapping or trapping and capturing are rarely used.” The fact that they “are rarely used”, is an admission that not only are they sometimes used, but that their use is officially sanctioned. [Source]

Chinese authorities have exploited China’s official legal ties to foreign countries to access their targets. Formal judicial cooperation agreements such as extradition treaties, which China coordinates through the NSC, are a useful medium. As the report states, “about 19% of IR type 2 cases [involuntary return cases that target individuals living in a foreign country] take place in countries that have (ratified) extradition treaties, as do 55% of kidnappings (IR type 3).” The Chinese government has also exploited Interpol to hunt down targets living abroad by using Red Notices to convince foreign governments to arrest individuals on their own soil. The latest victim of this strategy is Idris Hasan, a Uyghur exile who was arrested in Morocco after China issued a Red Notice via Interpol; Interpol later retracted the notice after public outcry exposed the political intent behind the notice, but Hasan still faces imminent extradition to China. Last November, an official in China’s Ministry of Public Security won a seat on Interpol’s executive committee

The Chinese government claims that those targeted for repatriation are criminals, but according to the report, many are asylum seekers, dissidents or human rights defenders. They range from outspoken former judges to ordinary citizens who posted online comments critical of the CCP to Uyghurs fleeing persecution by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. In November of last year, the International Criminal Court received evidence that Chinese agents operating abroad have attempted to forcibly deport Uyghurs to China. The Oxus Society and Uyghur Human Rights Project have compiled a database of hundreds of incidents of transnational repression against Uyghurs, revealing that almost 400 Uyghurs have been deported to China since 1997. Colum Murphy and Blake Schmidt from Bloomberg described how the growing global reach of Chinese authorities signals to potential dissidents that they will never be safe from persecution, even abroad:

“The main purpose of Xi isn’t just to get these people back to China — it’s to prevent Chinese high-level government officers from escaping from China,” said Gao Guangjun, a New York-based attorney who has represented people targeted by Beijing’s exit bans and Interpol red notices. “He wants to show even if you escape to the U.S., I can still get you back to China.” 

Safeguard Defenders said what was initially billed as an anti-corruption operation has increasingly been used to pursue political dissidents such as Falun Gong practitioners. The report cited a 700% increase in asylum requests from China between 2012 and 2020, according to data from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as evidence that many sought by China might be fleeing political crackdowns. [Source]

At times, foreign governments have stepped in to block Chinese fugitive-hunting operations. In 2020, the U.S. Justice Department charged eight Chinese individuals with conspiring to act as illegal agents of China in their attempts to force U.S. residents to return to China. However, the Safeguard Defenders report stated that numerous governments, both authoritarian and democratic, have cooperated with these Chinese operations. These include the U.S., Canada, and Switzerland, as well as repressive states in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. One section of the report described the extent to which the Swiss government facilitated Chinese police operations in Europe:

Over in Europe, Switzerland entered into a secret agreement with China in 2015, officially calling it […] a readmission agreement. However, not only was this “readmission agreement” not made public like readmission agreements Switzerland had made with other states, but the content of this agreement was nothing like a typical readmission agreement. Safeguard Defenders made the content of this agreement public at the end of 2020. Similar to the CBSA documentation, it authorised assistance in providing visas to Chinese police to enter Switzerland to carry out “interviews” with Chinese nationals. The visas provided to Chinese agents by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) were tourist visas, allowing them to theoretically roam the entire Schengen area (covering 26 European countries) unobserved on their visas. Interviews were supposed to take place at SEM facilities, but there was no requirement for SEM to monitor interviews through an interpreter. SEM claims the duration of the visas issued were brief, and therefore would in practice make it difficult to those agents to travel outside of Switzerland. It also did not notify EU- and Schengen area members of approval of such visas, and agreed to China’s request that such visits be considered unofficial. [Source]

Last week, Safeguard Defenders produced a separate report on China’s transnational repression that focused on Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL). The extraterritoriality of the law, enshrined in article 38, allows Hong Kong authorities to pursue subjects who are not from the region but who committed an offense outside of the region. Therefore, as the report documents, at least 30 people who had left Hong Kong have been sought under the NSL, and a number of foreigners, such as elected lawmakers in the UK, U.S., and Japan, have been warned by their governments that they risk detention and extradition should they travel abroad to certain countries that have extradition treaties with Hong Kong or China. In pursuit of their subjects, Hong Kong authorities have issued increasingly harsh verbal threats and employed Interpol Red Notices, with the help of the Chinese government, whose Ministry of State Security agents are free to take over NSL cases in certain circumstances. 

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