A giant photo of Xi Jinping is hoisted by a parade float on the CC
Xi Jinping's administration has touted Operation Sky Net as part of the president's anti-graft campaign, but its clandestine operations include sending agents overseas to intimidate fugitives and government targets, the report says.Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
  • China forcefully retrieved around 10,000 fugitives from overseas in the last decade, a report says.
  • NGO Safeguard Defenders said Beijing has been sending agents overseas to illegally intimidate targets.
  • Its report on "Operation Sky Net" shows the extent of China's clandestine operations in other countries.

A new report published by a human rights NGO has detailed the methods used by China to force thousands of fugitives to return from other countries, describing the extent of Beijing's operations on foreign soil to control the Chinese diaspora.

Spain-based NGO Safeguard Defenders highlighted three tactics sanctioned by China for this purpose — detaining the fugitive's relatives as a threat, sending agents overseas to illegally intimidate the person in question, or outright kidnapping them.

The organization compiled information related to 62 of these cases in countries including the US, Canada, Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Official data from China suggests nearly 10,000 fugitives have been returned since 2014 under a program codenamed "Operation Sky Net" or "Tian Wang," Safeguard Defenders noted. In 2020 alone, 1,421 fugitives were extradited to China by Sky Net, Chinese state media reported, touting the operation as an anti-graft campaign.

When Sky Net was launched in 2015, it absorbed a more well-known repatriation operation called Fox Hunt, which was lauded by state media and reported on extensively by Western news.

In its 69-page report, Safeguard Defenders described case studies in which Chinese agents flew to the US to intimidate their targets into returning to the mainland.

Chinese authorities hired American private eyes to work with their ground teams — as detailed in the example of a former New York police officer who aided an extradition operation from 2017 to 2019. That way, they would avoid having too many Chinese agents on the field, the NGO said.

Alternatively, the authorities would detain the families of fugitives in an attempt to coerce relatives to ask the target to return, said Safeguard Defenders. 

For example, a Chinese-born US permanent resident detained in Dubai last May recounted how his parents were repeatedly harassed by police and detained multiple times. He fell out of Beijing's graces when he went on social media to question China's actual death toll from a border clash with India.

He did not return to China and said he had completely lost contact with his parents.

The NGO noted that one of the groups most heavily targeted by this Sky Net strategy is Uyghurs, a Muslim minority whose treatment by China has been the subject of international scrutiny.

The group also employs kidnapping. Safeguard Defenders cited reports and footage of exiled activists and business magnates being abducted in public areas, hotels, and even their homes in countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United Arab Emirates.

The NGO further noted an increasing trend of China working with local law enforcement in the fugitive's host country, such as Egyptian police arresting and deporting Uyghurs in joint operations with Beijing. In a similar case, Safeguard Defenders interviewed an activist helping the son of a human rights lawyer escape China into Myanmar.

According to the man's account, they were followed into Myanmar and captured by plainclothes Chinese agents. They were then interrogated and brought back to China. The Burmese government said it had no knowledge of such events.

"With involuntary returns, the CCP's message is that nowhere is safe; fleeing overseas will not save you, there is no escape," wrote the authors of the report.

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