The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation, the world’s most powerful authoritarian states, both routinely target dissidents outside their borders because the brittleness of autocracy makes dissident citizens living freely abroad an intolerable insult to regime power, and an unacceptable threat to regime security. But the divergent ways in which Russia and China engage in “transnational repression” (as experts have come to call this behavior) reflect both their different histories of overseas clandestine operations and their disparate views of the relationship between the state and its citizens. On the one hand, China appears to subject a far higher number of dissidents abroad to campaigns of harassment and intimidation than Russia does. Russia’s targeting of dissidents abroad is narrower, but more violent: Russia uses assassination as a tool of transnational repression more than any other state—at least ten Russian dissidents have been assassinated abroad since 2014. Both countries routinely subject the friends and relatives within their borders of dissidents beyond their reach to arbitrary detention, harassment, or abuse. The Alliance for Securing Democracy’s (ASD) Authoritarian Interference Tracker can serve as a useful tool for analyzing and teasing apart the similarities and differences in the ways in which Russia and China target dissidents beyond their borders.
The most striking features of Chinese harassment campaigns targeting dissidents abroad are the sheer scale of the problem and the worrying trajectory of its growth. Of the 217 incidents in the Authoritarian Interference Tracker coded as “civil society subversion,” a broader category which includes the harassment of dissidents abroad, China was the perpetrator in 118 cases, with Russia responsible for the remaining 99. But of the 16 incidents identified by ASD in the last 18 months, China was involved in 14 cases, and Russia only two. Of those 16, six involved the targeted harassment of dissidents abroad.
The breadth of efforts to harass and control Chinese citizens abroad reflects the Chinese party-state’s ideology, and in particular, its view that individuals of Chinese descent represent part of the “Chinese nation” regardless of their citizenship or disposition toward the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The population of “overseas Chinese,” as state media refer to them, is at least 60 million strong, and represents a key pillar of the Chinese Communist Party’s national “rejuvenation” project. Beijing hopes that these “overseas Chinese” will play an important role in China’s economic development through innovation and investment, and through the cultural and soft power potential they could offer China around the world. These ambitions make shaping the politics and worldview of the Chinese diaspora immensely important. The Chinese party-state has taken affirmative action to shape its perception among the diaspora, pouring money into Chinese cultural programs including “Birthright” tours and Confucius Institutes.
But fearing the influence that dissident Chinese may have over these same communities, China has increasingly aggressively targeted such individuals with campaigns of harassment and abuse aimed at deterring them from speaking out against the CCP. In March of this year, charges brought by the Justice Department in the Eastern District of New York revealed the lengths the CCP and its agents have gone to accomplish this: in one instance, the leader of a pro-democracy movement within New York’s Chinese community was secretly spying on other members of the group. In another, CCP agents attempted to destroy the career of a Chinese American war veteran and congressional candidate. In addition to these operations in the United States, the Authoritarian Interference Tracker also identifies harassment campaigns targeting Chinese dissidents in Canada, Norway, and Turkey, as well as a global campaign on Facebook targeting members of the Uyghur diaspora in many countries. These efforts have a clear purpose: to frighten those who would encourage skepticism of the CCP within the “overseas Chinese” community into silence.
Russia’s approach diverges substantially and reflects a very different attitude toward Russians living abroad. Russia has no ambitions to make “overseas Russians” a tool of state power. In fact, the Kremlin seems to care little about what ex-patriot Russians think—provided that they do not attempt to stir up anti-regime sentiment among those still living in Russia or cooperate with foreign security and intelligence services. Many Russian dissidents who cross either of these thresholds, though, have suffered exceptionally violent and cruel consequences, including brazen assassinations. These have included the fatal poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in Britain in 2006, who had accused Putin’s regime of complicity in the 1999 Russian apartment bombings and had cooperated with MI6, as well as the attempted assassinations of Sergei Skripal (another former Russian intelligence officer) and his daughter Yulia, also in the U.K. At least ten Russian dissidents have been successfully assassinated abroad since 2014, and that excludes a large number of individuals who died under suspicious circumstances that are likely, if not provably, the work of Russian agents.
When assassination is deemed too risky or provocative, Russia uses other heavy-handed approaches to transnational repression, including the issuance of spurious Interpol “Red Notices.” These notices, which allow one country to request the detention of an individual by another country, are intended to prevent criminals by abusing the patchwork of national jurisdictions to evade justice. But Russia has weaponized the use of spurious red notices to impose potentially lengthy pretrial detention on dissidents outside its borders to devastating effect: in some cases, US authorities, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, have unwittingly functioned as arms of the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB), locating dissidents and detaining them for lengthy periods of time. The PRC has so far not adopted this tactic: Russia issued 38 percent of recent Red Notices worldwide, China only .5 percent. Worryingly, though, other authoritarian states seem to be, including Venezuela, and also Turkey, which in 2019 issued a Red Notice for Enes Kanter Freedom, then a permanent US resident and center for the New York Knicks (it was not executed by US authorities and Enes Kanter Freedom is now a US citizen).
A connecting thread between Russian and Chinese efforts at transnational repression is the particularly aggressive and brutal targeting of ethnic minorities living abroad. Both states are multi-ethnic empires, each with a handful of ethnic and linguistic minorities. Of the six recent targeted harassment efforts by CCP authorities, three targeted Uyghur dissidents specifically. Tibetans and other ethnic minorities are also routinely targeted for abuse and harassment, including in one recent instance by a New York Police officer charged with spying on ethnic Tibetans for the CCP. For Russia’s part, Chechen dissidents have been assassinated abroad at a wildly disproportionate rate compared with the region’s small population. These killings are thought to be the work of Putin’s local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. In the cases of both Xinjiang and Chechnya, Beijing and Moscow, respectively, have cynically used the Muslim faith of the regions’ inhabitants to stoke fears of terrorism and discourage sympathy for the persecuted. Both also rely on Europe and North America’s strict immigration and asylum systems to make flight abroad more difficult for dissidents.
The problem of transnational repression is likely to continue to worsen, especially as authoritarian states learn techniques and approaches from each other. Liberal states need to take a stronger stand to protect the rights and liberties of dissidents, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. Members of NATO will have to do what they can to discourage member states, especially Turkey, from engaging in transnational repression, and from allowing it to take place within their borders. Authoritarian states are cooperating with the transnational repression of other authoritarians to win favors and perpetuate a regime of impunity, because this provides long-term dividends for regime stability. This should be recognized by authorities in liberal countries as not only a moral travesty but a strategic blunder that must be addressed.