May 24, 2022 - World

The Justice Department takes on China's overseas repression

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In a string of recent indictments, the U.S. Department of Justice is cracking down on Chinese state-backed repression of U.S.-based dissidents.

Why it matters: The Chinese government has spent decades harassing and trying to silence its critics abroad. Now the U.S. government is taking action to protect people on U.S. soil.

What's happening: Earlier this month, the DOJ announced it had charged a U.S. citizen and four others with a scheme that involved collecting information on U.S.-based pro-democracy activists, human rights groups and members of ethnic communities often targeted by the Chinese government, including Uyghurs and Tibetans.

  • The U.S. citizen, Wang Shujun, is based in Queens, New York, where he helped found a pro-democracy organization. He allegedly used that organization as a platform to collect information on dissidents and supplied it to the other four defendants, who are employees of China's Ministry of State Security and remain at large, the indictment states.
  • In a separate indictment unsealed in March, prosecutors allege another Ministry of State Security employee hired a private investigator to harass and physically assault a Chinese pro-democracy activist who was running for U.S. Congress in Long Island, in order to prevent him from carrying out his campaign.

What they're saying: “If anyone doubts how serious the Chinese government is about silencing its critics, this case should eliminate any uncertainty,” Alan E. Kohler Jr., acting executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, said in a May 18 press release.

  • “The Chinese government’s aggressive tactics were once confined to its borders. Now, the PRC is targeting people in the United States and around the world. The FBI and its partners remain committed to combatting transnational repression.” 

The big picture: The term "transnational repression" has become more widely used over the past several years, as authoritarian governments, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have sought to silence dissent beyond their borders through surveillance, threats and violence.

  • The Chinese government has also sought to forcibly repatriate Uyghurs who have fled China by pressuring governments in Central Asia and the Middle East to deport them.
  • The FBI website defines transnational repression as "when foreign governments stalk, intimidate, or assault people in the United States."
  • The Chinese government is a top offender on U.S. soil. The FBI website provides 10 examples over the last two years relating to actions it has taken on cases of transnational repression. Eight involve the Chinese government; two involve the Iranian government.

Between the lines: U.S.-based Chinese pro-democracy activists, Tibetans and Uyghurs have told me repeatedly over the past decade that they suspected they were being followed and spied on by Chinese state agents operating on U.S. soil — and that they believed there were informants within their own ranks.

  • But for years, they would report these incidents to the FBI and nothing would happen.

This began to change during the latter part of the Trump administration, when the DOJ began issuing public indictments for cases in which Chinese security officials tried to silence U.S.-based critics.

  • A prominent early example was the December 2020 indictment of a China-based Zoom employee for cooperating with Chinese security officials to shut down U.S.-based Zoom accounts of pro-democracy activists.
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