A recent announcement by China's police force that it has set up a special unit to nab so-called "fugitives" who fled the country is prompting fears that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is expanding its law enforcement activities far beyond its borders.
Beijing’s overseas fugitives’ bureau will "help China to bring fugitives hiding overseas to justice and to retrieve stolen funds," the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement last week.
The move comes amid growing concerns among rights activists and lawyers over the clandestine detention of Chinese nationals outside the country. Several of whom have recently been picked up in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Hong Kong using opaque and undocumented procedures.
Last year President Xi Jinping's administration launched Operation Fox Hunt in a bid to pursue corrupt officials who take their ill-gotten gains overseas. Of the 800 "fugitives" repatriated to China from April through December, only 122 were suspected of corruption. The perpetrators of what the Chinese call “vocational crimes” are the stated target of the operation.
According to the ministry, China sent more than 50 teams of national and regional police overseas "to work with local law enforcement bodies and Chinese diplomatic missions to track and seize the fugitives."
Of the 857 "fugitives" repatriated from April to December, 283 were detained in Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia, the ministry said. Just two were repatriated from the U.S., and six from Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Spain and Hungary.
Out of the shadows
"The Chinese government usually does this sort of thing in a clandestine manner, and when they have done it, they won't admit how they did it," former democracy activist and independent scholar Li Feng told RFA. "They are now trying to make it look more open, so that people get used to the idea.”
He added: "I have a lot of friends who are overseas right now, and they are all very worried.”
Guangzhou-based political commentator Ye Du said Chinese nationals overseas have good reason to be concerned, especially if they are known critics of the government.
"The events of 2015 in which people were pursued overseas shows that such fears are justified," Ye told RFA. "What we have seen is that this government has become more and more aggressive in pursuing dissenting opinions within its borders."
He said the disappearances of Li Xin and Gui Minhai are a stark example that Chinese nationals aren't necessarily safe overseas.
Last month, Chinese journalist and rights activist Li Xin went missing after boarding a train in Thailand en route to Laos on a quest to reach western countries, where he planned to apply for political asylum.
Hong Kong resident and Causeway Bay Books store manager Lee Bo, 65, showed up in mainland China last month with no travel documents, saying he is "assisting police with their inquiries." He went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong on Dec. 30, sparking a storm of criticism in the former British colony.
Four of his associates, publisher Gui Minhai, general manager Lui Bo, and colleagues Cheung Jiping and Lam Wing-kei have gone missing since October. Gui, who holds a Swedish passport, was apparently detained while on vacation in Thailand.
"Now they are starting to sort out and control ideological challenges that take place overseas,” Ye said.
According to the ministry, 39 of the suspects detained from April-December 2015 had been living overseas for more than 10 years.
When asked to do so, China's immediate neighbors seem more than willing to cooperate with Beijing.
Authorities in Thailand have also handed over several Chinese asylum-seekers for repatriation in recent months, including Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had fled persecution in their home country. They were handed back to the Chinese authorities in a move that drew strong criticism from the United Nations.
In Myanmar, Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of detained rights lawyer Wang Yu and legal rights activist Bao Longjun, was detained in the border town of Mongla by local police on Oct. 6. He was handed over to the Chinese authorities, who had confiscated his passport following his parents' detention in a nationwide crackdown on the legal profession.
Joseph Cheng, retired politics professor at Hong Kong's City University, said the bureau is being set up under the auspices of President Xi's anti-corruption campaign, meaning that its activities are unlikely to excite too much comment.
"We won't see many protesting voices, because people in mainland China are accepting of this practice," Cheng said. "That's because going after corrupt officials [overseas] sounds like a good plan."
"The mainstream Chinese media won't criticize it, either, and you rarely see any negative comments even on websites," he said.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.