China is the worst of the worst abusers among nations engaging in transnational repression, according to new rankings compiled by a prominent watchdog. All five Central Asian states, along with Russia and Azerbaijan, also made the list of 31 leading offenders.
The rankings were contained in a report issued February 4 by Freedom House, titled Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, which documents the methods used by authoritarian-minded governments around the world to stifle dissent beyond their own borders. Drawing on open-source material to chronicle cases from 2014 to the present, the report warns that extra-territorial surveillance and repression of dissidents is becoming a “normal phenomenon.” In many instances, host governments are complicit in efforts to crush dissent, it adds.
The report singles out China as the most egregious practitioner of transnational repression, employing a wide variety of physical measures, everything from assault to assassination, while also deploying its vast digital capabilities, including online bullying and the use of spyware. “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world,” the report states.
A top target of the Chinese surveillance state currently is the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority group concentrated in western China’s Xinjiang Province. Amid a crackdown on freedom of religious expression in Xinjiang in recent years, in which tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Muslim believers have been sent to reeducation camps, Uighurs have fled in significant numbers to neighboring states in Central Asia, as well as Turkey.
Those Uighurs abroad who try to call attention to rampant and widespread rights violations in Xinjiang are routinely subjected to threats and retribution. Relatives of expats are often used as hostages to coerce would-be critics into keeping silent. Dissidents abroad report receiving calls from relatives in Xinjiang urging them to stay quiet; and an Uighur who receives any form of digital communication from abroad is apt to be sent to a reeducation camp.
Beijing is not averse to leveraging its economic clout as an international lender and investor to advance its transnational repression agenda, which is also targeting Tibetan and Hong Kong activists, as well as members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. The Freedom House report highlights instances in which foreign governments have abetted Chinese actions against Uighurs. In one 2019 case, for example, Turkish authorities deported an Uighur woman and her two children to Tajikistan, where they were “then promptly transferred to Chinese custody.”
The broad Chinese campaign to muzzle Uighur dissent is trampling on international norms, the report says. “China has used some of its most powerful spyware tools against Uighurs, developing malware to infect iPhones via WhatsApp messages. China has even hacked into telecommunications networks in Asia in order to track Uighurs.”
The report indicates that Central Asia and the Caspian Basin is the global epicenter of transnational repression. All the states in those regions made the Freedom House rankings of leading abusers. Right behind China, Uzbekistan, Russia and Tajikistan are found among the top five. The report shows the highest number of cases among Central Asian states originated in Tajikistan. Much of the harshest actions taken by Uzbekistan, meanwhile, appear to have been committed during the tenure of the late dictator, Islam Karimov, who died in 2016.
The report notes “there is less evidence of a systematic campaign” in Kyrgyzstan over the past six-plus years, adding “the most recent case from Kyrgyzstan is that of the husband of a prominent anticorruption campaigner, who was detained at an airport in neighboring Kazakhstan, and immediately returned to Kyrgyzstan.”
Regional organizations, especially the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, co-led by Russia and China, are playing an important role in facilitating transnational repression in Central Asia. “The SCO helps states maintain a shared ‘blacklist,’ and facilitates information sharing about threats in the region,” the report says. “The Minsk Convention also facilitates information sharing, and states in the region have cited it to justify handing over exiles. Additionally, governments of the region are prolific abusers of Interpol to target critics – not only those in Russia, but in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.”
Freedom House maintains that western democracies have been lax in responding to the threats that transnational repression poses for the existing international order, saying that China’s extraterritorial activities are especially dangerous. The Chinese Communist Party’s “use of transnational repression poses a long-term threat to rule of law systems in other countries,” the report says. “This is because Beijing’s influence is powerful enough to not only violate the rule of law in an individual case, but also to reshape legal systems and international norms to its interests.”
To combat the proliferation of transnational repression, the report urges the U.S. government to develop and implement a host of measures, starting with a systematic sanctions regime against the worst practitioners and enablers of surveillance. More broadly, it calls on western democracies to curb the export of technologies that support surveillance, while strengthening migration frameworks to better support those vulnerable to transnational harassment.
“Transnational repression is a threat to the rule of law in states that host diasporas and exiles. Most of the relevant tactics involve overt legal violations, and often the corruption of host country institutions,” the report says. “The growth of transnational repression should be understood as a menace to the democratic aspirations of host countries as well as to the exiles and diasporas themselves.”