China forced 2,500 ‘fugitives’ back from overseas during pandemic, report finds
Methods used in Sky Net program range from family intimidation to state-sanctioned kidnappings, says rights group
Chinese authorities captured more than 2,500 “fugitives” from overseas and brought them back to China during the pandemic, under a program using methods ranging from family intimidation to “state-sanctioned kidnapping”, according to a new report.
Human rights group Safeguard Defenders estimates in its report published on Tuesday that the continued repatriations now total more than 10,000 since Beijing launched operation Fox Hunt in 2014, followed by Sky Net in 2015.
During the pandemic, at least 1,421 people were brought back to China in 2020 and 1,114 in 2021, based on government figures, despite international lockdowns and travel restrictions. The figures only include those captured for purported economic crimes or crimes related to their official duties.
In December 2021 the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) described the year’s operation as “fruitful”.
In 2018 Sky Net was moved under the control of the newly formed non-judicial body, the National Supervision Commission. In February 2021 the commission relaunched the program, expanding it to fugitives in the fields of political and legal affairs, and civil affairs. Human rights groups believe activists and dissidents are now often targeted, including Uyghurs and Hongkongers living overseas. In July the Uyghur Human Rights Project documented 395 cases of Uyghurs being deported, extradited, or rendered back to China.
“Since Xi Jinping came to power the Chinese government intensified the crackdown on civil society,” said US-based human rights activist Teng Biao. “They have targeted lawyers and dissidents, bloggers, journalists, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, everything in civil society.”
The methods to force someone back to China, outside formal bilateral agreements on extradition and deportation, can range from refusing to renew a passport, to misusing the Interpol red notice system to have international warrants issued, the report said. They also include exit bans and intimidation of targets’ family members in China, and in-person threats by Chinese agents operating on foreign soil. At the more extreme end of the scale are acts which Safeguard Defenders termed state-sanctioned kidnappings, but which Beijing calls “irregular methods”. These sometimes involved covert operations in conjunction with host country forces, the report said, or tricking the target into going to a third country where they could be extradited.
Safeguard Defenders mapped 80 cases of attempted apprehension, of which it said about half were successful. It identified targets across dozens of countries, including the US, UK, and Australia.
Instances of family intimidation have been widely reported among the Uyghur diaspora, particularly those who are politically active outside China, lobbying for international action on the human rights abuses being committed in Xinjiang.
In 2021 reports revealed Mihray Erkin, a young Uyghur woman, was believed to have died in detention in Xinjiang, in 2020. Erkin had been working in Japan as a scientific researcher until she returned to Xinjiang in 2019, allegedly after her parents were pressured to call her home. Also last year, 19-year-old Wang Jingyu, a US permanent resident who was wanted in China over online comments after he criticised the government on Weibo, claimed his parents were repeatedly harassed and detained in an attempt to have him return.
Teng said he’d come across many cases of family intimidation, including jailing family members in China to pressure overseas targets.
“Sometimes they were arbitrarily arrested or detained, followed by secret police, interrogated, sometimes forced to make a video phone call with their wife or husband or children who live overseas,” he told the Guardian.
“Because it’s a totalitarian system the government has the power – not legal power, but power that is above the law – and they can force a company or work unit to fire anyone they want.”
Chinese authorities have publicly lauded the program, with a 2015 notice from the CCDI claiming more than 70 “working groups” had been sent to 90 countries and regions, with the special operations “fully supported by overseas law enforcement agencies, Chinese embassies and consulates abroad, and police liaison officers”.
Safeguard Defenders called for world governments to end extradition treaties with China, and to evaluate and terminate any bilateral judicial cooperation arrangements with the NSC.
“While there are legitimate reasons for, albeit cautiously, engaging in international judicial cooperation with Beijing, China’s violations of other nations’ judicial sovereignty and breaking customs in international judicial cooperation undermines the trust required for entering into such cooperation, or continuing existing cooperation,” it said.
Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said host countries had to be careful about China-requested extraditions.
“They should ensure individuals residing in their countries that are wanted by the Chinese government have adequate protection, and investigate possible harassment and other abuses by Chinese officials or their agents against these individuals or their family members,” she said.
“Authorities should also provide them with adequate opportunity to contest the extradition, and not return anyone to China if they are likely to face persecution, torture or ill-treatment there.”
China has always denied its actions are kidnappings, or that it violates foreign and international laws.
“In the process of carrying out its international anti-corruption operations, China has always strictly abided by the domestic laws of the target countries, international laws and international judicial and law enforcement practices,” the CCDI said in a state media report in November 2020.