China accused of ‘transnational repression’ of students

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Chinese students studying in Europe and the US are being subjected to harassment and intimidation by authorities in Beijing, leading to self-censorship and fear, an Amnesty International report has found.

The rights group said its findings, based on student testimonies, raised serious questions among university leaders and governments about how to protect Chinese students from what it called “transnational repression.”

The students, including some interviewed separately by the Financial Times, said the harassment included photographing them at protests, monitoring their activities on social media and pressuring relatives in China to report them spurs to conform.

The report joins calls from other advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, for more action to protect foreign students from pressure from authoritarian domestic governments.

Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s China director, said Beijing’s interference had left many students from China and Hong Kong “living in fear” while studying in Europe and the US.

“The impact of transnational repression in China poses a serious threat to the free exchange of ideas at the heart of academic freedom, and governments and universities must do more to counter this,” she added.

The Chinese government said it “resolutely opposes” the report’s findings, saying it was “full of subjective assumptions and misinformation.”

“The government requires Chinese students to comply with local laws and regulations, encourages them to play a positive role as bridge builders and works to create conditions for their study and life abroad,” the Chinese embassy said in London in a statement.

An estimated 900,000 Chinese students study abroad. Amnesty interviewed 32 students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Britain and the US between October and December.

A Chinese student who took part in protests against anti-Covid controls while in China told the FT that police from his hometown contacted him after he arrived in the US to study and warned him to be careful .

He added that he now avoided other Chinese students for fear of it being reported.

“I don’t talk to Chinese students. I like to talk about Chinese politics and who knows if they will report me if I say something that crosses a red line. “I am very critical of China towards non-Chinese students because it poses little risk,” he said.

A Hong Kong student studying in Amsterdam said a national security law imposed on the Chinese territory in 2020 had had a chilling effect even abroad.

The student told the FT that her phone had been spammed with messages and calls from unknown numbers after she helped organize a demonstration in the Netherlands in support of LGBT+ rights in China.

“Chinese people took pictures of us with professional cameras during the demonstration. “I tried to stop them,” she said.

The Amnesty report raised questions about the effectiveness of measures taken by European and American universities to protect Chinese students, such as not recording lectures to promote freedom of expression.

“(Although) some institutions have recognized and taken actions that could respond to these students’ concerns, many of those actions do not appear to be achieving the intended impact,” the report said.

The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of leaders from U.S. colleges and universities, said it is exploring the development of new guidelines for transnational crackdowns. “This is an emerging phenomenon that colleges and universities have not yet fully recognized and addressed,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the alliance.

In Britain, hawks in the ruling Conservative party have called for tougher government action to protect Chinese dissidents on campuses.

The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading British universities, said it took upholding freedom of expression and academic freedom “incredibly seriously” and had introduced policies to ensure students could study without fear.

The British government said it would work with universities to protect students, including by giving police the necessary powers.

“We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in Britain – including students who have traveled from China and Hong Kong to study here,” it said report.

Additional reporting by Edward White in Shanghai and Lucy Fisher in London