The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The brazen, alarming scale of China’s efforts to silence dissidents abroad

Demonstrators supporting Tibetans, Uyghurs and Hong Kongers take part in a protest against the Chinese Communist Party in London on Oct. 1, 2021. (Matt Dunham/AP)
5 min

Mark L. Clifford is the president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and the author of “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere.”

Yan Xiong escaped from China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, received political asylum in the United States and served in the U.S. Army. From his home on Long Island, he remained a thorn in the Communist government’s side, raising questions about its totalitarian tactics. Last year, he decided to launch a bid for the Democratic nomination in a congressional race in Long Island, with primaries in May. This, according to a criminal complaint recently unsealed by the Justice Department, prompted a campaign to silence him by people acting as agents of China’s secret police.

“Beat him until he cannot run for election,” was one suggestion for dealing with him, according to a voice mail quoted in the complaint. Other alleged methods considered to neutralize him included framing him for tax evasion or a sex scandal, or causing a “car accident.”

The harassment Yan faced is all too common for Chinese and Hong Kong democracy figures, even those who enjoy the relative safety of the United States. Chinese dissidents, and anyone affiliated with the country’s pro-democracy movement abroad, have long been aware that China has an active army of agents in the United States. The recently unsealed complaints, which don’t identify the victims by name but include identifiable details, shed light on just how brazen the intimidation of Americans and U.S. residents has become.

Another alleged plot targeted the father of Olympic athlete Alysa Liu. He, too, had won political refuge in the United States after the Tiananmen massacre. According to the complaints, an investigator posing as a member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee attempted to get a copy of his passport. Liu kept the harassment secret from his daughter, though she received special protection during the Olympics because of fears for her safety.

Then there was a scheme that allegedly looked for evidence of tax evasion by prominent dissident artist Chen Weiming, who lives in Southern California. The complaint said that Chen’s car was tagged with a GPS device and placed under surveillance by an investigator who posed as a broker looking to buy Chen’s sculptures. When that failed, an arson attack destroyed a sculpture Chen had made, on display in Yermo, Calif., depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping as a covid-19 virus molecule.

As a former director of Next Digital — publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong that was forcibly shuttered by the government last year — I have seen how former colleagues, even those now in the United States, are living in fear. People are afraid to attend an upcoming award ceremony honoring the paper’s journalists. Prospective employees of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong worry that association with our group will expose them or their relatives to punishment by the Chinese Communist Party.

I have seen a similar pattern of fear in my trips to Britain. Hong Kongers in Scotland told me during a recent visit of harassment and bullying on university campuses, including attempts to force them to disavow their support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Pro-democracy protesters in London, ironically at a “stop Asian hate” rally, were beaten by thugs they believe were sent by the Communist Party.

In the United States, pro-Communist Chinese forces are squelching debate. Universities are put under pressure not to invite the Dalai Lama or discuss genocide against the Uyghurs or the fight for freedom in Hong Kong. At George Washington University, the president initially agreed to take down dissident posters after a pro-mainland group claimed that they were racist, simply because they depicted the Chinese government’s actions negatively. Though the decision was later reversed, it shows the naivete of Americans in facing this threat to freedom. More recently, Chinese students at Cornell University intimidated a Uyghur student at the university, prompting a bland statement from the university warning about how “harmful it is when conversation devolves into derogatory anti-Asian expression.”

The day after the Justice Department announced the complaints, a journalist friend of mine who narrowly escaped Hong Kong and now lives in a seaside community in Florida woke up to find a small, vaguely Chinese flowerpot on his front doorstep. My friend won’t appear at anything publicly associated with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He’s too afraid of what might happen to relatives back home. The pot spooked him, though “there’s no note, no warning,” he wrote me. “I’m afraid to touch it.”

My Chinese friends are in America because they value our liberty and freedom. They shouldn’t have to live in fear when they find flowerpots on their front steps. What is at stake here is our nation’s ability to assure free speech and speech that is free from fear. China wants to keep all of us from hearing the truth about its policies in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Today, the target is Chinese people living in America. Tomorrow, it will be all of us.