Silenced Voices, Hidden Struggles: PRC Transnational Repression on Overseas Human Right Activists — Summary version

Doublethink Lab
10 min readJun 1, 2023

Eric Hsu, Researcher, Doublethink Lab
Ai-Men Lau, Research Analyst, Doublethink Lab

This article is a summary version of the Silenced Voices, Hidden Struggles: PRC Transnational Repression on Overseas Human Right Activists report. This project conducted a series of qualitative interviews with a total of 29 dissidents from overseas communities in Tibet, Uyghur, China, and Hong Kong to identify and analyze the cases, techniques, aims, of PRC government’s transnational repression of overseas democracy movement activists. And also current challenges of advocacy and overseas democratic movements.

Download the full report.

Key findings

  1. The PRC government has a history of using internet and hacker attacks to target overseas dissidents and rights organizations. Such attacks often involve shutting down websites and information platforms and result in the leaking of personal information of the dissenters. This allows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its supporters to further threaten and harass human rights organizations, activists, and their families.
  2. While remaining anonymous is a common strategy to counter the risks of transnational repression, it may not be enough to address the root cause of the problem. Many interviewees reported that the fear of their intimate family and friends being targeted remains one of the most impactful forms of transnational repression.
  3. There has been a rise in the use of “customized” and “localized” disinformation to isolate specific overseas dissidents or human rights groups. This involves linking them with negative and controversial issues within the overseas community, creating a narrative that aims to discredit their legitimacy and rationality.
  4. The PRC government often denies or rationalizes accusations of domestic human rights abuses. To do this, relevant departments produce disinformation to discredit dissents and organizations, challenge their legitimacy, and rationalize their actions. They also frequently contest human rights issues through the use of nationalism, suggesting that the PRC authorities have no choice.
  5. The aims of transnational repression are complex and multifaceted. It seeks to create distrust in Western systems and democratic rule, while strengthening the nationalism that the PRC government is actively shaping. Transnational repression also helps to spread conspiracy theories and overseas disinformation campaigns. In addition, undermining the legitimacy of overseas dissidents, their organizations, and advocacy issues can paralyze their functionality.
  6. Many interviewees pointed out several challenges faced by overseas activism. These include a lack of financial and human resources, information disparity, trauma, feelings of powerlessness, and lack of NPO management skills. These challenges create a toxic cycle that hinders the progress of overseas activism.

PRC transnational repression

The PRC authorities not only domestically restrict freedom of speech and the right of people to express their own opinions within their own country, but also export such censorship overseas, particularly targeting dissidents abroad. The 29 interviewees included in this report are all activists who have been involved in varying degrees with democratic affairs and human rights issues related to the PRC. Some of them have been rooted overseas for a long time, while others have chosen to leave the PRC in recent years to continue their democratic movement.

However, the PRC government has not given up its suppression of these issues and activists just because they are doing advocacy overseas. On the contrary, given the transparency and openness of overseas societies and information environments, malign actors can more easily target advocacy groups and the issues they advocate for to formulate various forms of transnational suppression. This report figures out three main goals of the PRC government’s transnational crackdown on dissidents abroad, which are as follows:

  1. To eliminate negative images of the PRC government related to these advocacy issues.
  2. To undermine the legitimacy of overseas dissidents, their organizations, and their advocacy issues.
  3. To paralyze the functionality of dissidents and their organizations in advocacy operations.

Click the link for accessing the full report for more details on the main goals of the PRC government’s transnational repression on overseas dissidents.

To achieve these goals, the PRC authorities may use various methods such as threats, harassment, stigmatization of issues, or blackening of democratic movements and dissidents. In the following paragraphs, we will briefly demonstrate comparisons of different cases and transnational repression techniques.

Techniques comparison

Regarding the transnational repression techniques and strategies that are commonly reported by the participants from different communities among Hong Kongers, PRC activists, Tibetans, and Uyghurs backgrounds. The following genres independently serve different goals but often associate with each other for maximizing the effectiveness to increase pressure. 1) Cyber attack and doxing, 2) Direct threats and harassment to activists, 3) Conducting threats and harassment campaigns toward participant’s family members and friends that still live inside PRC, 4) Custommade disinformation targets specific activist and organization, and 5) Denying human rights abuses and combat via Nationalism.

Cyber attack and doxing

The PRC government employs internet and hacker attacks as tactics against overseas dissidents and human rights organizations, in contrast to its direct intervention through security police and secret agency system for domestic dissidents. These attacks target databases containing confidential and sensitive information and often involve shutting down websites and information platforms of rights organizations. The PRC government may even use online military forces to interfere with research work required for advocacy. The risks of hacking and data breaches lead to the personal information of dissenters being leaked. The consequences of these data breaches increase existing risks of surveillance and allow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or CCP supporters to pose threats and harassment towards human rights organizations, activists, and their family members. Some participants reported their personal and family member’s information being published on a public website and specific Telegram Channel.

Threats and harassment

18 out of 29 participants reported being personally and directly harassed or intimidated due to their political stances. The five most common types of harassment and threats include physical tracking, threatening or harassing messages or phone calls, harassment at protest sites, phishing emails, and having family members and/or personal data breached. Participants noted that the experience of being harassed and the resulting anxiety have led many overseas diasporas to self-censor instead of expressing themselves. This has had a significant impact on the pro-democracy movement.

PRC authorities frequently use targeting families and friends, especially those within China’s borders, to suppress overseas dissidents. This method indirectly pressures dissidents and undermines their motivation to advocate for their cause. In some cases, attending protests or democratic movements against PRC authoritarianism can lead to judicial persecution and life-threatening transnational repression.

“Because they fear that if they come out, they…will not be able to go back to Tibet, they won’t be able to see their parents, and even their parents and family members will get executed,” a Tibetan interviewee said. This type of transnational repression has been successful in creating fear among the people, with some interviewees choosing not to contact their family and friends to avoid risks.

Remaining anonymous is a common strategy used to counter risks, but this only treats the symptoms and not the root cause. One interviewee pointed out that eventually, the PRC authorities will find out the data. Publicly announcing a cut off of relations with dissidents could be a possible solution, but the fear of loved ones being threatened and harassed is still a significant form of transnational repression.

Custommade disinformation targets specific activist and organization

Apart from these, some interviewees also mentioned that more and more cases show the increasing prevalence of “customized” and “localized” disinformation. Such disinformation is mainly targeted at specific overseas dissidents or human rights groups, linking them in a narrative context with relatively negative and controversial factors and issues within the overseas community. For example, accusing dissent organizations of having close ties to local far-right factions, or portraying them as racist supporters of Asian discrimination, or even creating the impression of collusion between human rights groups and foreign hostile forces through undercover activities.

Due to the sensitivity of identity protection in overseas human rights movements and the potential anxiety caused by long-term transnational suppression, a sense of distrust with the uncertainty and information void among the activist community has emerged. Some “customized” and “localized” disinformation is also used based on this phenomena to smear specific overseas dissidents and attempt to isolate them within the democratic movement community. Multiple “customized” and “localized” forms of disinformation have also been applied in a more violent way by directly discrediting specific advocacy issues and activists.

Denying human rights abuses and combat via Nationalism

Regarding various accusations of the PRC domestic human rights abuses, the PRC government still maintains the strategy of denying or rationalizing their behaviors. To do so, PRC relevant departments often produce corresponding disinformation to discredit relevant dissents and organization, challenge their legitimacy and rationality. The strategy also frequently contests human rights issues through waving the flag of nationalism, in order to suggest that the PRC authorities have no choice.

“the broader aspects they usually kind of like…they paint this different narrative on the issue that there has been terrorist attacks in the past, and all of these are..all of these re-education efforts are basically de-extremification, and you know, anti…it’s a part of the Chinese War on Terror.“

“It is unfortunate that racism does exist both overseas and in the UK, and it is even more unfortunate that it is deliberately amplified by CCP to advocate their nationalism, which makes their narratives of China’s Century of humiliation and their behaviors in Hong Kong become reasonable at first glance. The narrative emphasizes the CCP has no choice but to be tough, in order to save everyone from being bullied by white people. So people must first unite and follow the CCP, because the CCP has made this country strong. So, also very unfortunate to say that some left wing people in the UK who embrace progressive values, pursue equality, oppose war, and oppose racism will be involved in the CCP’s political propaganda campaign, or even be used.”

  • For more qualitative analysis, corresponding transcripts data and analysis of the aims of these transnational repression, please find the link below to access the full report.

Silenced Voices, Hidden Struggles: PRC Transnational Repression on Overseas Human Right Activists full report.

Challenges of current exile activism

Based on the qualitative analysis of interviews with respondents’ sharing of their current challenges and difficulties in advocacy work, we identified three main aspects which were frequently reported by the interviewees from different communities, and also highly correlated with transnational repression. These are (1) lack of financial and human resources, (2) information disparity and lack of reliable sources of information, and (3) trauma and feelings of powerlessness.

Lack of financial and human resources

Limited financial resources also affect the human resources capacity of pro-democracy movements. Four interviewees from Hong Kong noted that their organizations rely primarily on volunteers. However, there are also security risks associated with donations. Due to donating could be seen as a potential violation of the National Security Law, this also poses serious constraints on funding opportunities for the overseas pro-democratic movement. Moreover, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to enact laws like the national security law, the cost of participating in dissident activities has become increasingly high, which several interviewees from the Tibetan and Hong Kong communities specifically emphasized. These challenges have made it even more difficult for overseas human rights organizations, which were already financially struggling, to come up with effective incentives to counter these concerns and risks and recruit volunteers and full-time staff.

Information disparity and lack of reliable sources of information

With the CCP’s increasing control over fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech, and the enactment of laws such as the National Security Law, there has been growing restriction over the circulation of sensitive information. News about human rights protests, demonstrations, and even domestic events within China are subject to significant information gaps in their dissemination.

Apart from the information void in domestic and international information flow, the lack of credible sources of information due to these void has created a challenging environment for overseas activists in their advocacy efforts. Without a doubt, this led to a heightened sense of uncertainty of further steps. Furthermore, more even cause potential misunderstandings and conflicts between domestic and overseas activists on the direction of the movement. On the other hand, the lack of reliable information sources is also reflected in terms of public communication and persuasion strategies, which bring significant challenges on the progress of advocacy.

Trauma and feelings of powerlessness

Some interviewees have experienced significant mental health impacts due to threats and harassment related to their advocacy work. One interviewee mentioned feeling paranoid about being under surveillance. Other interviewees also commonly reported chronic and long-lasting mental health impacts resulting from the threats and harassment they faced due to their advocacy work. The learned helplessness and “passively’’ accepting reality are commonly observed psychological states among overseas dissidents. These traumatic experiences and psychosomatic symptoms do not disappear, but rather accumulate and persist alongside their ongoing human rights advocacy efforts.

Lack of NPO management skills

Apart from these, as many dissidents and overseas activists do not come from a background of NGO or NPO, and also may lack relevant work experience in political activism, many dissents organizations grapple with the fundamentals of NGO operations. More specifically, A lack of advocacy and NGO experience has exacerbated a number of existing challenges, such as limited funding and available resources and limited human resources. Additionally, this also further exacerbated other issues like burnout and internal conflicts.

Conclusion

Overseas dissident communities and activists face a range of challenges amid increased restrictions on freedom and democracy by the PRC authorities. These challenges include online threats, doxxing, and physical assaults, which have serious ramifications for their personal lives and motivation to continue the movement.

To address these challenges, a holistic approach to supporting dissident communities and organizations is needed. This includes providing relevant knowledge on fundraising, NGO operations, counter-narrative development, and mental health support.

The pro-democracy movement must also confront internal conflicts, limited resources, and operational difficulties while combating burnout. Upgrading advocacy efforts is necessary to continue the movement’s long-term work. Our research highlights the diverse challenges faced by the movement and the need for tailored support based on different contexts and countries of residence.

Yet despite the critical challenges overseas dissents are now facing, many participants stated that they plan to continue their work and advocacy.

“But the exile Hong Kongers themselves have to bear a certain duty, because I have to not fail my friends in prison. If I don’t speak up with the voice of the Hong Kongers, I don’t think I will be able to live with my conscience.

Acknowledgments

This report would not have been possible without all the participants who have graciously provided their insights and experience into the pro-democracy movement and transnational repression. They have shared with us not only their observations, but often painful experiences, trauma and vulnerability.

Thanks to all of the “rebels/反賊” who are exiled around the world but still insist their resistances and willing to expose their traumatic and vulnerable experiences. To all who still dream of freedom and continue the fight to this day, you are not alone and we walk alongside you in justice and truth.

Silenced Voices, Hidden Struggles: PRC Transnational Repression on Overseas Human Right Activists full report.

--

--

Doublethink Lab

Doublethink Lab focuses on mapping the online information operation mechanisms as well as the surveillance technology exportation and digital authoritarianism.