When Xi Jinping became president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2012, he brought with him undeniable economic rejuvenation for his country alongside an increasing clampdown on freedoms and an ongoing war on corruption within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Under the guise of government reform, his aggressive crackdown on “tigers and flies” – terms used to refer to corrupt high-ranking and low-ranking party members respectively– has led to the ‘disciplining’ of millions of officials by China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
The dangerous combination of human rights violations and Xi’s anti-corruption crusade has led to an exodus within Chinese society, with more and more people fleeing the mainland for safety and self-preservation. In response, the CCP has sought to expand the powers of its overseas security forces.
A recently published report titled, Involuntary Returns: China’s Covert Operation To Force ‘Fugitives’ Overseas Back Home, by Safeguard Defenders, analyzes Xi’s methods to combat this exodus and questions the actions used to bring Chinese people living overseas back to the mainland.
Harassment, Kidnapping, Blackmail, and Involuntary Returns
The report begins by briefly describing the background and reasoning for the CCP’s actions. It states that even before Xi Jinping became president, China already faced difficulty in repatriating its citizens who were residing in foreign countries. Even if agreements were reached between China and other nations, the mainland could not forcefully extract anyone they desired; they were constrained by the terms of the agreements and even then, extradition requests were sometimes denied. This necessitated China’s use of underhanded and unscrupulous means to pressure certain individuals to return.
Outside of bilateral agreements, the report states that the CCP employs three other methods to force their people to travel back to the mainland: a.) the leverage of family in China, b.) the use of agents overseas, and c.) kidnapping. Safeguard Defenders also claims that “[official] data from China shows that these operations are growing more widespread.” This is gravely concerning since these actions are not done through open and legal channels but through covert and secretive means, usually without the host country’s knowledge.
a.) Leveraging Family in China
The first method the CCP uses to coerce citizens to return to China involves “pressuring family members in China to persuade the target to come back and surrender.” The CCP treats family members as a method to communicate directly with its target in order to secure a ‘voluntary’ return.
In fact, Chinese police even have a term to refer to this art of persuasion – quanfan (劝返) – which can be described in the report as “convincing [criminal suspects] with reasons, touching them with emotion, making them know the law, and giving them the prerequisites for lighter punishments to change their minds.”
In practice, this method is less idealistic than what the term implies. The report presents the case of Xu Zheng– a CCP critic living in exile in the Netherlands. In 2021, he spoke with his parents in a 14-second video call where his mother was “pale, nervous, and shaking her head” and where his father shouted obscenities at him, calling him a traitor for betraying his motherland. Xu’s mother later informed him through a text message that the call was being monitored by the police.
Other instances - similar to the one above - are provided by Safeguard Defenders and illustrate several forms of harassment against the families of overseas targets, such as surveillance, interrogation, loss of employment, freezing of assets, and the removal of children from parent’s care.
This can lead to the target’s reluctant compliance to return to China, as seen in the case of Zhou Shiqin – a former Chinese government official who was charged with embezzlement and fled to Australia; she returned to the mainland after her sister’s assets were frozen by the state.
And when all these methods fail, the Chinese government is not averse to holding a target’s family hostage, denying them travel rights, or punishing the family in place of their original target.
b.) Agents Overseas
Chinese police or other non-state actors are sometimes sent overseas to personally pressure targets to return to the mainland. Safeguard Defenders’ report quotes the CCDI’s website which states, China has sent more than 70 working groups to more than 90 countries and regions, and that the working groups present in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia, and other countries have captured 229 fugitives.
While the CCP claims that these operations have the full support of overseas law enforcement agencies, several foreign governments from the West have expressed concerns due to Chinese agents flouting protocol and not informing local authorities of their actions. For countries that lean more towards authoritarianism, such as some in Southeast Asia, Chinese agents tend to act more openly and often with the full cooperation of local police.
The report then illustrates the process by which these overseas Chinese agents locate their target and persuade them to surrender and return. They first identify the target’s friends and family who are also living in the host country and coerce them into providing relevant information such as contact details.
This is seen in the example of a former state-owned company official, Peng Xufeng, who was living in the United States. Chinese agents in California were able to coerce one of his friends to surrender Peng’s contact information by threatening to have her family members in China detained. Peng believes he is being targeted by the CCP because of his knowledge of Chinese military technology secrets. Chinese agents may also force a target’s family or friends, who are living in the mainland, to head overseas and lure the target out from hiding or employ the expertise of private detectives to gather additional information.
After the target has been located, overseas Chinese agents begin the second phase of their plan. They force their target to surrender through a “carrot and stick” approach; the individual is promised leniency or money if he or she complies or is subjected to escalating threats, such as harassing the target’s landlord, to get the person evicted if he or she refuses. Needless to say, the report makes it clear that any promises given by Chinese agents are not guaranteed to be kept.
In extreme cases, the CCP may forgo any semblance of dialogue, coercion, or intimidation and may go straight to kidnapping certain individuals and smuggling them back to China. The report highlights Article 52 of China’s Supervision Law which lists “kidnapping” and “trapping and capturing” as “irregular measures” to repatriate fugitives overseas. Even though these tactics are rarely used due to being illegal in most host countries, this codification in Chinese law effectively gives Chinese agents overseas the blessing of their government to commit these heinous acts.
Safeguard Defenders differentiates between two forms of kidnapping: direct and indirect. Direct kidnapping refers to the active participation of Chinese agents themselves in the abduction while indirect kidnapping refers to when the target is unlawfully and covertly seized by the local authorities of a host country before being delivered to Chinese agents. Targets of a successful kidnapping often have no record of leaving the host country and they are only ever heard from again if they later appear on Chinese television.
The report lists 18 successful kidnapping attempts: four in Thailand, four in Myanmar, two in Hong Kong, four in the UAE, one in Australia, and three in Vietnam.
Implications for Vietnam
In June 2002, a prominent pro-democracy activist who was exiled to the US, Wang Bingzhang, his girlfriend, Zhang Qi, and their friend, Yue Wu, were abducted in Vietnam during a trip to meet with Chinese labor activists.
Safeguard Defenders’ report states that Zhang and Yue were eventually released. However, Wang was taken back to the mainland and was accused of “selling state secrets and advocating terrorism through the use of kidnapping and explosives.” In 2003, he was sentenced to life in prison, becoming the first person to be convicted under China’s new espionage and terrorism laws. The Vietnamese government seemed to turn a blind eye to this event and even claimed that “there was no record that [Wang, Zhang, or Yue] had ever entered Vietnam.”
The Vietnamese government’s inaction and ignorance regarding these three instances of kidnapping were perhaps a reflection of their generally subservient and non-confrontational attitude towards China, which continues to this day.
It could also be the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) way of acknowledging that it finds nothing wrong with its own crusade against opposition and dissent. By turning a blind eye to China’s abuses, it has convinced itself that its own actions are justified. Regardless of what the reason may be, the VCP’s constant passive response regarding China’s misdeeds will only lead to more of the same: Vietnam will suffer constant mistreatment and bullying by the mainland.
Safeguard Defenders’ report says that the purpose of Xi’s policies regarding extradition is not limited to fighting or eliminating corruption. Another reason is to consolidate and strengthen Xi’s personal power over the CCP and his country. And if the actions of overseas Chinese agents are anything to go by, alongside China’s aggressive expansionist policies, it would not be a massive leap in logic to claim that he also wants to extend his power to other sovereign nations.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The report concludes that the issues it discusses “constitute a clear and present danger to Chinese nationals abroad, whose right to due process is being undermined.” Likewise, the national judicial sovereignty of host countries, the rule of law, and international standards for cross-border judicial cooperation are also put in jeopardy by China’s actions.
Hence, Safeguard Defenders calls for nations to take a step back and re-examine their approach to China while pressuring Beijing to ban illegal actions, such as kidnapping. It also suggests other countries to hold the mainland accountable for its actions if and when Chinese agents are caught operating illegally on foreign soil. Added to this, Safeguard Defenders also urges that all diplomatic issues regarding extradition should be conducted in an “open, transparent and public space.” Lastly, the organization implores foreign ministries to regularly issue country reports on China in order for their peers to make well-informed decisions regarding any of Beijing’s extradition requests.
If the leaders of the VCP are wise, they will see the long-term benefits in adhering to these recommendations. Although, it is likely that these benefits will be ignored.
Safeguard Defenders’ full report can be found here.
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