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The Internet Is Freedom? Not for Exiled Democracy Activists

Modern electronic communications ensure that persecution need not stop at the border, as many expat Chinese are discovering

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a U.S. citizen and four Chinese intelligence officers “had been charged with spying on “prominent dissidents, human rights leaders and pro-democracy activists” in the United States on behalf of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Americans and others who live in open societies may not be aware of this transnational oppression problem if they do not have contacts who have escaped totalitarian regimes. Briefly, today, the persecution doesn’t stop at the border. Modern electronic communications are part of the reason why not:

“If anyone doubts how serious the Chinese government is about silencing its critics, this case should eliminate any uncertainty,” said Acting Executive Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s National Security Branch. “The Chinese government’s aggressive tactics were once confined to its borders. Now, the PRC is targeting people in the United States and around the world. The FBI and its partners remain committed to combatting transnational repression.”

U.S. Citizen and Four Chinese Intelligence Officers Charged with Spying on Prominent Dissidents, Human Rights Leaders and Pro-Democracy Activists” at United States Department of Justice (May 18, 2022)
hacked by chinese hackers cyber crime espionage

Details are offered:

For example, in one series of communications on or about Nov. 22, 2016, Ji instructed Wang [Shujun] to interface with a particular attendee at an upcoming pro-democracy event and to “accomplish the task” assigned by the “Boss,” referring to Lu. Ji noted that the attendee of interest had contacts with “Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongolians” and wished Wang luck at getting “good results.” In another exchange on or about Nov. 16, 2016, Wang informed Li that he “just finished chatting” with a prominent human rights activist, noting that he asked the “necessary questions” and received “candid” answers. Li responded “great” and with a thumbs-up emoji, instructing Wang to write it in a “diary.” At least one Hong Kong democracy activist and dissident that Wang reported on to the MSS [Ministry of State Security], identified as “Hong Kong Dissident #1” in the indictment, was subsequently arrested by the PRC [People’s Republic of China].

In addition to this conduct, the indictment alleges that Wang transferred and possessed telephone numbers and contact information belonging to Chinese dissidents to the MSS, as well as making materially false statements to federal law enforcement, falsely denying that he had contacts with PRC officials or the MSS.

U.S. Citizen and Four Chinese Intelligence Officers Charged with Spying on Prominent Dissidents, Human Rights Leaders and Pro-Democracy Activists” at United States Department of Justice (May 18, 2022)

The FBI offers a fairly candid explanation of the underreported problem of totalitarian or authoritarian governments continuing to harass those who have fled them by working within freer lands:

Some countries’ governments harass and intimidate their own citizens living in the U.S. These governments may also target naturalized or U.S.-born citizens who have family overseas or other foreign connections. This violates U.S. law and individual rights and freedoms.

Transnational repression may take the following forms:

● Stalking

● Harassment

● Hacking

● Assaults

● Attempted kidnapping

● Forcing or coercing the victim to return to the home country

● Threatening or detaining family members in the home country

● Freezing financial assets

● Online disinformation campaigns

Governments use transnational repression tactics to silence the voices of their citizens (or non-citizens connected to the country), get information from them, or coerce them to return home.

What We Investigate, “Transnational Repression” at FBI

As we might expect, typical targets include “political and human rights activists, dissidents, journalists, political opponents, and religious or ethnic minority groups.”

Freedom House sees the threat as growing:

The key findings of the report — Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach — include the following:

● There have been at least 608 cases of direct, physical transnational repression since 2014, including assassinations, abductions, assaults, detentions, and unlawful deportations.

● At least 31 origin states on every inhabited continent have carried out such acts against victims in 79 host countries, for a total of 160 unique pairings between origin and host countries. The latter include the United States, the United Kingdom, and other established democracies.

● An estimated 3.5 million people have been affected by either direct attacks or secondary tactics of intimidation and coercion that ripple through communities around the world.

Press Release, “New Report: Transnational Repression Is a Growing Threat to Global Democracy” at Freedom House (February 4, 2021)

China’s internal war against the Muslim minority Uyghur peoples in China has spilled over into other countries, principally because many national leaders are afraid of Beijing:

A report compiled by the rights group Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project has stated that at least 28 nations across the world are complicit in China’s broad harassment and intimidation of Uyghurs. Among these 28, the MIddle Eastern and North African nations are the ‘worst offenders.’

The report titled ‘No Space Left to Run, China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs’ released last month, argues that China uses a wide range of methods to intimidate Uyghurs finding solace abroad including the use of spyware and hacking, sending out red notices against the targetted people through Interpol.

Aanchal Nigam, “China’s Clampdown On Uyghurs Overseas Has Spread To Nearly 30 Countries: Report” at Republic World (July 2, 2021)

The UHRP report notes that some nations that are complicit with transnational oppression “have no legal protections for the vulnerable communities and the rule of law tends to be either weak or susceptible to political interference.”

A Canadian report from earlier this year spells out the key role that the internet plays in the outreach of oppression:

Over the past few years, there have been many notable cases of transnational repression—states applying repressive policies to silence or coerce nationals located outside their territorial borders—including the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, the assassination of Rwandan opposition members and dissidents in South Africa and elsewhere, and the harassment and intimidation of Chinese dissidents in Canada and the United States. While transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, such tactics are expanding through the market growth for digital technologies and the spread of Internet-connectivity, among other factors. This digital dimension of transnational repression—which we refer to as digital transnational repression—is rapidly becoming the cornerstone of ‘everyday’ transnational repression and is a threat to the rights and freedoms of dissidents and activists living in exile.

Noura Al-Jizawi, Siena Anstis, Sophie Barnett, Sharly Chan, Niamh Leonard, Adam Senft, and Ron Deibert, “Psychological and Emotional War: Digital Transnational Repression in Canada” at Citizen Lab (March 1, 2022)

Generally, Citizen Lab’s report finds that the problem has been poorly understood, especially by law enforcement, which reduces the ability to prevent crimes, as opposed to merely prosecuting them.

But some techies are beginning to catch on. In March, Facebook announced that

Today, we’re sharing actions we took against a group of hackers in China known in the security industry as Earth Empusa or Evil Eye — to disrupt their ability to use their infrastructure to abuse our platform, distribute malware and hack people’s accounts across the internet. They targeted activists, journalists and dissidents predominantly among Uyghurs from Xinjiang in China primarily living abroad in Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United States, Syria, Australia, Canada and other countries. This group used various cyber espionage tactics to identify its targets and infect their devices with malware to enable surveillance.

This activity had the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation while obfuscating who’s behind it. On our platform, this cyber espionage campaign manifested primarily in sending links to malicious websites rather than direct sharing of the malware itself. We saw this activity slow down at various times, likely in response to our and other companies’ actions to disrupt their activity.

Mike Dvilyanski, Nathaniel Gleicher, “Taking Action Against Hackers in China” at Meta (March 24, 2021)

Facebook is big enough that even China needs to think twice about just trying to squash it.

You may also wish to read: Leaked Police Database: Total Surveillance of China’s Uyghurs. Human Rights Watch notes that many countries engage in human rights abuses, but “more than any other government, Beijing has made technology central to its repression.” The police in one precinct use technology to track every move to the point that some say it seems as if their thoughts are being surveilled. (Heather Zeiger)

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The Internet Is Freedom? Not for Exiled Democracy Activists