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10 Aug 2021

Wanted by China: Europe is failing as a safe haven for Chinese dissidents

  • In Poland, a Chinese national commits suicide in detention awaiting extradition hearing and yet another Taiwanese citizen is facing extradition to the PRC
  • In the Netherlands, a young dissident couple claims maltreatment in immigration detention, while several others have recently sought asylum after arriving via Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport
  • In Morocco, the first-ever extradition request from China is being tested, in an expedited process that lawyer claims will “be decided by politics, not law”. Yesterday over 40 MPs from 16 different countries together called on the Moroccan government to stop the extradition.
  • In Sweden, the first asylum case from a Hong Kong resident will be tested, and an Inner Mongolian activist’s deportation stopped
  • In Germany, a man is facing imminent deportation despite facing certain arrest on political grounds when returned

As Xi Jinping continues to tighten his grip on power, the few legal safeguards that did exist are being eroded further and further, freedom of speech is virtually inexistent, and China’s problem is increasingly becoming the world’s problem. Recently the Economist reported how the number of Chinese nationals fleeing China and seeking asylum has skyrocketed by some 700% since Xi Jinping came to power, from just around 15,000 to nearly 110,000 annually, and the number is rapidly increasing year by year – and this number does not include refugees, only asylum seekers. In the absence of any democratic freedoms within the country and notwithstanding the difficulties in obtaining the necessary travel documents, these numbers are a very physical representation of the only vote Chinese citizens get: “vote with your feet”.  

While a rapidly growing number of Chinese nationals seeks and needs protection abroad, China is expanding its reach via global policing, employing a series of tactics to hunt down and forcibly return those wanted. Europe in particular has had a busy few weeks with a myriad of interconnected developments, which taken together very much highlight the full scope of the problem.

Last year Yu Hao, a then 31-year old man, committed suicide in a Warsaw detention center. He had lived in the Netherlands for years and was moving to Poland. Shortly after his arrival there in 2019 he was caught speeding on camera. He did not think much of it, yet as he went to the local police to pay the fine, he found out there was an Interpol red notice out for him and he was arrested. His case was not reported on anywhere, and came to light only as Swedish citizen Li Zhihui was released in Poland after fighting an extradition battle with China. It turned out Li had been held in the same facility and had heard about Yu Hao’s story inside. Li’s case showed that he too had been taken on the basis of an Interpol red notice, after years living peacefully in Sweden and frequently travelling across Europe. The Falun Gong practitioner lost nearly two years of his life battling his potential extradition, often in solitary confinement. Under such circumstances, it becomes easier to understand how someone might be driven to such despair as to take his or her own life.

Still in Poland, Taiwanese citizen Liu Hongtao is fighting yet another extradition request, in a case ongoing since 2018. While of particular relevance given his Taiwanese citizenship and China’s attempt to undermine Taiwanese sovereignty in seeking his extradition to the mainland, his case - much like Yu’s and most other pending extradition cases of extraditions - remains unknown and entirely overlooked by media.

With remarkable success, in recent years China has sought to establish bilateral extradition treaties across Europe and other western nations, thus building both legitimacy for its judicial system that falls short of any international due process standards, and gaining yet another tool to forcibly return its targets to China. While the price paid by individuals battling the extradition requests is hefty, thus far China has had less success in seeking individuals’ return, with one defeat after another in the last three years. In fact, all known extradition cases decided on between 2019 and 2021 in Europe and its neighbourhood have been rejected: in Sweden, the Czech Republic, France, Poland and Turkey.

The most recent rejection, earlier this year, was regarding an Uyghur named Abdulkadir Yapuquan living in Turkey that China sought extradited. He was accused of terrorism or being affiliated with terrorist-classified organizations. His case is of particular relevance as in this very moment another Uyghur, legal resident in Turkey, is being held in Morocco and wanted by China.  

However, outside of countries with rule of law, or which maintains ‘expedited extradition treaties’ with China, such as Morocco, the risks are even greater, and it can be mere weeks between a request for extradition is made, and such extradition granted. Case in point, Yidiresi Aishan, also known as Idris Hasan. Aishan, who has been living in Turkey with his wife, brother, and three kids since 2012, was detained while in transit at Casablanca airport in late July. After international media paid attention to the case, the Moroccan government finally responded to inquiries: Aishan was detained due to an Interpol red notice on charges of affiliation with terrorist organizations. Aishan is a 33-year old software engineer that has worked with an online Uyghur diaspora newspaper in Turkey which collects and publishes information about human rights violations in Xinjiang. Due to the attention garnered, and direct communication from Amnesty International, Interpol has since withdrawn the red notice, and in effect, even if not in exact words, admitted the red notice was politically motivated. However, Morocco continues to detain Aishan, and the prosecutor has recommended that he be extradited to China. In fact, the prosecutor made such a recommendation even before Moroccan authorities had received the case file and official request from the PRC. On August 9, over 40 MPs from 16 different countries together, via IPAC (the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China), called on the Moroccan government to stop the extradition process of Aishan.

The China-Morocco extradition treaty went into effect earlier this year, and this will be the first extradition hearing, setting a potentially dangerous precedent for the safety of those wanted on political grounds by China. His hearing is set for Wednesday - August 12 - and his extradition can take place immediately after a decision following the hearing.

With China’s growing use of long-arm policing, such expedited extraditions, which can be completed in mere weeks, will become a threat to non-Chinese nationals once China starts more rigorously applying its long-arm policing on non-Chinese nationals, yet European countries have taken little to no action, with only individual politicians taking a stand against what would, if extradited, be a mockery of the international legal obligations of Morocco.

As far as extraditions are concerned, the most important case may be happening right now in Cyprus. A Falun Gong practitioner, whose name we cannot yet reveal, is being sought for extradition. Like many, he was first targeted via informal attempts to encourage him to return on his own. Much like Morocco, the ink on Cyprus’ extradition treaty with China has barely dried, and this will be the very first test of China seeking extradition from the island nation. Earlier this year, two other Chinese nationals which we cannot name were also sought for extradition there, after first being approached in person by Chinese agents to encourage their voluntary return. However, without explanation, the Chinese side did not follow up on their initial request and let it lapse. Both have since relocated to the safety of the United Kingdom.

With this case in Cyprus, a country where knowledge of China is abysmally low, China is likely hoping to reverse the negative trend across Europe and in the EU when it comes to extraditions. Thus far, a representative from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) who was part of the very delegation that visited Beijing to sign the treaty, could answer almost none of the questions put forth by the defence in court, making it painstakingly clear that absolutely no due diligence had been performed before signing the treaty. Not a single member of parliament, including those on the foreign affairs committee and legal affairs committee, have responded to request for comments on how parliament ratified the treaty. In the end, the MOJ spokeswoman simply said (translation): “Other countries have signed it, so why shouldn’t we?” An example of how China’s strategy for expanding such cooperation and building legitimacy is unfortunately working well, with western governments too naive or blinded by promised opportunities to properly assess why China is seeking such agreements and perform the due diligence needed before rushing into signing them.

Beyond these extradition cases, a myriad of Chinese nationals have been seeking asylum across Europe and some of these cases can and will be precedent setting. In The Netherlands, two young dissidents, both accused of violation of the Law on Martyrs and Heroes, are seeking asylum. Xu Zheng, who escaped from the Ukraine where Chinese police tracked him down and said they could easily have him returned since the Ukraine has an extradition treaty with China, received his refugee status late July.

No more than 20 meters away, another dissident - a teenager - is spending time in the same holding center in Amsterdam while seeking asylum: Wang Jingyu. Wang, like Xu, is accused of a crime that consists of having a political disagreement with the government through Twitter, a platform banned in China and doing so while living outside of China. The 2018 law is also being used against yet another Chinese national living abroad, Pan Rui, believed to the in the United Kingdom. The law, just like changes to some articles related to Endangering State Security in the Criminal Law, is now being used for long-arm policing, for activities that are merely thought crimes, carried out by those living outside of China. Wang Jingyu’s dramatic story was covered by Safeguard Defenders earlier, when he was detained in transit, while moving to the United States from Turkey where he no longer felt safe. His trip was cut short when he was detained at the airport by the police in Dubai. Dubai authorities, when pressed by international media, gave an evolving set of excuses for his detention. He was released and sent back to Turkey after media- and diplomatic outcry. His girlfriend, Wu Huan, is also seeking asylum. As reported by AP and told by Wang, she was taken away by Chinese officials in Dubai when she went there to help get Wang out.

Currently, Wang and Wu have lost their legal representation and were both placed into solitary confinement. On Monday Wu was moved into the same cell as Wang, with bruises on her fingers and knees, although it is unclear how she received these, but Wu has earlier tried to hurt herself. The immigration facility is currently under lockdown due to quarantine restrictions, and no visitors, including lawyers, are allowed, and both are now without legal representation.

At the very same time, another young man, Zhang Hui, is likewise fighting for asylum. Zhang left China in early 2021, after several years of being active in local rights defence – including multiple detentions and interrogations by police - flying via Dubai and arriving in Serbia. After a prolonged period in Serbia he booked a flight to Morocco, but left while in transit in Paris and requested political asylum. His request was denied this month, and he is now seeking to appeal that decision. Li Qiuling (Li Yonglai), and his wife and three children are also being held at Amsterdam’s immigration detention centre, having arrived a week ago via Serbia. They are currently awaiting being given a lawyer.

In yet another case, as reported on by CHRD, Chinese dissident Liu Bing is facing imminent deportation from Frankfurt to China, as early as August 26. He has been active in civil society for nearly ten years, including with the renowned Open Constitution Institute. He was also documented partaking in a Tiananmen memorial activity shortly before leaving China in 2019, when he fleed to Thailand, and later to Serbia, before making it to Germany. He was denied asylum there, and due to language barriers, failed to file for an appeal to the decision. Since arriving, another man, Yin Xuan, who partook in the Tiananmen memorial, who appears together with Liu Bing in a photo used by the prosecutor as evidence, has seen that person convicted and sentenced to nearly five years of imprisonment. Besides Yin Xuan, two others that Liu has worked with, Fan Yipeng and Xu Zhiyong, have been imprisoned.

A case that may have significant consequences is that of Liu Narayan, a Hong Konger in Sweden who together with his family members is seeking asylum. It will be the first known case of a Hong Konger seeking asylum in Sweden and the decision is likely to be precedent-setting. Earlier Germany became the first EU country to grant asylum to Hong Kongers, when it gave such to Ray Wong and Alan Li Tung Sing, and late last year in another case identified only as “Elaine”.

It is not the only precedent-setting case in Sweden. As Safeguard Defenders reported, an Inner Mongolian man, Baolige Wurina, who was set to be deported to China, had his deportation order suspended, and due to the changing situation in Inner Mongolia and fears for his safety he will now be granted a new hearing.

Finally, SD has received information on several Uyghurs being effectively forced out of Turkey, sent to the UAE, only to be deported from there to China, this happening back in 2017. Huseyin Imintohti is one of them, and was detained in Istanbul in 2017. The interrogations, carried out by both Turkish police and a Chinese man, presented him with three options; stay detained in Istanbul, be released in exchange for “cooperating” with Chinese police or leave Turkey for a third country. He decided to be deported to Dubai in the UAE. He also met three other Uyghurs, all of whom have been released in exchange for “cooperating” with the Chinese police.

While in Dubai, he was chased around by Chinese officials, who were escorted by a Dubai police officer, who visited his home, the place of work of a known friend of his, a restaurant he was known to frequent, and finally, the UNHCR office in Abu Dhabi, where he was applying for refugee status. UNHCR made clear he would only be safe at the UNHCR office during daytime work hours, and he spent his nights outside the office. He disappeared shortly thereafter. At one point he stayed with two Uyghur brothers aged 12 and 17. These two, Osmanjan and Yasinjanm, along with another Uyghur friend in Dubai, Ahmad Talip, have since all been arrested in Dubai and their current whereabouts are unknown. This information has been made available by Huseyin’s wife, Nigare Yusup, who was contacted by Chinese police in 2019, while living in the Netherlands where she received asylum, who via WeChat showed a photo of her father and brother, in handcuffs, and saying “we can get you and your kids back to China”. She deleted her WeChat account entirely without responding. She has not received any information about Huseyin’s fate.

Canada recently announced a new channel for human rights defenders seeking asylum, responding to a deteriorating situation for HRDs across the world, including in China. It is high time the EU not only set positive precedents for accepting Chinese nationals seeking asylum, but also institutes a similar system. Likewise, it is becoming increasingly urgent the EU Council takes a united stance against extradition treaties with China, as it did earlier with Hong Kong, and call on all member states to suspend any extradition treaties with China currently in effect. The problems being left on Europe’s shore as a consequence of Xi Jinping’s expanded repression is not going away. It is bound to get worse and Europe needs to put itself on the right side of history, and for once start making needed changes sooner rather than later.