18 Jan 2022

Involuntary Returns – report exposes long-arm policing overseas

Just around Christmas last year, China’s global hunt for “fugitives” hit a new milestone. Since its launch in 2014 as part of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, 10,000 are claimed to have been successfully returned from over 120 countries around the globe under Sky Net (and junior partner Fox Hunt) operations.

This new report by Safeguard Defenders goes beyond the few individual cases reported on occasionally in the past, delving deep into their foreign operations and blowing the lid on the use of so-called “voluntary” returns… by any means necessary. Download the report here, click the thumbnail, or check out the Publications tab.

“Any means” is to be taken literally. Legally sanctioned methods under the PRC’s National Supervision Law range from detaining family members back in China, to sending police overseas on secret missions to intimidate targets into returning, to outright kidnappings abroad.

As the research shows, formal legal procedures such as extraditions play an almost non-existent role in the claimed success rate of the Sky Net campaign. Instead, these involuntary returns (IR) account for the vast majority of Sky Net’s track record: in 2018, IR stood for some 64% of the claimed successful returns, while extradition – the appropriate judicial channel for such returns – represented but 1%.

The rapidly expanding global practice poses a severe threat to national sovereignty and individual rights everywhere. National awareness and investigations, as well as targeted actions to counter these operations and protect those most at risk are key to upholding the international rules-based order.


China legalizes use of kidnapping abroad

Safeguard Defenders’ latest report exposes an existing legal interpretation from the party-twin to the body in command of Sky Net: China’s new feared super-ministry, the National Supervision Commission (NSC). On the basis of article 52 of the National Supervision Law (2018), it provides the practical terms for how the NSC and Police shall achieve the return of claimed fugitives. This legal interpretation serves as a guide on the numerous categories of methods that can be employed. In its fifth and final category, it states outright:

[For the fifth category] There are two common ways: (1) kidnapping, which means using the methods of kidnapping to arrest fugitives back to the country; (2) trapping and capturing, which means luring criminal suspects to the territories of the destination country, the high seas, international airspace, or a third country which has an extradition treaty with the destination country, and then to arrest or extradite them.


The three types of involuntary returns (IR)

The research behind the report includes a deep dive into 62 cases of both failed and successful attempts at these “voluntary” returns. Based on these, Safeguard Defenders mapped three types of IR (involuntary returns) methods employed. Broadly speaking, they are:


IR Type 1: Threats to family in China

After moving to Canada Xie Weidong, a former judge on China’s Supreme Court, publicly criticised the PRC’s criminal justice system. Chinese authorities accused him of corruption and then attempted to get him to return “voluntarily”. When he refused, police detained first his sister and then his son back in China. Police also reached out to his ex-wife, a former long-time business partner and others, such as the lawyer who was representing his sister: all with the aim of persuading him to return. Having been a judge, Xie knew all too well what was in store for him should he return and continued to refuse despite the retaliation against his family members and others. The PRC even sent a lawyer to Canada to persuade him in person… in vain.


IR Type 2: Targeting victims in foreign country

The first known case of Chinese agents operating undercover in Australia to forcibly return someone is that of Dong Feng in late 2014, just months after Xi launched the international arm of his anti-corruption campaign (Fox Hunt). Dong, who had obtained Australian citizenship was a tour group operator and bus driver. He was also a Falun Gong practitioner. Undercover Chinese police officers approached Dong in Melbourne to persuade him to return and face “justice”. He initially agreed to communicate with them because of threats to his family back in China, but in the end he refused to return and stayed in Australia. However, the news that Chinese police were working undercover in Australia leaked, causing a diplomatic spat between Canberra and Beijing.


IR Type 3: Kidnappings abroad

Chinese human rights defender Dong Guangping had already served three years in prison in China on charges of inciting subversion of state power in the early 2000s and had been disappeared for another eight months in incommunicado detention in 2014. To escape further persecution, he managed to make it to Thailand in 2015, where he was granted official refugee status by the UNHCR. As he awaited resettlement to Canada in a Bangkok immigration detention centre, Chinese police walked in, handcuffed him in front of Thai officers and led him out. Dong later resurfaced in detention in China (there is no official record of his having left Thailand) where he was sentenced to three years in prison. He was freed in 2019 after serving his sentence.


Individuals are not necessarily targeted through one method only. Cases have been recorded were, if one method fails, another is employed. Sky Net is set up to ensure their return at any cost, by any means necessary.


The scope and scale of Sky Net

The 10,000+ successful returns may represent but part of an iceberg as this number is based on the limited data touted by the CCP which include only successful returns in their publications. As Safeguard Defender’s deep dive into 62 individual cases shows, only half of them were successful.

Moreover, whereas Sky Net officially claims to be targeting only economic criminals and Party- and State functionaries accused of bribery, corruption or abuse of power, many of the cases identified by Safeguard Defenders are of a very different kind. They clearly include actions against dissidents or human rights defenders: whether it is Chinese journalist Li Xin kidnapped in Thailand, activist Tang Zhishun kidnapped in Burma, or as in the cases of British Lee Bo or Swede Gui Minhai, targeted in Hong Kong and Thailand respectively.

In addition, the Uyghur Human Rights Project also mapped hundreds of cases of Uyghurs being targeted in a similar manner, although their data likely scratches only the surface.

It is therefore most likely that the official data excludes such instances, leaving us in the dark on just how common such targets are or how many of Sky Net’s operations end in failure and are therefore not registered in the data.

Caveats aside, with 10,000+ admitted successful returns from over 120 countries even within its very narrow category of reported targets, it is a massive and worldwide operation.


The time to act, and how

The rapidly expanding global practice poses a severe threat to national sovereignty and individual rights everywhere. National awareness and investigations, as well as targeted actions to counter these operations and protect those most at risk are key to upholding the international rules-based order.

In countries where illegal operations - especially Type 2 where agents are sent on illegal and secret missions overseas – have been exposed, diplomatic responses have tended to be muted. In other countries, where such operations take places but have not (yet) led to investigations or media exposure, governments appear either unaware of the issue or wilfully choose to ignore it as they feel it might force their hands to actually respond.

Encouraged by the absence of any real political cost is imposed on such outright illegal practices even when exposed, the CCP is rapidly expanding the operations. Prior to the pandemic, this trend was clear and despite the significant restrictions in place around the world in 2020 and 2021, the campaign remained surprisingly large-scale even during the pandemic. It is clear this issue is only going to become bigger.

Countries may illude themselves that the best way to counter such blatant violations of national sovereignty and international law are best served with formal judicial cooperation agreements and extradition treaties with the PRC, an argument on which the CCP is keen. Yet, as this latest report demonstrates, about 19% of IR type 2 cases take place in countries that have (ratified) extradition treaties, as do 55% of kidnappings (IR type 3).

In essence, the PRC will use these methods regardless of whether extradition - or other judicial cooperation mechanisms – exist and it will continue to do so unless there is a political cost involved.

It is indicative that the body that has been put in command of both Sky Net and general judicial cooperation is the National Supervision Commission (NSC), which is neither a law enforcement agency nor a judicial organ, and is credibly accused of multiple counts of crimes against humanity based on evidence amassed on mass enforced disappearances and torture by Safeguard Defenders.

We call on Members of Parliament to raise this issue with their Governments: ask if and how this practice is being monitored; to what extent such operations take place in their country, and what measures are being formulated to counter them.

Action needs also be taken to protect a quickly growing Chinese diaspora in the target countries, unless the latter are content with having a foreign government police minority groups on their territory, often to the intentional detriment of the target country and its policies, and aimed at intimidating the diaspora into obedience to the CCP anywhere in the world. Dedicated reporting and protection mechanisms must urgently be made available.

Safeguard Defenders continues to call for an immediate suspension of extradition treaties with China, the termination of any agreements signed with the NSC, and comprehensive reviews of other forms of judicial cooperation. Without the willingness to review, suspend or terminate such cooperation – highly sought by the CCP – these is little reason for them to stop. There is leverage to be found, but unless there is willingness to use it, it remains impotent.

Download the 1-page summary (also below) as a PDF here: