How China and its allies pool resources to target overseas dissidents
Authoritarian regimes are increasingly making use of regional cooperation organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to bolster each others’ regime security in the name of counter-terrorism, experts told a recent seminar.
In an Orion Policy Institute online seminar held days after Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping returned from a leadership summit of the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), experts said authoritarian regimes are increasingly bolstering each other’s domestic security in the name of pursuing “terrorists”, “separatists” and “extremists.”
Edward Lemon, assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, said authoritarian regimes rarely act alone, often relying on bilateral cooperation with local governments and regional organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
“Authoritarian regional organizations are built around the codification of authoritarian norms,” Lemon told an online seminar run by the Institute on Sept. 28. “They bypass human rights, facilitate swift extraditions and bolster regime protections.”
“In some cases [they actually grant] extraterritorial powers to law enforcement to physically go into the jurisdiction of members of an international organization … and extradite or … render and take back members of the diaspora,” he said.
He said such groupings often form platforms for sharing information about overseas activists and run joint investigations into individuals who are seen as a threat to a regime.
“[This] privileges … regime security over any concerns over individual human rights or the countries’ obligations to international human rights law or norms,” Lemon said.
He said the top priority of the SCO is to combat “terrorism”, “extremism” and “separatism,” which are all terms derived from China’s national security framework.
Once an organization is listed as a terrorist organization by one of the member states, it will be labelled a terrorist organization by all member states, he said.
Mathieu Deflem, sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, said authoritarian regimes often use existing global structures to pursue activists overseas, particularly Interpol.
“Interpol is one of the instruments of that embeddedness, and a very practical and … effective instrument as well,” Deflem said. “It is nowadays well known that Interpol has been abused by authoritarian regimes.”
“They take advantage of international communications systems to track down political opponents and to target them as criminals, so we have the criminalization of political dissent,” he said.
“The members [and] the leadership of Interpol are not doing nearly enough to counter that, and to hold onto the principles of their own organization,” Deflem said.
He called on U.S. law enforcement agencies to put pressure on Interpol to set up an external review watchdog, rather than relying solely on current internal oversight mechanisms.
Meanwhile, digital technology is an important part of all forms of transnational repression, according to Marcus Michaelsen, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels.
Phishing and commercial spyware can effectively infiltrate dissidents’ phones and computers to collect information and spy on dissidents for repressive regimes, he said.
“Regimes perceive these external influences as a threat, and in response they try to control the activities of their populations abroad,” Marcus Michaelsen, independent researcher into transnational repression, told the seminar.
He said digital technologies are an essential component of all forms of transnational repression.
“The very same technologies that allow exiles and diasporas to stay involved in their home country’s affairs also help regimes to reach across borders.”
Transnational activists rely heavily on social media to stay in touch with their home countries, and this makes them more vulnerable to being targeted by their home governments for monitoring, he added.
“In the more aggressive forms of targeted surveillance, regime agents try to gain access to the accounts and devices of activists, for their correspondence and confidential data,” Michaelsen said, adding that regime-backed hackers often use phishing messages to gain access to accounts and devices.
Sometimes, social engineering is also used, based on openly available social media information, to “lure targets” into clicking on compromised links, he said, citing invitations to seminars, interview requests as possible forms of phishing to deliver malware to users’ devices, sometimes using sophisticated spyware.
Michaelsen said major overseas social media platforms are sometimes infiltrated or subjected to political pressure to delete accounts and posts that are critical of the regimes.
“Another form of digital transnational repression is online harassment, smear campaigns and trolling,” Michelson said. “These regime agents will use false and distorted information, verbal threats and abuse against activists to intimidate them, to put them under pressure, or taint their reputation.”
Dana Moss, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, agreed, but said online monitoring can also lead to violent outcomes.
“Regimes’ attempts to control and coerce and punish their diasporas is a growing global threat,” she told the seminar, adding that the threat isn’t just a digital one.
“[Their] repertoire also includes assassinations, violent attacks. We’ve seen a lot of kidnappings, forced renditions and coerced return back home,” Moss said.
Loved ones back home are also used as leverage, she said.
“People might be threatened that something will happen to their families if they don’t return home for persecution or trial or detention,” Moss said.
“For women, these tend to be very sexualized and very scary.”
Moss said smear campaigns are often very effective if overseas activists are accused of “terrorism,” she said.
“This perks up the ears of security agencies in their host societies, and often puts them under suspicion for doing something wrong when they haven’t done,” she said.
The CCP’s law enforcement agencies routinely track, harass, threaten and repatriate people who flee the country, many of them Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, under its SkyNet surveillance program that reaches far beyond China’s borders, using a variety of means to have them forcibly repatriated, according to the rights group Safeguard Defenders.
The number of Chinese nationals seeking political asylum overseas has skyrocketed under Xi Jinping, whose administration has set up a coordinated international operation called “Operation Foxhunt” to force Chinese nationals to return home.
Figures released by the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR showed that while around 12,000 Chinese nationals sought asylum overseas in 2012, the year that Xi took office as CCP general secretary, that number had risen to nearly 120,000 by 2021.
Washington-based non profit Freedom House called on governments in a February 2022 report to start systematically recording cases of transnational repression, based on an internationally agreed definition of the term, then ensure that law enforcement officials, personnel at key agencies, and those working with refugees and asylum seekers are trained to recognize the targeting of exiles and diasporas.
Governments should also start screening applicants for diplomatic visas for a history of engaging in transnational repression and expel diplomats who are known to be involved in these practices.
They should also use their influence to bolster respect for the asylum system and stop processing applications in third countries, the report said, calling for an international response to the problem.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.