Amnesty International Details Transnational Repression Against Overseas Chinese Students

Transnational repression by Chinese state-affiliated actors has long targeted Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hongkongers, and members of the Chinese diaspora. One subset of these groups is Chinese overseas students, who are now the focus of Amnesty International’s latest report: “On My Campus, I Am Afraid: China’s Targeting of Overseas Students Stifles Rights.” Using in-depth interviews with 32 Chinese students, including 12 from Hong Kong, studying at universities in Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S., the report highlights the climate and sources of fear on university campuses, along with responses from university administrations. Among the various findings, the report details how transnational repression has frightened some Chinese students to such an extent that it causes isolation and severe health problems: 

More than half of the students interviewed said they suffered mental health issues linked to their fears, ranging from stress and trauma to paranoia and depression, in one case leading to hospitalization. Eight students told Amnesty International they had cut off contact with their loved ones back home to protect them from being targeted by the Chinese authorities, leaving them even more isolated and alone.

Many students also felt it necessary to distance themselves from their fellow Chinese students out of a fear that their comments or political views might be reported to authorities in China, exacerbating a sense of isolation. Some students explained that the existence of official Chinese and Hong Kong government national security hotlines to report on others contributes to this fear.

Nearly half of those interviewed said they were afraid of returning home, and six students said they saw no option but to apply for political asylum after their studies, as they believed they would face persecution if they returned to China. [Source]

In their coverage of the Amnesty International report, other media outlets reported similar findings when interviewing other students. Peter Foster, Sun Yu, Andrew Jack, and Chan Ho-him at The Financial Times described how one overseas Chinese student closed himself off to other students after being surveilled by Chinese authorities

A Chinese student who participated in protests against anti-Covid controls while in China told the FT that police from his hometown had contacted him after he arrived to study in the US and warned him to be careful.

He added that he now avoided other Chinese students for fear of being reported on. “I don’t talk to Chinese students. I like to talk about Chinese politics and who knows if they will report me if I say something that crosses a red line. I am very critical of China in front of non-Chinese students since there is little risk in doing so,” he said.

[…] The student told the FT her phone had been spammed with messages and calls from unknown numbers after she helped organise a demonstration in the Netherlands in support of LGBT+ rights in China. “Chinese people took photos of us during the demonstration with professional cameras. I tried to stop them,” she said. [Source]

The report found that almost half of all students interviewed said that they had been photographed or recorded at events such as protests by individuals they believed were acting on behalf of the Chinese state. For Nikkei Asia, Marriane Zhou described how one Chinese student was questioned by police for attending a feminist event and is now wary of being too visible or making new Chinese friends:

A recent graduate living in New York — who asked to be called Momo for her safety — told Nikkei Asia that she was questioned by plainclothes police on a visit home to Shanghai about her participation in a feminist event in the U.S. She said she feigned ignorance when asked who the organizer was and how she got involved. Momo said the police wanted to befriend her and understand Chinese students’ social lives overseas.

“Now I wear masks when I go to these events,” said Momo, who had never participated in political or social movements before the feminist gathering.

“They made it seem like they mostly won’t bother me, but if they need to, they could gain access to me,” she said.

Momo is now wary of making new Chinese friends, fearing that they will report her to the authorities if she expresses critical views on China. [Source]

One tactic used by authorities in transnational repression is leveraging their target’s “weak spots” (软肋, ruǎn lèi), referring to their parents, children, or other family members, in order to prevent them from pursuing activities deemed unacceptable to authorities. The Amnesty International report found that almost a third of students interviewed said Chinese officials had harassed their families. One student said that within hours of attending a Tiananmen commemoration, at which she had not shared her real name with anyone involved in the protest or posted online about her own involvement, her father in China was contacted by security officials and was told to “educate his daughter who is studying overseas not to attend any events that may harm China’s reputation in the world.” Jessie Lau at The Guardian interviewed another overseas Chinese student who was pressured out of protesting and engaging on social media after authorities harassed his parents:

Zhou*, a recent graduate in his 30s now working in the UK, joined protests and shared content on social media marking the 34th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre last June. Soon after, his parents received a call from local police requesting they provide his British address and phone number, allegedly for Chinese residency registration purposes.

Out of fear, Zhou stopped protesting for several months, and became depressed. In October, he logged on to WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, and posted for the first time in two years.

A week later, his mother, who works in a government organisation, was summoned for a meeting by her boss, who informed her that Zhou was engaging in “sensitive” activities abroad. If she didn’t tell him to stop, their family’s jobs would be affected, her boss warned.

“My mum was very upset, but I told her many students encountered a similar situation, and it was a normal thing,” Zhou says. “I’m constantly learning about the situation in China. In the past, I didn’t know anything about these red lines and what activities could be safe. I am still worried about my family’s safety. That’s the biggest issue.” [Source]

Similar scare tactics have been used against “Teacher Li” (李老师不是你老师, @whyyoutouzhele on X). The overseas dissident recently shared his experiences of transnational repression with Safeguard Defenders, and highlighted how authorities have incessantly harassed his parents

It is hard to believe it a mere coincidence that on that very same November 28th [the day that his identity was doxxed for the first time], State Security authorities pay their first visit to his parent’s house in Fuyang City (Anhui Province). Through to mid-December 2022, MSS officials, Anhui Public Security officials and the Fuyang police chief visit his parents every single day with questions centering on his current whereabouts and false allegations around foreign funding or membership of a foreign anti-China organization, etc. 

When questioning yields little results, they move to intimidate his parents and request they exercise pressure on Li to delete his social media account, stop publishing any further content and immediately return to China. If not, in a typical collective punishment measure, they would move to “block their pensions”. 

To add pressure to their requests, for a subsequent period of time, every one of his social media posts is matched by a visit by two or more officials to his parents’ house. [Source]

Host countries have been paying more attention to the Chinese government’s transnational repression. “This is a huge priority for us,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the U.S. Justice Department’s top national security official, told the AP, describing an “alarming rise” in government-directed harassment. But as Andrea Grunau from DW reported, many universities may not be sufficiently well-equipped to protect Chinese students:

Surveillance and intimidation are frightening Chinese and Hong Kong students studying abroad, Amnesty reported. This has resulted in emotional stress and even depression. “I sought support from the university’s psychological counseling service after having psychological problems, but they had little understanding of the Chinese context and were unable to provide effective support,” student Xing Dongzhe* told DW.

[…] Amnesty International has called on universities and host governments to take action, contacting 55 universities directly. [Theresa  Bergmann, an Asia expert with the German branch of Amnesty International], said the rights group has received a response from 24 universities, with some early signs that the problem is being addressed. But overall, she said, the institutions have a lot of catching up to do.

She said Amnesty has asked universities and governments to set up reporting centers that have experience working with trauma. Universities should also provide psychological support, counseling and financial assistance for those affected. [Source]

Steven Chase, Marieke Walsh, and Robert Fife from The Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian government has recently unveiled long-awaited measures to protect against perpetrators of transnational repression, with an eye on China:

The federal government unveiled legislation Monday to combat foreign interference by creating a mandatory registry for people undertaking “influence activity” in politics or government on behalf of foreign powers and giving Canada’s top spy agency more authority to combat threats. 

The Countering Foreign Interference Act would also create new foreign-interference criminal offences, including political interference. 

It would make it easier to prosecute anyone who tries to coerce someone with intimidation or threats on behalf of a foreign entity or terrorist group. This would include, the government said in a statement, “an individual in Canada working on behalf of a foreign state threatening to harm relatives of a Canadian citizen who live in the foreign state.” [Source]


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