Updated Apr 2, 2023 - World
Axios Investigates

Fake bomb threats used to harass China critics

Illustration of a hotel lobby bell sitting in a bear trap

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

More than a dozen false bomb threats made at luxury hotels and embassies across Europe, the U.S., the Middle East and East Asia appear to be part of a harassment campaign targeting three Chinese people living abroad who have been critical of China's government, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The journalist and two activists targeted by the campaign believe the harassment is backed by the Chinese government. Beijing has for decades used surveillance and intimidation to silence dissidents abroad — but analysts warn their efforts to target their critics beyond their borders are becoming more brazen.

  • When it comes to repressing critics abroad, "China operates pretty freely in democratic states," Yana Gorokhovskaia, an expert on transnational repression at Freedom House, told Axios.
  • "It employs various tactics, and when one tactic becomes unavailable, they are quite creative about how to harass and target people" in other ways — sometimes via extreme or radical methods, she added.
  • For instance, Chinese Communist Party leaders have, at times, leveraged foreign government institutions to pursue Beijing's critics.
  • China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., said it isn't aware of the incidents in the U.S. and does "not have any information to offer."
  • In an additional statement after publication, a spokesperson for the embassy added that the "accusation of 'transnational repression' is totally made out of thin air. The U.S. attempt to hype up 'China threat' and tarnish China’s reputation is doomed to fail."

What's happening: Beginning in October 2022, anonymous perpetrators booked and paid for dozens of expensive rooms at luxury hotels in at least six countries — the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Hong Kong and Macau in China, and the U.S. They used the personal information of Germany-based Radio Free Asia reporter Su Yutong and two activists, Wang Jingyu in the Netherlands and Bob Fu in the U.S., without their knowledge.

  • The perpetrators then called in at least 14 fake bomb threats to some of those hotels, falsely identifying themselves as these people, resulting in police investigations and even the brief detention of one of the activists, according to Axios interviews with Su, Wang, and Fu, and statements provided to Axios by police and hotel staff.
  • An additional two false bomb threats were made in Wang's name against the Chinese embassies in the Netherlands and Norway, according to Wang and a Dutch police report viewed by Axios. The Chinese embassy in Norway confirmed to Axios in an email that someone using Wang's name made a bomb threat, adding in a statement that “after verification, we believe this is a hoax by certain people which does not consist of a valid threat.” The Chinese embassy in the Netherlands did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Dutch police in the Hague said the false reports were most likely made from IP addresses in China and Hong Kong, according to a Dutch news report. Dutch law enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Macau and Hong Kong are investigating the threats, according to Axios interviews, Dutch news reports, and statements to Axios from hotels and local law enforcement. The Chinese embassy in Norway said they did not contact police about the false threat.
  • The Chinese embassy in Germany did not respond to a request for comment.

Background: Su, Wang and Fu have publicly criticized and questioned Beijing's policies and actions, drawing the ire of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • Su was put under house arrest in 2010 for distributing a banned book about former Chinese Premier Li Peng who oversaw the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. She was able to escape China and flee to Germany the same year but has said she and her parents in China continue to be threatened by police and the Chinese government.
  • Fu, a pastor, has lived in the U.S. for more than 25 years and runs ChinaAid, a nonprofit that assists Christians, Muslims and other people of faith persecuted in China.
  • Emirati authorities detained Wang in 2021 as he was transiting through Dubai after he posted comments on Chinese social media criticizing China's role in the China-India border conflict. He now lives in the Netherlands, which does not have an extradition treaty with China.

Details: Wang was questioned by Dutch police on Oct. 7 in connection with reports of bomb threats around the country and also in Belgium, according to a Dutch police report viewed by Axios and interviews with Wang.

  • Dutch authorities soon came to the conclusion that he was not responsible for the false bomb threats, Wang said.
  • On Oct. 15, 2022, the day Wang said the false bomb threat was made to the Chinese embassy in the Netherlands, Dutch police closed off the main roads at the embassy's location in The Hague to search for explosives, and later determined the bomb threat was not genuine, according to a local news report.
  • No bombs have been reported found at the hotels or embassies, according to interviews and news reports.

Zoom in: In February, Fu received calls from the JW Marriott Essex House hotel in New York and a hotel in Houston about the bomb threats they received in his name, he told Axios. Fu then reported the incidents to the FBI.

  • Police investigators in New York and Los Angeles, where another threat was made in his name, as well as an FBI field office in Texas, are now working on the case, Fu told Axios. The FBI said in an email that it could "neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation."
  • A manager at the Marriott hotel in New York told Axios "something similar" occurred at the hotel earlier this year but wouldn't provide further details. A spokesperson for the hotel told Axios in an email they do not comment on police matters.
  • The NYPD didn't respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the threats made in Fu's name. The LAPD told Axios it wasn't able to comment on a federal investigation.

Su's name was used to book a room and then to call in a false bomb threat at a luxury hotel in Istanbul, a manager at the hotel confirmed to Axios. The hotel staff understood it was a false bomb threat after speaking with Su directly, the manager said.

  • A police officer in Macau told Axios he was aware of a false bomb threat made in Su's name to a hotel in the city, but said he could not answer any questions because the case was still open.

A Marriott regional communications director referred Axios to local police regarding an inquiry about a Brussels hotel where Wang said a false bomb threat was made by someone who gave his name and contact information.

  • The Ritz Carlton Berlin confirmed they received a false bomb threat but "could not disclose any further details, as the case is currently still with our local authorities," a public relations manager told Axios via email.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment and referred Axios to local law enforcement.

  • "Any form of foreign interference is utterly unacceptable. Every person in the Netherlands should be safe and feel safe, free from intimidation from regimes abroad. In case there are signs of unwanted interference, we will bring this up very firmly in bilateral contacts, and take action where necessary," the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Axios in a statement.
  • "The ministry cannot provide comments on individual cases."

Wang, Su and Fu each told Axios they believe this is a Chinese state-sponsored campaign of transnational repression targeting Wang for his previous remarks and his current activism, Su for her coverage of Wang, and Fu for helping Wang.

  • Su said perpetrators have also booked dozens of taxis and ordered thousands of dollars of food delivered to her home through Uber Eats over the past several weeks, selecting cash on delivery as the method of payment.
  • She's also been targeted with fake escort ads that have led to men coming to her house. “Almost every day different people rang my doorbell,” Su told Radio Free Asia. “They say they are here for an Asian woman, looking for sex.”
  • Su, who said she has been assisting the German law enforcement investigation of the harassment, has now moved to an undisclosed residence after authorities urged her to take measures to protect her safety.

What they're saying: "We left China in the hope of freedom from fear in the democratic countries," Su told Axios.

  • "What amazes me is that they use these tactics with such unscrupulousness in Germany, the United States and other democracies as they do in China. When victims report crimes, democracies sometimes treat cases as ordinary cases of harassment, threats, and I hope democracies will link these cases to the CCP’s cross-border repression," Su said.
  • "This tactic clearly demonstrates that the CCP pivots to new ways of its transnational repression against dissidents like me," Fu told Axios.
  • The Chinese government is punishing Wang because "they want to make him feel more vulnerable and to restrict his travel because he constantly accepts media interviews," said Fu, who helped Wang escape Ukraine and make it safely to the Netherlands. Fu believes this is the reason he is being targeted.

Between the lines: The tactics used against Wang, Su and Fu are consistent with co-optation, a form of transnational repression in which the perpetrator abuses the existing institutions of a host country — in this case, local law enforcement — to silence the victims or make their lives as difficult as possible, Gorokhovskaia said.

  • Data compiled by Freedom House shows that "China is the world’s most prolific perpetrator of transnational repression, both in terms of sheer numbers of groups and people it targets, but also the number of different kinds of tactics," Gorokhovskaia said.

What to watch: The Justice Department, under the Trump and Biden administrations, has emphasized fighting China's transnational repression.

  • The European Court of Human Rights late last year blocked a man's extradition to China in a landmark case that could make it difficult for European countries to deport anyone back to China.
  • A bipartisan bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress earlier this month "to establish a new U.S. policy to hold foreign governments and individuals accountable when they stalk, intimidate, or assault people across borders, including in the United States."

Go deeper: Read more of Axios' China coverage.

Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where host Niala Boodhoo and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian discuss how fake bomb threats are used to harass China critics.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 29. It has been updated with an additional comment from the Chinese embassy in Washington.

Go deeper