The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China’s long arm of dictatorship reaches into the United States

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech in Boao, China, on April 21. (Huang Jingwen/Xinhua/AP)
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What happens when a dictatorship sends its brutal enforcers to intimidate or capture dissidents, journalists, activists, business executives, members of ethnic minority groups and religious believers who are living in a free and open democracy? No rule-of-law state should tolerate such trespasses. Yet they go on — especially those involving China’s long arm of repression, which often reaches deep into the United States.

While keeping a lid on free speech at home, Beijing sends agents to the West to harass, intimidate, surveil and abduct those who have spoken out. This can include brazen attempts to kidnap people and bring them back to China, or the misuse of extradition procedures and the international law enforcement platform Interpol. Other dissidents are silenced with threats to their relatives in China.

The Post’s Christian Shepherd reported April 29 that activists and lawmakers in Europe and North America are raising the alarm about China’s use of such coercive tactics. Beijing’s issuance of Interpol “red notices” asking for a suspect to be detained and returned to China has jumped from around 30 a year to more than 200. Among the targets are not only political dissidents and business executives, but also ethnic minority Uyghurs or Tibetans who fled repression in their homelands. In 2002, Chinese agents seized dissident and democracy advocate Wang Bingzhang while he was visiting Vietnam; he remains in prison in China. So does Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen and Hong Kong bookseller and publisher whose volumes contained rumors about the private lives of China’s leaders. In 2015, he was abducted in Thailand and taken back to China.

Shadowy agents often carry out China’s intimidation overseas, demanding written pledges of obedience lest a relative be arrested or punished inside China. Such underhanded blackmail is terrifying for those on the receiving end. A 2021 study by Freedom House identified 31 countries that have aimed transnational repression at 79 host nations. The report documented more than 600 cases between 2014 and 2020, and found that 26 of the 31 nations also used nonphysical methods of intimidation, such as spyware, online harassment and sending threats by proxy. The report concluded, “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” Other leading perpetrators are Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda.

A glimpse of China’s efforts in the United States came in March when the Justice Department brought charges against five people accused of variously “stalking, harassing, and spying on U.S. residents” on behalf of China’s secret police.

The U.S. government has a spotty record when it comes to combating such activity. The Trump-era “China Initiative” against economic espionage and trade-secret theft was a misguided flop and created a perception of anti-China bias. Any effort to stop transnational repression must avoid this. In a positive step, State Department human rights reports are now highlighting more cases of transnational repression. It is vital to stop this ugly byproduct of dictatorship from spreading in democratic nations that respect rule of law.