A human rights organisation says China is abducting and intimidating political dissidents and their families living overseas in countries including Australia under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns.
A new report by Spain-based NGO Safeguard Defenders said at least eight Australian residents appear to have been involuntarily returned by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to face prosecution for alleged "economic crimes" in China.
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Beijing's methods include threatening targets' families back in China, sending agents to intimidate the targets in their host country and, in some rare cases, direct kidnappings, the report said.
"With involuntary returns, the CCP's message is that nowhere is safe; fleeing overseas will not save you, there is no escape," it said.
Operation Fox Hunt and Sky Net
China's Ministry of Public Security — its federal police agency — launched Operation Fox Hunt in 2014, ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption drive spearheaded by President Xi Jinping.
Chinese authorities say billions of dollars have been recovered under the operation, which was later incorporated into a broader international campaign to repatriate Chinese fugitives and finance called Sky Net.
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The state-run Global Times newspaper has said Sky Net "mostly focuses on people who fled to Western countries such as the US, Canada or Australia".
Official data suggests about 10,000 alleged criminals have been returned to China under the program since 2014, but Safeguard Defenders said this was likely just "the tip of the iceberg".
State media reports that 1,421 fugitives were brought back to China during "anti-corruption manhunt operation[s]" in 2020 alone.
The Safeguard Defenders report detailed 62 returns from Australia, the US, Canada, South-East Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.
It argues the vast majority of the thousands of returns have been involuntary — "non-traditional, often illegal, means of forcing someone to return to China against their will, most often to face certain imprisonment".
Observers say Chinese courts have a conviction rate of more than 99.9 per cent.
China forcibly returned nearly 10,000 in overseas crackdown: report
Beijing has forced nearly 10,000 Chinese overseas nationals to return since 2014 using coercive means outside the justice system, according to a new report. Safeguard Defenders cited government data in its estimate that almost 10,000 Chinese nationals had been forcibly returned since 2014. Official figures from the government's anti-graft watchdog show Beijing returned around 2,500 targeted individuals in the past two years.But the numbers do not include suspects apprehended for non-economic crimes or those who are not members of China's ruling Communist Party.
"There is the possibility that there are some corrupt officials, but the main problem is under China's legal system, it is utterly untrustworthy," Chen Yen-ting, the Taiwan-based Safeguard Defenders researcher who wrote the report, told the ABC.
He said in some cases those forcibly returned to China had had their alleged crimes trumped up or fabricated.
"We as outsiders just can't identify who are really criminals and who are not," he said.
Safeguard Defenders was founded by Swedish rights activist Peter Dahlin, who was detained and deported by China in 2016 for running an "illegal organisation".
The NGO told the ABC it "almost exclusively" received funding via competitive grants from international organisations and governments, and that its biggest source of funding to date had been via the European Union's European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.
Official interpretation of Chinese law relating to international anti-corruption operations allows for "unconventional measures", including the use of "abduction" and "entrapment".
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Mr Chen said the inclusion of such provisions was "appalling", adding that coercion was "systematically used" by Chinese authorities.
Entrapment is defined by the legal interpretation as "luring" criminal suspects to the high seas, international airspace, Chinese territory or a third country which has an extradition treaty with China, before arrest or extradition.
But, given that undertaking these activities without the approval of another government could "give rise to diplomatic disputes", kidnapping and entrapment are "rarely used in practice", the Chinese legal document reads.
'Persuasion' the preferred method
Most of those involuntarily returned to China are coerced into doing so by means other than abductions, the Safeguard Defenders report argues.
It cites the case of Dong Feng, a resident of the Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley who was approached by Chinese police officers in 2014 over alleged bribery in China.
The agents sought to "persuade" Mr Dong — a practitioner of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement long targeted by the CCP — to return to face a Chinese court.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported he agreed to speak with Chinese officials because of concerns over the wellbeing of family in China.
Beijing had not informed Australian counterparts about the operation.
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Australia summoned Chinese diplomats over the incident, expressing "deep concerns" over what a government spokesperson called "unacceptable" conduct.
The Australian government at the time said it had "been assured by Chinese authorities that there would be no repeat of these actions".
But Operation Fox Hunt and Sky Net continued, and a planned extradition treaty with China was shelved in 2017 over human rights concerns among Australian politicians about the treatment of suspects in the Chinese judicial system.
Nevertheless, that same year the Australian Federal Police (AFP) signed several agreements with the Ministry of Public Security on targeting transnational crime and maintains cooperation in a range of areas.
"The AFP has worked closely with Chinese law enforcement since 2015," AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw said in his 2021 Christmas greeting, adding $2 million had been "restrained" and 299 arrests had been made in that time.
The Law Council of Australia has consistently opposed an extradition treaty, arguing that China "does not act in accordance with procedural fairness and rule of law standards in criminal proceedings", noting reports of forced confessions via torture.
Mr Dahlin of Safeguard Defenders told the ABC that failure by Australia to respond decisively against previous extralegal activities had seen them continue.
"Australia's lacklustre response to prior operations in Australia, including use of kidnappings, is of course a direct signal of encouragement to the Chinese side," he said.
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"Why stop such operations, even when [one is] exposed or fails, has no negative consequences?"
In 2018, Australian resident Lai Mingmin returned to China to face charges of bribery and corruption.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Chinese authorities publicly admitted to putting pressure on Mr Lai's wife and daughter during a visit to China.
American officials have been more vocal about the alleged use of involuntary returns from US territory.
In July last year, US authorities charged nine Chinese nationals including a Chinese prosecutor with acting as foreign agents.
The US Justice Department said they were alleged to have "engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk and coerce" US residents "as part of a global, concerted and extralegal repatriation effort known as 'Operation Fox Hunt'".
China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded to the arrests by accusing US officials of "smears and slander".
"China conducts law enforcement cooperation based on international law," Mr Zhao said.
"We also fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty, and protect the legal rights of criminal suspects."
The ABC contacted the Chinese Foreign Ministry, its embassy in Australia and the AFP for comment.
"Based on the reasons of Beijing's rampant illegal methods of pursuing fugitives abroad as well as its embedded human rights violations in domestic criminal justice, it is unwise for Western policing bodies to cooperate with China," Yu-Jie Chen, assistant research professor at Academia Sinica's Law Institute in Taiwan, told the ABC.
"The policing bodies in democracies should be subject to judicial and public scrutiny, including their collaboration with Chinese law enforcement."
Concerns over appointment of Chinese official to Interpol
According to Safeguard Defenders, involuntary returns are also achieved by the misuse of Interpol red notices — requests for other states to help locate and arrest a suspect.
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The report cites the case of Melbourne grandmother and former Chinese official Zhou Shiqin who returned to China in 2016 after she was accused of embezzlement and her sister's assets there were frozen.
An Interpol red notice calling for Ms Zhou's arrest had been widely broadcast by Chinese state media.
Authoritarian governments are often accused of using red notices to lend an air of legitimacy to the persecution of political dissidents, such as in the case of Melbourne-based Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi who was arrested by Thai officials while on holiday in 2018.
The appointment of China's Ministry of Public Security official Hu Binchen to the executive committee of Interpol late last year was strongly opposed by Western politicians due to fears the international policing body would be used to target Chinese dissidents.
Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said at the time that China had "repeatedly abused the Interpol red notice to persecute dissidents in exile".
"[China has a] history of leveraging Interpol committee positions to exert undue influence on the organisation," she said.
Mr Chen, the report's author, said Safeguard Defenders had documented several cases where people had been returned to China via Interpol channels "without any reasons, and without legal grounds".
Some of these cases had unfolded in the Arab Gulf states during 2017-18 when former CCP official and police officer Meng Hongwei was the head of Interpol.
Mr Meng was himself jailed for corruption in 2021 for 13 years, after a suspected falling out with Mr Xi.
Chinese authorities said in December last year they were also preparing a case against his wife Grace, who is seeking asylum in France.