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Transnational repression – the growing reach of authoritarianism

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On 17th April, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) detained two men in New York suspected of operating a Chinese “secret police station” in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The station allegedly aimed to harass and silence Chinese emigrants living in the United States. The two men, Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, New York City residents, now face charges of conspiring to act as agents for China and obstruction of justice (1).

The station is believed to be one of more than a hundred Chinese outposts operating globally, including in Italy. China has previously denied running these stations, calling them ”service centres” for nationals overseas, which are meant to assist Chinese citizens living abroad with administrative procedures, such as renewing their identity documents.

Human rights groups have accused China of using these outposts to threaten and monitor Chinese nationals abroad, even forcing some to return to China. The Spanish civil rights organisation, Safeguard Defenders, which first shed light on this issue last September, claims that Italy hosts 11 overseas police stations, the highest number in the world. The group reported that the stations were not directly run by the Chinese government, but they received guidance from authorities. The Italian stations are located in Rome, Milan, Florence, Venice, Bolzano, Sicily, and Prato, the town with the largest Chinese community in Italy (2). Safeguard Defenders linked the outposts to the United Front Work Department, a Chinese government body responsible for spreading influence and propaganda overseas. Due to its recent agreements with China, including one regarding a joint police patrol scheme, Italy is vulnerable to influence from Beijing (2). 

The FBI tied the stations to China’s Operation Fox Hunt. The operation started six years ago, with the stated aim of pursuing corrupt officials and executives who had fled China. “China describes Fox Hunt as some kind of international anti-corruption campaign. It is not. Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals who he sees as threats and who live outside of China, across the world.” Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI said in 2020 (3). Many of the targets are citizens or permanent residents in their host states, and the onus is on these states to protect them.

The overseas police stations are part of a larger trend of transnational repression. Transnational repression, as defined by a Freedom House report, describes how authoritarian states “reach across national borders to silence dissent among diaspora and exile communities.” Freedom House first drew attention to this phenomenon in their 2021 report, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach (4). Their new report in 2023 (Still Not Safe: Transnational Repression in 2022) found that “at least 854 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression have been committed by 38 governments in 91 countries since 2014, including assassinations, abductions, assaults, detentions, and unlawful deportations.” (5) China, Turkey, Tajikistan, Russia, and Egypt were identified as the most prolific culprits. 

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Transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, – just think of Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s exiled critic who was murdered in Mexico by an NKVD agent. Recent technological developments and the spread of new digital technologies and social media allowed it to become ubiquitous, threatening the rights and freedoms of dissidents and activists living in exile. The gruesome assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based Saudi journalist, in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, and the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia in the United Kingdom in 2018 are some cases of transnational repression that made the headlines all over the world. Countless others did not make it into Western media. 

Why do authoritarian regimes crack down so harshly on their exiled critics? Transnational authoritarianism, argues Dr. Gerasimos Tsourapas, a prominent academic researching this topic, emerged out of autocracies’ contradictory aspirations as they sought to resolve what he calls an “illiberal paradox”: the contrast between the economic need to allow mass emigration and the urge to maintain control over political opposition. Historically, authoritarian regimes prioritised political goals over economic ones by tightly controlling emigration. Today, however, due to processes of globalisation and growing interconnectedness, most authoritarian states allow emigration, a notable exception being North Korea (6). 

Citizens living abroad matter for authoritarian countries for myriad reasons: they may challenge autocracies through activism in the diaspora, have a say over political processes through out-of-country voting (if that is an option and if there are elections), and send remittances home to their families, which can either strengthen or destabilise authoritarian regimes. Moreover, expatriates can spread information about social and political norms, such as democratic values in their origin states. Authoritarian regimes try to maximise the material benefits of allowing emigration while minimising the associated political and security costs to their power. 

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Strategies of authoritarian control over citizens come in many forms. 1. Surveillance is made easier by new technologies and social media. Pegasus, an Israeli spyware, was used by several governments to spy on journalists and political dissenters. 2. Issuing threats. A favoured method of Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator who called emigrants “stray dogs”, “escaped hirelings”, and traitors, and frequently threatened them. Violence against emigrants was commonplace. 3. Forcing emigrants to return. A practice especially common recently, since China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs. In 2017, hundreds of Uyghurs living in Egypt were arrested and handed over to Chinese authorities; after their return to China, many were never seen again. In other cases, Uyghurs studying abroad were ordered to return home, with Chinese authorities holding their families hostage. 4. Enforced disappearance. Used in Operation Condor, the cooperation between the United States and various military regimes, wherein hundreds of political émigrés from countries in South America vanished in the 1970s (6). 

Some of these cases are very opaque, while in others, the perpetrators care little about covering their tracks. In 2014, Rwandan former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was murdered in South Africa. Rwandan President Paul Kagame subsequently commented on the case by saying that “whoever betrays the country will pay the price.” (7) Autocrats also differ in their choice of targets. For instance, China pursues a wide variety of people: religious and ethnic minorities, political dissenters, activists, and journalists, whereas Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia usually focus on outspoken critics or former insiders (8). The responses from the international community also vary. While the case of Chinese outposts led to outrage and investigations in almost all affected countries, a Freedom Initiative report released on the day of the New York arrests, claimed that the US is much more lenient towards Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which tend to commit similar acts of transnational repression (9, 10). 

The prospects are bleak. New technology is making it cheaper and easier than ever to oppress people from a distance. Social media facilitates state’s monitoring and harassing efforts and allows them to be more aware of their émigrés’ discontent, while spyware allows oppressors to even listen in on their targets’ conversations or read their private messages (11). Emigrants in turn self-censor to try and avoid detection. Transnational repression thus leads to a chilling effect, which is exactly what autocrats aim for. This coerced silence will become part of a new normal in international affairs, unless liberal democratic states act to ensure the protection of émigrés.

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  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-65305415.amp
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/05/italy-home-11-unofficial-chinese-police-stations-world
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/07/china-christopher-wray-operation-fox-hunt
  4. https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Complete_FH_TransnationalRepressionReport2021_rev020221.pdf
  5. https://freedomhouse.org/report/transnational-repression
  6. Tsourapas, G. (2020). Global Autocracies: Strategies of Transnational Repression, Legitimation, and Co-Optation in World Politics. International Studies Review, 23(3). doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viaa061.
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/15/rwanda-who-killed-patrick-karegeya-exiled-spy-chief
  8. https://www.economist.com/international/2021/02/04/repressive-regimes-are-tightening-their-grip-on-their-citizens-abroad
  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/04/19/saudi-arabia-egypt-repression-dissidents/
  10. https://thefreedomi.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Transnational-Repression-Report-Single-Pages.pdf
  11. https://www.economist.com/the-world-ahead/2021/11/08/autocrats-will-continue-to-target-dissidents-abroad

Author profile

I was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. I graduated in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick in 2022, and currently I am pursuing a double degree at Bocconi University and Sciences Po. In my writing, I like to investigate topics in politics, society, culture, art, and innovation, to try and decipher what the years to come will bring, and to share with my peers my lens to the world around us

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