China: Overseas students face harassment and surveillance in campaign of transnational repression

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  • China-based family members of Chinese students in Europe and North America targeted in retaliation for students’ overseas activism
  • Students face ‘surveillance’ at protests and online
  • Universities urged to combat threats to academic freedom and human rights

Chinese and Hong Kong students studying abroad are living in fear of intimidation, harassment and surveillance as Chinese authorities seek to prevent them from engaging with ‘sensitive’ or political issues while overseas, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

Students based in Europe and North America interviewed for the report, ‘On my campus, I am afraid’, described being photographed and followed at protests in their host cities, while many said their families in China had been targeted and threatened by police in connection with the students’ activism overseas.

“The testimonies gathered in this report paint a chilling picture of how the Chinese and Hong Kong governments seek to silence students even when they are thousands of miles from home, leaving many students living in fear,” said Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s China Director.

“The Chinese authorities’ assault on human rights activism is playing out in the corridors and classrooms of the many universities that host Chinese and Hong Kong students. The impact of China’s transnational repression poses a serious threat to the free exchange of ideas that is at the heart of academic freedom, and governments and universities must do more to counter it.”

‘You are being watched’

In the most wide-ranging documentation to date of the Chinese government’s transnational repression at foreign universities, Amnesty International carried out in-depth interviews with 32 Chinese students, including 12 from Hong Kong, studying at universities in eight countries – Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

One student, Rowan*, described how within hours of attending a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, she heard from her father in China, who had been contacted by security officials. He was told to “educate his daughter who is studying overseas not to attend any events that may harm China’s reputation in the world”.

Rowan had not shared her real name with anyone involved in the protest or posted online about her own involvement, so she was shocked at the speed with which Chinese officials had identified her as a participant, located her father and used him to warn her against any further dissent. Rowan told Amnesty International that the message was clear: “You are being watched, and though we are on the other side of the planet, we can still reach you.”

Surveillance, censorship and targeting family members in China

In recent years, many overseas Chinese students have taken part in public criticism of the Chinese government, including around the 2022 “White Paper” protests in mainland China, the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing. Amnesty’s report demonstrates how such activities have drawn the attention of – and often repercussions from – Chinese authorities. The report identifies this phenomenon as transnational repression: government actions to silence, control or deter dissent and criticism by nationals abroad, in violation of their human rights.

The Chinese authorities have honed a strategy to curb students’ human rights wherever they are in the world.

Amnesty International’s Sarah Brooks

Almost a third of students interviewed by Amnesty said Chinese officials had harassed their families to prevent the students from criticizing the Chinese government or its policies while overseas. Threats made to family members in mainland China included to revoke their passports, get them fired from their jobs, prevent them from receiving promotions and retirement benefits, or even limiting their physical freedom. Chinese police also pressured or instructed students’ China-based family members to cut off financial support to their children to coerce them into silence in at least three cases.

Several students told Amnesty that, while abroad, they believed they were under surveillance by Chinese authorities or their agents. Almost half claimed they had been photographed or recorded at events such as protests by individuals they believed were acting on behalf of the state. And although students could not provide conclusive proof of these individuals’ identities, Amnesty’s research documented a pattern of near-identical observations across various locations and settings, supporting students’ beliefs.

“For many Chinese students, travelling abroad offers the promise of an opportunity to flourish, free from the restrictions placed on political and academic discourse at home. But Amnesty’s research shows that these students can’t escape the repressive practices of the Chinese government, even when they are outside China’s borders,” Sarah Brooks said.

“The Chinese authorities have honed a strategy to curb students’ human rights wherever they are in the world. The surveillance of overseas students and the targeting of their China-based family members are systematic tactics designed to control nationals from afar.”

Chinese authorities’ ability to monitor the activities of overseas students is also enabled by Beijing’s extensive censorship and digital surveillance capabilities behind the “Great Firewall”, which requires students to rely on exploitable Chinese state-approved apps to communicate with their family and friends in China.

In the wake of this report, host governments can and should take concrete steps to counter the climate of fear described by students.

Amnesty International’s Sarah Brooks

More than half of the students interviewed by Amnesty regularly self-censored their conversations and posts on digital platforms out of fear that Chinese authorities were monitoring their activities, including on non-Chinese social media platforms such as X, Facebook and Instagram. Several students were able to provide strong evidence of this digital surveillance, such as when police showed one student’s parents transcripts of his online WeChat conversations with family members.

Nearly one-third of students interviewed by Amnesty International experienced censorship on Chinese social media platforms, such as WeChat, to a similar degree as in mainland China, despite being located overseas. Some students tried registering accounts to overseas phone numbers but still faced censorship. One student’s WeChat account was temporarily banned following their posts about a White Paper protest in Germany.

Climate of fear on campus

Virtually all students interviewed said they self-censored their social interactions to some extent while overseas, in fear of retaliation from Chinese authorities. A majority described limiting their participation in the classroom due to the perceived risk that their comments and opinions might be reported to Chinese state authorities, and a third of students said these risks led them to change the focus of their studies or to drop out of prospective careers in academia entirely.

Students from Hong Kong said the city’s repressive laws, such as the National Security Law and the recently enacted Article 23 law, exacerbated their fears while studying abroad due to the fact these laws can be used to target people anywhere in the world.

Logan* told Amnesty that his fear of being identified by Hong Kong authorities had undermined his ability to pursue an academic career in his chosen field. “I would really want to publish my thesis… but I’m worried, so I chose not to,” he said.

More than half of the students interviewed said they suffered mental health issues linked to their fears, ranging from stress and trauma to paranoia and depression, in one case leading to hospitalization. Eight students told Amnesty International they had cut off contact with their loved ones back home to protect them from being targeted by the Chinese authorities, leaving them even more isolated and alone.

Many students also felt it necessary to distance themselves from their fellow Chinese students out of a fear that their comments or political views might be reported to authorities in China, exacerbating a sense of isolation. Some students explained that the existence of official Chinese and Hong Kong government national security hotlines to report on others contributes to this fear.

We urge the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities to cease all practices constituting transnational repression.

Amnesty International’s Sarah Brooks

Nearly half of those interviewed said they were afraid of returning home, and six students said they saw no option but to apply for political asylum after their studies, as they believed they would face persecution if they returned to China.

Several interviewees said that even some non-Chinese university staff censored themselves on China-related activities connected to activism. One student said a researcher cut ties with him due to his support of the White Paper protests, as the researcher feared the association might impair her access to research opportunities in China.

Universities ill-equipped to support Chinese students

There are an estimated 900,000 Chinese students studying abroad, and Amnesty International is calling on host governments and universities to do more to protect the rights of those among them who face the threat of transnational repression.

“In the wake of this report, host governments can and should take concrete steps to counter the climate of fear described by students, such as by educating their communities, setting up reporting mechanisms for alleged acts of transnational repression and speaking out when incidents occur,” Sarah Brooks said.

“The eight countries featured in this report, and the many others hosting Chinese and Hong Kong students, have an obligation to protect international students under their jurisdiction.”

In early 2024, Amnesty International wrote to 55 leading universities in the eight research countries to enquire about their existing provisions for protecting students against transnational repression. Amnesty received 24 substantive responses (20 from Europe and four from North America).

“Universities in Europe and North America are often unaware of, and ill-equipped to deal with, transnational repression and the resulting chilling effect taking place on their campuses,” Sarah Brooks said.

While some institutions had committed resources to supporting students’ human rights in general, most of these resources seemed unlikely to effectively address the issues faced by students highlighted in Amnesty’s research.

Meanwhile, the repressive response from many universities in the USA to students protesting in support of Palestinian rights over the past few weeks, with a similar pattern also emerging more recently in Europe, underscores that university administrators have more to do to fulfil their responsibility to protect the rights of students to free expression and peaceful assembly.

“While universities and host governments have a responsibility to protect students, ultimately the Chinese authorities are the principal orchestrators of the repression detailed in the report. We urge the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities to cease all practices constituting transnational repression and allow overseas students to focus on their studies without fearing for their safety.”

*All students’ names, and their universities, have been anonymized to protect the safety of participants.

Source: Amnesty International. China: Overseas students face harassment and surveillance in campaign of transnational repression © Amnesty International 2024.