The detention and televised "confession'" of Swedish human rights worker Peter Dahlin on Chinese national television shows Beijing is increasingly willing to extend its crackdown on rights activists beyond its borders, activists said on Wednesday.
Dahlin, 35, appeared on state broadcaster CCTV, saying he had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people," on Tuesday, sparking concerns that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is increasingly targeting foreigners in an ongoing crackdown on rights activists and lawyers.
His nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, had trained and supported some of the hundreds of rights lawyers who have been targeted by the government in a crackdown since last July.
Speaking on Wednesday, EU ambassador to China Hans Dietmar Schweisgut said the bloc's members are "deeply concerned" about Dahlin's detention on suspicion of "endangering state security," which came after the effective expulsion of French journalist Ursula Gauthier, who had questioned Beijing's policies in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group.
"We do hope it’s not representing the new normal yet," he told a news conference. "But we do see an extremely worrying trend, and that’s why all these cases are taken extremely seriously."
Dahlin, who is being held at an unknown location, was shown on CCTV dressed in normal clothes but looking tense and speaking in a stilted manner.
"I have violated Chinese law through my activities here ... I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. I apologize sincerely for this," he told the camera.
Swedish foreign ministry spokeswoman Anna Ekberg said the ministry had "no response" to make to recent Chinese media reports regarding Dahlin.
Hong Kong activist Richard Choi, of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, said the administration of President Xi Jinping now appears keen to extend its nationwide crackdown on rights activists far beyond the nation's borders.
"Now they are enforcing their so-called laws beyond their own borders, to the extent of detaining a foreigner for endangering state security," Choi said. "This is a growing trend."
"Of course, the thing that's going to alarm people is the fact that China's human rights record and legal system are far from perfect," he said.
"Now, that's affecting not just mainland China, but overseas as well, including people who aren't Chinese citizens," Choi said.
Choi said the crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers appears to be continuing and growing worse.
"Human rights activists in mainland China are entering a winter of discontent," he said. "Hong Kong is also feeling the effects, with the disappearance of the five booksellers from Causeway Bay Books."
Causeway Bay Books store manager Lee Bo, 65, was last seen at work on Dec. 30, while 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 holds a Swedish passport and was apparently detained while on vacation in Thailand.
Australia-based democracy activist Qin Jin said the recent detentions will likely have a chilling effect on anyone linked to human rights work in China.
"It will, of course it will," Qin told RFA. "They treat anyone who helps the Chinese people fight for their rights as if they are interfering in their internal affairs."
"This is a new definition the Chinese government has arrived at," Qin said.
He said even people working overseas will now likely take Dahlin's experience into account.
"Xi Jinping's aim is to 'kill the chickens to frighten the monkeys'," Qin said. "They are sending a warning beyond their borders, while at the same time keeping up the pressure [on activists] at home."
Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International Patrick Poon said Dahlin's televised confession falls below international legal standards.
"He may be willing to sit there in front of a camera and say he did something wrong, but this has to do with the correct way to handle evidence," Poon told RFA.
"It is hard to see how they can handle his case fairly now."
Poon said the authorities have so far given no details of Dahlin's legal status.
"On what basis did they lock him up, and why aren't they making this public now?" he said. "There is no basis in any reasonable law, nor in international law, for them to do this."
"We call on the Chinese government to communicate clearly on this matter, and explain why it hasn't done so to date."
Reported by Hai Nan and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by He Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.