China’s extrajudicial returns

This section contains materials related to China’s growing use of extrajudicial measures to return individuals to China, often employed in combination with extradition or other police cooperation mechanisms.

These extra-judicial measures are part of China’s transnational repression toolkit.

How to define transnational repression?

As of yet, there is no universal definition of transnational repression. However, Freedom House defines transnational repression as “governments reaching across borders to silence dissent among diasporas and exiles, including through assassinations, illegal deportations, abductions, digital threats, Interpol abuse, and family intimidation. It is a daily assault on civilians everywhere — including in democracies -” and severely undermines the enjoyment of fundamental freedom and rights.

Resolution 2509 “Transnational repression as a growing threat to the rule of law and human rights”, adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on June 23, 2023, describes four types methods of transnational repression:

  • Direct attacks by which an origin State carries out a targeted physical attack against an individual abroad, such as assassinations, assaults, enforced disappearances, physical intimidation or violent forced rendition;
  • Co-opting other countries to act against a target using detention, unlawful deportation and other types of forced rendition, which are authorised through pro forma but meaningless legal procedures. This method includes misuse of INTERPOL Red Notices, extradition proceedings and other forms of interstate legal assistance such as anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing measures;
  • Impediments to mobility such as passport cancellation and denial of consular services, preventing the target from traveling or causing them to be detained;
  • Threats from a distance, including online intimidation or surveillance and coercion by proxy, in which a person’s family, loved one or business partner is threatened, imprisoned or otherwise targeted.

China employs all the above methods to force individuals to return to China outside, or in combination with, formal bilateral judicial cooperation mechanisms.

For a wider overview of Chinese and Hong Kong authorities’ transnational repression efforts beyond forced repatriation, see a non-exhaustive overview of reports and datasets by Safeguard Defenders and other human rights organizations in the PRC TNR resources file on the top right of this page.  

Involuntary Returns

Since Xi Jinping's appointment as CCP General Secretary and under the guise of anti-corruption and countering terrorism, China has massively stepped up its long-arm policing efforts around the globe, in particular with the launch of Operations Fox Hunt (2014) and Sky Net (2015).

As described in Safeguard Defenders’ January 2022 report Involuntary Returns, the best definition of the forced returns toolkit employed by the Chinese authorities can be found in the written legal interpretation on the matter of international fugitive recovery according to article 52 the National Supervision Law (2018) by the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and its State front, the National Commission of Supervision of the CCDI:

  • Extradition - pertains to the formal cooperation between States on the basis of bilateral extradition treaties or multilateral judicial cooperation instruments, and is subject to judicial safeguards and overview.
  • Repatriation - regards the (ab)use of immigration law in cooperation with third country authorities to return an individual from another jurisdiction, thus circumventing both the judicial safeguards afforded to an individual under formal extradition proceedings and the principle of non-refoulement guaranteed under the UN Convention on Refugees.
  • Off-site prosecution - happens when China cedes jurisdiction over a criminal case to a third country, which prosecutes the individual. After being convicted and sentenced, such individuals are often forcibly deported to China.
  • Persuade to Return - concerns methods employed to convince a target to return to China outside judicial proceedings. Methods include: a) abuse of administrative procedures, such as the refusal to renew passports or other essential documents; b) online threats and harassment, surveillance and/or (collective) punishment of family members in China; c) direct threats, surveillance and harassment of the target abroad by Chinese undercover agents, Embassy or Consular personnel, and proxies for the Chinese authorities such as individuals linked to the “overseas police service centers” or hired private investigators. 
  • A) Kidnapping or B) Trapping or luring the targeted individual in/to a country, the international high seas, international airspace or a third country [with an extradition treaty] from where it is easier to extradite or repatriate the individual. Abuse of international police cooperation mechanisms such as INTERPOL play a key role in the latter strategy.

See the full official Chinese document linked at the bottom or a partial translation into English, downloadable as PDF on the top right.

Safeguard Defenders defines China's involuntary returns into three categories (IR1, IR2 and IR3) as explained in the graphic below:

According to the (limited) official data published annually by the CCDI, persuade to return accounts for the vast majority of forced returns for prosecution to China, with estimates running to over 90 percent of cases.

It is important to highlight that the above extrajudicial methods are often used in lieu of formal extradition requests. As China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted in response to Safeguard Defenders’ reports on the issue: "Bilateral treaties are very cumbersome and Europe is reluctant to extradite to China. I don't see what is wrong with pressuring criminals to face justice…”

Extrajudicial methods - in particular threats or punishment of family members in China - are also used in combination with formal extradition requests to dissuade the targeted individual from resisting the procedure and taking full advantage of the judicial safeguards afforded under international law.

These practices not only severely undermine targeted individuals fundamental rights, but also blatantly violate the territorial and judicial sovereignty of the host country involved. They constitute a direct attack on the absolute principle of non-refoulement under the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees.


Reports and materials on TNR and IR-related issues

By Safeguard Defenders