China silencing critics in US, Congress told

The fear Beijing imposes on critics living in America is ‘all-permeating in people's lives,’ an expert said.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
2023.12.14
Washington
China silencing critics in US, Congress told Georgetown University law student Zhang Jinrui, speaking to the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, says he started being approached, warned and filmed by other Chinese students on campus after speaking out against China’s zero-COVID policies. (House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party)
House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party

Chinese critics of Beijing living in America are surveilled, intimidated and harassed by U.S.-based agents of the Chinese Communist Party, and the freedom of family members back home is threatened unless they stop speaking out, activists told Congress on Wednesday.

Appearing before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, to discuss Beijing’s “transnational repression” of dissidents in the United States, the activists said many of their friends in America long ago decided to shut up to protect their safety.

Georgetown University law student Zhang Jinrui said he started being approached, warned and filmed by other Chinese students on campus after speaking out against China’s zero-COVID policies as part of last year’s “white paper movement,” which briefly spread across China. 

The death of as many as 44 Uyghurs in a house fire in Xinjiang province, allegedly due to the restrictive policies, was the tipping point, Zhang told the committee in a prime-time hearing. Before that, he said, he kept quiet like most other Chinese students in the United States.

“Fear of retaliation had kept me from speaking out publicly against the regime, even after I came to the U.S., and this is the shared experience of many Chinese citizens outside of China,” Zhang said, explaining that he knew exactly what would happen after he spoke out in public. 

“No matter where in the world you are, even in the most mature democracies,” he said, “you're never free as long as anyone or anything you care about is under the control of the CCP.”

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From left, Sophie Richardson, the former China director at Human Rights Watch, Georgetown University student Zhang Jinrui and Anna Kwok, executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, appear before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party)

Zhang, who told his story to Radio Free Asia earlier this year, said his father subsequently was hauled away by local police in front of his “terrified mother” for interrogation, and was only let go “on the condition that he makes me love the country and love the party.” 

But that was not the end of it, Zhang said.

“My family members in China were harassed and threatened four times by the Chinese government,” he said. “And I'm very certain that there will be a fifth time because of my presence here tonight.”

Uyghurs

Such threats against family living in China was one of the most common methods of control employed by China’s government to strongarm its critics into silence, the committee was told.

In particular, Uyghur Americans, many of whom have family members back home subjected to torture and forced labor in mass internment camps, often have to think twice about their advocacy against such practices because of fears it could put a target on their family.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois who serves as his party’s ranking member on the committee, read out a voice message that he said an ethnic Uyghur woman who “escaped to America and then criticized the CCP” had received from one of her brothers.

“You should go to the Chinese Embassy right away and denounce the things you said about the Chinese government,” he read, noting it was likely forced. “Otherwise, China can get you anywhere you hide.”

It’s a type of repression essentially enforced through self-censorship driven by fear, Sophie Richardson, the longtime but now former China director at Human Rights Watch, told the lawmakers.

“It's not a discrete event; it's a life reality,” she said. “Uyghurs around the world, even ones who are living in democracies, wake up in the morning … [and] think immediately about family members they can't reach and they don't know whether they'll ever see again.”

ENG_CHN_TransnationalRepression_12142023.3.jpg
Sophie Richardson, the longtime but now former China director at Human Rights Watch, told the lawmakers that many Uyghurs in free countries like America often stopped to consider the efficacy of their advocacy and had to grapple with “whether it makes their loved ones’ realities better or worse.” She appeared before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party)

Richardson said many Uyghurs in free countries like America often stopped to consider the efficacy of their advocacy and had to grapple with “whether it makes their loved ones’ realities better or worse.”

“Some choose to stay quiet for perfectly sensible reasons,” she said. “It is pernicious and pervasive, and all-permeating in people's lives.”

Unknown impact

Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, suggested that new laws may be necessary to allow authorities to intervene. He noted that many of the cases mentioned to the committee involved “informal” forms of repression, where regular Chinese citizens were doing the policing.

“One problem that we find with countering CCP’s repression on U.S. campuses is that students reporting their peers to the CCP is not an obvious crime, so we don't have a good way to stop it,” Banks said.

Anna Kwok, executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, said she agreed new laws were needed. But she said that it may be too little and too late, with many in the United States having already ended their advocacy to prioritize the safety of themselves and their family.

“In the end, some Hong Kongers actually decided to censor themselves, while others decided to drop out,” Kwok said. Such a decision “exactly” fit Beijing’s goal “to dismantle our community” and silence Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, she explained.

“So, in the future, if you don't hear any more from Hong Kongers, it’s not because you will have won the fight,” Kwok added, “it is because of the far-reaching repression we're seeing here right now.”

ENG_CHN_TransnationalRepression_12142023.4.jpg
Anna Kwok, executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, says “some Hong Kongers actually decided to censor themselves, while others decided to drop out.” She appeared before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party)

Richardson echoed Kwok, saying the cross-border repression was by definition invisible, with an already unknown number of victims.

“We will likely never know whether and how many people chose not to vote, attend public events or debate ideas online or in-person because they felt vulnerable to these kinds of threats,” Richardson said, calling them as “threats to the integrity of our democratic institutions.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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Wangchuk
Dec 20, 2023 02:10 PM

FBI should monitor all CCP agents in the US. In fact, except for diplomats, we shouldn't allow any CCP agents/members in the country. At the very least any Party official who has worked in Tibet or Xinjiang (E. Turkestan) should be banned.