Activists rely on social media to stay in touch, but this also makes them more vulnerable
By Mia Ping-chieh Chen for RFA Mandarin
Protesters gather outside a Chinese "police service station" in New York's Chinatown district on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, to demand an end to spying on the Chinese community in New York.
Young Chinese people in the United States are taking a stand against Beijing's growing willingness to extend enforcement of party censorship and police surveillance among Chinese nationals and their relatives overseas, including through unapproved "police service stations" in other countries.
Governments around the world have launched investigations into these "service stations" run on foreign soil by the provincial police department in the southeastern province of Fujian, while activists and dissidents have spoken out about threats and retaliation by the state security police or pro-China businessmen overseas.
There are growing signs that U.S. police are willing to arrest people suspected of being agents of the Chinese state, amid growing protests against what young activists are calling transnational repression by the Communist Party.
Ning Ning, who asked to be identified by a nickname for fear of reprisals, said state security police came looking for her parents because she was linked to a petition critical of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping on Change.org.
Having lived in the United States for 10 years, she has chosen to fight back from a place of greater freedom, she told Radio Free Asia.
"The Chinese Communist Party thinks it can shut people up by hauling them in to 'drink tea' and other methods," she said in a reference to being summoned for questioning by the feared state security police. "But the thing they don't really want to face up to is that while this may silence people temporarily, public dissatisfaction will deepen."
"And when that dissatisfaction is given the right opportunity, even stronger resistance will erupt," Ning Ning said.
Social media helps and hurts
Transnational activists rely heavily on social media to stay in touch with their home countries, and this makes them more vulnerable to being targeted by their home governments for monitoring, experts told an Orion Policy Institute seminar in October 2022.
Yet a Twitter survey focusing on transnational repression by Chinese agents found that only half of respondents who had been harassed or threatened overseas had reported the incident to U.S. law enforcement.
Washington-based non profit Freedom House called on governments in a February 2022 report to start systematically recording cases of transnational repression, based on an internationally agreed definition of the term, then ensure that law enforcement officials, personnel at key agencies, and those working with refugees and asylum seekers are trained to recognize the targeting of exiles and diasporas.
When state security police contacted Ning Ning and asked her to delete or edit the petition, she reported the incident to the FBI, in the hope of raising awareness of the issue in the United States.
"I hope that I can bring about change through my own actions," she said. "I wanted people in the United States to realize how serious transnational repression by the Chinese Communist Party is."
"I also wanted to send a message to [Chinese] people here, that they don't have to suffer this in silence, just because it won't make headline news or be sensational enough," Ning Ning said. "We have to speak out about our experiences, to bring about a change in the whole of society."
Zhou Fengsuo, executive director of the New York-based NGO Human Rights in China said the group is already focusing its efforts on helping the victims of transnational repression.
Zhou, Ning and a handful of other people staged a protest outside the Capitol on March 22, holding up a placard that read: "We are the victims of the CCP's transnational repression. We stand against the CCP's transnational repression."
"This is a pretty shocking thing, that victims are often afraid to speak out because they're worried about their families," Zhou told Radio Free Asia.
"People [like Ning Ning] who engage in active resistance are rare,” he said. "People from China, students from China are clearly under threat from the Chinese authorities, and the U.S. government must respond proactively to that threat."
Fellow protester A Gui, who declined to give his full name citing reasons of personal safety, said it was “like a tug of war, with everyone pulling for their own team," he said. "If we all pull together, then we can through our willpower pull justice a bit closer to our side."
Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who was among the sponsors of the Transnational Repression Policy Act introduced on March 15, called for a comprehensive approach to the issue.
"The U.S. must take a stand and pursue a whole-of-government approach to address the rising tide of transnational repression whenever and wherever it occurs," Merkley said in comments emailed to Radio Free Asia.
The bill would aim to hold foreign governments and individuals accountable "when they stalk, intimidate, or assault people across borders, including in the United States," according to a news release on the Senate website.
The bill aims to make the issue a key foreign policy priority and prioritize diplomacy that addresses the issue, it said.
"It’s terrible when authoritarian regimes oppress their people at home, but it’s an unacceptable act of aggression to target dissidents in other countries," Merkley said. "Journalists, writers, activists, and everyday people who have spoken truth to power in their country are too often intimidated and blackmailed while living abroad."
Meanwhile, Ning Ning still hides her real name when talking to journalists, and disguises herself when protesting in public.
"Look at how I have to dress up, just to criticize the Chinese Communist Party, because I know how bad their transnational repression really is," she said. "Can you imagine a U.S. citizen wearing a mask and a hat just to criticize their government's policies?"
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.