A wave of disappearances in recent years could be part of ongoing efforts by Beijing to further insulate China from external influences.
Amid a tightening of ideological controls in Xi Jinping’s increasingly paranoid China, the country’s security apparatus appears to have launched a campaign of targeted disappearances against foreign activists and academics to further insulate China from external influences and deter potential interlopers.
Beijing’s belief that external forces are trying to destabilize China is nothing new. From protests in Tibet to the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities have often stated — without ever producing convincing evidence — that foreign elements were behind the unrest. Foreign governments, institutions such as the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and media moguls critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have all at some point been accused by Beijing of conspiring to cause trouble within China.
It was, ostensibly, a result of this paranoid view that China passed new and more strict regulations for foreign-funded NGOs as well as new laws for the media and national security that increased the state’s ability to silence, coerce, and if necessary detain “wrongdoers.” Besides expanding the definition of threats to national security, the new National Security Act, moreover, stipulated that the law also applied to residents of Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous region, and even Taiwan, which Beijing claims to be part of China but over which it has no sovereignty whatsoever.
The kidnapping of Hong Kong publishers, some of whom were holders of a foreign passport, and the forced extradition to China of suspected Republic of China (Taiwan) Internet scammers caught in foreign countries also seemed to indicate a new extraterritorial angle to Beijing’s targeting of individuals whom it regarded as a threat to China’s national security.
The use of video confessions, and parading of suspects with hoods over their heads, also added an element of show and terror, as did the seeming randomness of the kidnappings.
The disappearance of Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese citizen, on March 19 upon his arrival in Macau, followed by Beijing’s barring Feng Chongyi, a China-born associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney, from returning to Australia after a visit to China at the weekend, are also conceivably part of that escalation. While he has not been arrested or formally charged, Feng, a critic of Beijing, is said to have been repeatedly questioned by security officers at a hotel in Guangzhou.
Although it has been speculated that the disappearance of Lee, who currently works at Wenshan Community College in Taipei, may be in retaliation for the recent arrest by Taiwan of Zhou Hongxu, a Chinese university student suspected of engaging in espionage, his connection to the NGO community, along with his vocal defense of human rights and democracy in China (which according to his wife he often discussed online with contacts in China), likely exposed him to the new sets of regulations implemented by China recently, both the National Security Act and the new regulations on NGOs (ironically, despite China’s claims to Taiwan, Taiwanese NGOs, which have been very active in China over the years, are treated as foreign NGOs under the new regulations).
China’s strategy is to kill the chickens to scare the monkey: in other words, to use a few high-profile cases as deterrent, and to exploit the terrorizing aspects of randomness and disappearances to convince others — activists, NGO workers, academics, journalists — that such unpleasant experiences could also happen to them. Better, therefore, not to enter China, or the more liberal and (until recently) safer Hong Kong and Macau, at all.
The aim, of course, isn’t to disappear and detain every foreign individual entering China who poses a threat to its national security, however loosely defined. Despite the billions of dollars that China pours into the internal security apparatus — a budget that in fact is larger than the official amount allocated to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — domestic security agencies do not have the manpower, let alone the means, to monitor and catch everybody. Instead, China’s strategy is to kill the chickens to scare the monkey: in other words, to use a few high-profile cases as deterrent, and to exploit the terrorizing aspects of randomness and disappearances to convince others — activists, NGO workers, academics, journalists — that such unpleasant experiences could also happen to them. Better, therefore, not to enter China, or even the more liberal and (until recently) safer Hong Kong and Macau, at all.
The dynamic is similar to that governing self-censorship, which has greatly benefitted China over the years by discouraging journalists, academics and governments from criticizing the CCP on sensitive issues such as human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. This time, by disappearing, detaining, and publicly humiliating a handful of individuals, notwithstanding the fact that some of them are foreign citizens, the intention is to insulate China from foreign influences and deny foreigners the ability to promote, while in China, ideas and values that are anathema to the CCP.
By making Macau and Hong Kong unsafe, Beijing could also succeed in limiting contact and cooperation between those two potentially unstable territories and Taiwan, which indeed accelerated following Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014. Soon after those events, the frequency at which Taiwanese students, academics, and activists were denied entry into Hong Kong increased dramatically, which may already have dissuaded potential “troublemakers” from seeking entry in the first place. Uncertainty as to their personal safety, especially given the role played by pro-Beijing organized crime in Hong Kong, could also act as a second layer of deterrent, especially for those whose activities in Taiwan or abroad have “contravened” China’s new (extraterritorial) national security laws, such as promoting Taiwan independence and “splittism.” Attacks by gangsters against pro-localization Hong Kong activists at airports in both Hong Kong and Taiwan earlier this year may have served as a sufficient warning; failing that, the threat of being disappeared by MSS agents and held incommunicado should do the trick.
Finally, given the increasingly extraterritorial nature of Beijing’s approach to national security and growing disregard for the protections conferred by foreign nationality, recent developments could also deter journalists, academics, activists and NGO workers who have no national connection to China stemming from their place of birth (e.g., Feng) or China’s territorial claims (e.g., Taiwan). In other words, should this continue, non-Chinese who are vocal on issues deemed unpalatable by the CCP (human rights, democracy, self-determination) may also conclude that their passport will not protect them against being disappeared should they venture into China or its hitherto safer territories.
The chilling effect that all of this could have on foreign-based civil society and academia’s ability to interact with their likeminded counterparts across China — and now perhaps even in Hong Kong — could be quite severe.