The Long Arm of Beijing: Monitoring Chinese Students Abroad

Amnesty International's research 'On my campus, I am afraid' is a collection of testimonies of 32 students from China and Hong Kong at universities in Western countries who suffer 'torture' by the authorities from Beijing and thei

by Sededin Dedovic
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The Long Arm of Beijing: Monitoring Chinese Students Abroad
© Feng Li / Getty Images

The title of the research by Amnesty International says it all: "On my campus, I am afraid" is a collection of testimonies from 32 students from China and Hong Kong studying at universities in Western countries. For example, one of the interviewees testifies that in the country where she is studying (not in China), she attended an event commemorating the victims of June 4th, when the protest brutally suppressed in China in 1989, known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

She attended out of curiosity rather than a political stance. However, any commemoration of that day is strictly forbidden in China, so her father from China called her just a few hours later. The police were already at his place, telling him to tell his daughter to stay away from any events "that could damage China's reputation in the world." The student was truly scared.

She didn't tell anyone her name at the event, nor did she know any of the participants. But they still knew exactly who she was, where she came from, and who her parents were. The message was clear: We are watching you. Even on the other side of the planet, we can reach you.

This research conveys the experiences of 32 students from China – 12 of them study in Hong Kong, and the rest at universities in Belgium, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States.

The number may seem small compared to nearly a million Chinese students studying in the West, but Teresa Bergman from Amnesty International says there is a sense of fear among everyone they've tried to talk to. Despite AI not intending to reveal their real names, many didn't want to speak at all.

Because a lot of bad things can happen to them, and even more to their families in China. "For example, they are threatened with having their passports confiscated, being fired, having their pensions reduced, or limiting the education of other family members if their family member studying abroad continues their engagement," says Bergman.

Students wearing black graduation gowns and Guy Fawkes masks march at the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus as they chant a© Anthony Kwan / Getty Images

The activist doesn't doubt that the authorities in Beijing have learned about their survey and "advised" Chinese students to refuse the interview.

Because there are many "dangerous" topics, from the Tiananmen Square Massacre to protests against Chinese policies during the pandemic, to policies towards Hong Kong, Tibet, or the Uyghurs. This isn't the first survey of its kind: three years ago, the Human Rights Watch organization published evidence that Chinese students in Australia are being monitored and threatened.

Two years ago, the Safeguard Defenders organization reported that China practically has police stations abroad, with officers whose sole task is to monitor compatriots in that country. AI requested comment from Chinese authorities, but they ignored inquiries, Bergman tells us.

Only some sort of denial came from Hong Kong to the Amnesty office. But activists don't believe a word of it: one student who participated in a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Germany is convinced that unknown individuals followed him until he managed to escape on the subway.

They also claim that several countries are aware of people with Chinese citizenship with strange authorities on their territory, but legally speaking, it's difficult to do anything against such "foreign police officers." A particular problem is communication between students and their families back home.

Phones and the especially popular WeChat platform in China are evidently under surveillance by Chinese authorities. Bergman says some of the interviewees have practically cut off contact with their families to avoid putting themselves and their families in danger if they "say something wrong." About half of the respondents are afraid to return home, six have already decided to seek asylum in the country where they are studying.

What additionally burdens students from China is that universities and even state agencies in the countries where they study don't understand the extent of intimidation politics. Some therefore suffer from psychological problems and depression.

Amnesty's Demands

The human rights organization demands China to stop repression, but also demands that the universities where Chinese students study pay more attention to this problem. Amnesty contacted 55 universities in Western countries, and 24 responded.

There are indications that they are noticing the problem, Bergman tells us, but that's not enough. Endangered students need understanding from professors, often psychological help, counseling, and even financial assistance if their homeland denies them support.

The president of Amnesty's German branch, Julia Duhrov, believes that the countries where students reside should take action. "Germany is obligated to protect foreign students in this country," emphasizes Duhrov and calls on Berlin to take concrete measures to reduce the fear of Chinese students.

"We are all gradually trying to enjoy our hard-won freedom," says one of the survey participants. But he wants to return to China. "I will focus on human rights issues and hope that my country will change for the better," DW reports.

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