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Chinese students in the EU targeted amid Beijing’s transnational crackdown - report

The Chinese national frag waves in front of the country's embassy in Berlin, Tuesday, April 23, 2024.
The Chinese national frag waves in front of the country's embassy in Berlin, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Copyright Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Markus Schreiber/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Overseas Chinese students are being snooped on in Europe and their families harassed in retaliation for their activism, a new report by Amnesty International says.

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The international NGO interviewed Chinese and Hong Kong students studying in European universities, whose testimonies suggest that Chinese authorities' transnational crackdown is threatening freedom and democracy on European soil.

The students say they were followed and photographed during demonstrations or protests, and monitored online. Their family members back home in China were also targeted and threatened by police because of their activism abroad.

A total of 30 Chinese and 12 Hong Kong students were interviewed, based in universities in four EU member states - France, Germany the Netherlands and Germany - as well as Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Canada.

These students say they live in constant fear of intimidation, harassment and surveillance at the hands of Beijing authorities. Nearly half said they had been photographed or filmed at events such as protests by individuals they believed were acting on behalf of the Chinese state.

"The Chinese authorities' offensive against human rights activism is playing out in the corridors and classrooms of many universities welcoming Chinese and Hong Kong students," Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s regional director for China, said.

"The impact of China's transnational repression seriously threatens the free exchange of ideas that is at the heart of academic freedom, and governments and universities must do more to counter this phenomenon."

The findings come just weeks after Madrid-based NGO Safeguard Defenders, which has spearheaded investigations into Chinese police activity abroad, revealed that for the last 10 years, the Chinese Communist Party has been abducting its overseas citizens on EU territory and forcibly returning them home.

In 2022, the same non-governmental organisation revealed that the Chinese government had a web of police offices scattered across EU countries that were used to pressure dissidents to return to China.

The offices are being used to conduct covert operations such as supporting the Chinese government's so-called repatriation programme, Safeguard Defenders says. China upholds that the offices are used solely for administrative purposes, helping its citizens with tasks such as renewing driving licenses.

'You are being watched'

One of the students, referred to by Amnesty International as Rowan to protect her identity, was attending a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre - where protesters were killed at the hands of the Chinese government - when just hours later her father in China was contacted by security agents.

The agents told him to “educate his daughter who is studying abroad not to attend events that could harm China’s reputation in the world,” the interviewee said, despite his daughter not revealing her name or posting online from the protest.

Nearly a third of students interviewed said their families had been harassed by Chinese authorities as retaliation for their criticism or dissent. Some family members were even threatened with passport suspensions, retirement benefit cuts or even job dismissals. In at least three cases, family members were pressured to stop financially supporting their children abroad.

"The Chinese authorities have developed a sophisticated strategy to restrict the fundamental rights of students, wherever they are in the world. Surveillance of students abroad and targeting their family members living in China: this is a systematic tactic intended to control nationals remotely," Brooks said.

Amnesty also says China's advanced technological censorship capabilities mean students are vulnerable to having their conversations tapped into, particularly when communicating with relatives and friends in China.

With some 900,000 Chinese students estimated to be studying abroad, Amnesty says governments and universities need to ramp up efforts to protect students, pointing out that host countries are legally obliged to protect foreign students.

“Universities in Europe and North America are often unaware of and unprepared to deal with transnational repression and the crippling effects it has on their campuses,” said Sarah Brooks.

Euronews has contacted the Mission of the People's Republic of China to the European Union for a response to Amnesty's research. This article will be updated should we receive a response.

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