Feb 09, 2022

Operation Sky Net and China's Growing Transnational Repression

Official data claims that China had successfully kidnapped and returned nearly 10,000 people who had fled overseas through its aggressive repatriation program, Operation Sky Net. Seeking to extend the reach of China’s transnational repression, Operation Sky Net targets critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), human rights defenders and other activists living abroad in efforts to silence them. Through our Compromised Spaces campaign, the UNPO have been documenting attacks and intimidation tactics by authoritarian states, similar to Operation Skynet, which target diaspora communities in Europe and activists engaging with international fora.

A recent report by NGO Safeguard Defenders has revealed the extent and severity of Operation Sky Net, China’s involuntary returns program. Methods deployed to force individuals abroad to return to China against their will (most often to face imprisonment) increasingly subvert traditional and legal avenues such as extradition and deportation. Instead, unregulated and illegal covert operations are taking place, including on European soil.

Three of the most common involuntary return methods are cited in the report are: (1) a combination of persuasion, intimidation and harassment by threatening family and loved ones still in China, (2) sending agents (undercover police officers or locally hired individuals) overseas to intimidate targets in their host countries into returning, and (3) the use of direct state-sanctioned kidnapping.

Forced returns are not the only impetus of China’s transnational repression. Oftentimes, Chinese officials will coerce individuals abroad into spying on the diaspora of the host country. Other times, harassment and intimidation tactics are deployed simply to frighten activists and those critical of the CCP into giving up their activism.

UNPO is regularly made aware by its members of PRC embassy agents in Europe monitoring the actives of diaspora communities. In certain cases this has later led to embassy officials putting the participants on a phone call with their family members in China; a trend particularly prevalent with the Uyghur community – one of the groups most heavily targeted by Operation Sky Net.

The practice of authoritarian actors like China targeting and repressing diaspora communities and human rights defenders poses serious threats to the internal security and national sovereignty of the hosts countries these acts of reprisals take place on. With operations like Sky Net occurring on European soil, the UNPO are campaigning for the European Union to recognize the severity of foreign state reprisals to the Union’s fundamental values, and take coordinated action accordingly.

Recognizing the severity of the issue, Members of the European Parliament recently submitted a written question to the Commission related to the threats suffered by activists on EU soil by external state actors. Later in the year, the UNPO will follow up it’s report Compromised Space: Foreign State Reprisals against Unrepresented Diplomats in Europe with a publication following an in-depth series of interviews with a wide set of Europe-based diaspora to understand further both the nature of the threats faced by these communities and the national responses taken.