Government abuse

Oppressive Regimes Reach Beyond Their Borders

Fleeing isn't enough to keep dissenters safe from tyranny.


Last week, President Joe Biden offered temporary safe haven to some residents of Hong Kong who fear the treatment they might receive from the Chinese government if they return home. It's a good first step in recognizing the risks posed to the people of that once-free territory who suffer under increasingly totalitarian rule. But it's not enough for Hong Kong or for anybody who seeks freedom in a world in which governments reach across borders to punish those who challenge their abuses.

"Pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct the foreign relations of the United States, I have determined that it is in the foreign policy interest of the United States to defer for 18 months the removal of any Hong Kong resident subject to the conditions and exceptions provided below," Biden wrote in his August 5 memo. "By unilaterally imposing on Hong Kong the Law of the People's Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (NSL), the PRC has undermined the enjoyment of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, including those protected under the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration."

The memo went on to detail the conditions under which those afraid of conditions back home might be permitted to live, work, and study in the United States—at least, for a while. Unfortunately, the memo covered only refugees from a single regime among many abusive governments, and it almost certainly offers them only partial protection.

"This report is the product of an effort to understand the scale and scope of 'transnational repression,' in which governments reach across national borders to silence dissent among their diaspora and exile communities," Freedom House noted earlier this year. "The project compiled a catalogue of 608 direct, physical cases of transnational repression since 2014. In each incident, the origin country's authorities physically reached an individual living abroad, whether through detention, assault, physical intimidation, unlawful deportation, rendition, or suspected assassination."

Freedom House tallied up acts of repression by 31 regimes targeted at exiles in 79 countries, although the non-profit group emphasizes that the count is incomplete. The report also can't account for the chilling effect such acts have on dissent, through online harassment or proxy punishment of friends and relatives under the regimes' authority.

As you would expect, China is in that report, charged with assassination, rendition, assault, digital harassment, family intimidation, and other retaliatory acts against dissenters, ethnic and religious minorities, human rights activists, and former insiders who fled the regime. Five other countries also feature in a sort of rogues' gallery: Iran, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

In a speech last summer about the Chinese government's acts of espionage and repression, FBI Director Christopher Wray described "Fox Hunt," a program by which the country's officials try to pressure those living and working overseas to return to China to face whatever fate awaits them.

"When it couldn't locate one Fox Hunt target, the Chinese government sent an emissary to visit the target's family here in the United States," noted Wray. "The message they said to pass on? The target had two options: return to China promptly, or commit suicide. And what happens when Fox Hunt targets refuse to return to China? In the past, their family members both here in the United States and in China have been threatened and coerced, and those back in China have even been arrested for leverage."

"In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption," ProPublica reported after its own investigation.

While "China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world," according to Freedom House, it's hardly alone. Russia's overseas effort "accounts for 7 of 26 assassinations or assassination attempts since 2014, as catalogued in Freedom House's global survey"; former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted in the United Kingdom in 2018 in an attack that resulted in the death of a local woman. Saudi Arabia's government plotted what a UN special rapporteur described as "a premeditated extrajudicial execution" of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Turkey, in turn, has developed a reputation for leaning on other governments "to hand over individuals without due process, or with a slight fig leaf of legality," in the words of the report.

Even nominally free countries can play this game. Journalist Julian Assange is currently held in the U.K. at the behest of the United States on what Amnesty International describes as "politically motivated charges." Then-Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane was forced to land in Austria in 2013 on suspicion that it was transporting whistleblower Edward Snowden. Governments vary enormously in their awfulness but, at the end of the day, they're all based on maintaining control through force.

Cooperation among law enforcement agencies is often gamed to target exiles, with Interpol "red notices" issued on innocent people to prompt their arrest by police in host countries. Bogus terrorism charges are especially popular, constituting 58 percent of the cases tallied by Freedom House.

As  Biden's deferment of departure rules suggests, immigration bureaucracy in host countries is also frequently weaponized by authoritarian governments. Red tape keeps exiles uncertain about their status in their new homes, and exceptions and conditions for legal status are exploited by regimes that feed whatever information and allegations they want to overseas colleagues. The Chinese government is particularly fond of accusing its targets of "corruption," a charge that may be both true and unavoidable for anybody making a life in that country.

"If you're in any position of power, it's highly unlikely you've never engaged in corruption," Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told ProPublica. "So that means anyone can be pursued through Fox Hunt."

"[T]he risk of transnational repression has accelerated in the 21st century due to technological changes, cooperation between states against migrants, and erosion of international norms against extraterritorial violence," adds Freedom House.

So, offering Hong King residents a bit of a breather in the United States is a good first step, but it's only a beginning. Refugees from that territory and from oppressive regimes elsewhere need stronger assurances that they can make permanent homes in relative freedom, and that they'll be protected from the long arm of official thugs.