On March 31, 2022, the South China Morning Post reported: “Chinese man Sun Hoi Ying charged in U.S. over Beijing’s ‘Fox Hunt’ for overseas ‘fugitives.’” Sun, accused of enlisting others, including a U.S. law enforcement officer, to spy on and blackmail his victims, allegedly targeted about 35 overseas Chinese who were in trouble at home, seeking to pressure them to return to China.
On Jan. 18, 2022, human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders published a report highlighting organized and secretive methods used by the Chinese government to compel “refugees” to backpedal to China from overseas. The report uses the term “involuntary return” to refer to the fact that the Chinese government using compulsion and illegal means to extradite unwilling individuals. Case studies and reports issued by Safeguard Defenders expose the scope of the Chinese government’s transnational oppression and describe China’s repeated violations of the sovereignty of foreign nations.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the Chinese government has used various means to capture more than 2,500 fugitives from overseas and compel them to return to China under a state-sanctioned abduction program, according to the report. Since the Chinese Communist Party launched Operation Fox Hunt in 2014, followed by Operation Sky Net in 2015, over 10,000 individuals have been extradited to China.
Since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, the monitoring operation has undergone multiple revisions. Operation Fox Hunt was launched by the Ministry of Public Security in June 2014 to trace individuals who alleged to be involved in economic crimes. The program’s aim is to extend Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign overseas.
In 2015, China launched Operation Sky Net under the auspices of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate — China’s highest national agency responsible for legal prosecution and investigation. It was later consolidated with Operation Fox Hunt, and also includes other significant operations synchronized by state and party agencies. Moreover, in 2018, Operation Sky Net was undertaken by the National Supervisory Commission, a state agency launched to expand the powers of the CCP’s internal anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
One extrajudicial means used by the Chinese government is called “persuading to return” (quan-fan), which involves coaxing and convincing the alleged fugitive to return willingly and face prosecution.
“Persuading to return” is abstract and political work. The NSC’s fundamental method is to convince the alleged fugitive that, if they agree to return, they will face a lighter punishment.
Another blatantly illegal method used by the Chinese government is to kidnap the alleged fugitive. If exposed, such cases can cause “diplomatic disputes,” but Chinese authorities will do everything in their power to keep these “transnational abductions” out of the public eye.
To obtain its targets, the Chinese government has also violated official treaties with other countries. The NSC is an appropriate medium for coordinating official judicial agreements, such as extradition treaties. According to Safeguard Defenders, 19% of involuntary returns to China have been from countries that have approved kidnapping in their extradition treaties with the Chinese government.
The CCP has even leveraged Interpol to track down fugitives residing abroad by issuing “red notices” to persuade foreign governments to arrest fugitives on their own soil. A recent case is the extradition of Idris Hasan, a Uyghur exile who was detained by the Moroccan government after China issued a “red notice” via Interpol. But the political purpose of the notice was eventually uncovered, and Interpol later withdrew the notice in the face of public outrage.
An official from China’s Ministry of Public Security even won a seat on Interpol’s executive committee. The Chinese government has claimed that the individuals targeted for extradition are “criminals.” However, according to Safeguard Defenders, most of them are human rights activists and asylum seekers. They include former judges, ordinary citizens who have published online comments critical of the Chinese government, and Uyghurs who fled China after being persecuted by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang.
The International Criminal Court received proof that Chinese agents operating abroad have sought to coerce the extradition of Uyghurs to China. According to a database jointly compiled by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and various Uyghur human rights projects, over 400 Uyghurs have been involuntarily extradited to China since 1997.
From time to time, foreign governments have intervened to obstruct Chinese fugitive-hunting operations. In 2000, the U.S. Justice Department indicted eight Chinese individuals for conniving to act as illegitimate agents of China in an effort to coerce U.S. residents to return to China.
According to reports published by Safeguard Defenders, various foreign governments — including Canada, the United States and Switzerland — have complied with China’s extradition operations. For instance, Switzerland has eased off the Chinese policing operation and even entered into a secret agreement with the Chinese government, whereby Swiss authorities provide Chinese police with tourist visas to roam around freely in the entire Schengen Area to interview Chinese nationals domiciled there.
A 2021 report issued by Safeguard Defenders revealed that Mihray Erkin, a 31-year-old Uyghur woman, is believed to have died in detention in Xinjiang in 2020. Erkin, who previously worked in Japan as a scientific researcher, was forced to return to Xinjiang in 2019 after the CCP coerced and intimidated her parents.
The “hidden” motive for China’s surreptitious extraditions is crystal clear. Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, has warned host countries to be wary of extradition requests from China. Chinese authorities should provide individuals with “adequate opportunity” to challenge extradition requests, and not let them return to China if there is any possibility of them facing harassment or mistreatment. The Chinese government continues to peddle its lies that it has “never violated foreign or international laws,” but Safeguard Defenders has revealed the dark truth about China’s transnational abductions and coerced extraditions.