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A picture of China's President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on Nov. 11, 2021.NOEL CELIS/Getty Images

China has been expanding its use of coercion to force the return of Chinese citizens who have settled abroad, many of them in Australia, Canada and the United States, in a campaign targeting fugitives and dissidents, a new report by Spanish-based rights group Safeguard Defenders says.

Citing Chinese government data, Safeguard says Beijing had surpassed 10,000 returns under its Sky Net program by late 2021. This is the only campaign for which data are available, and the watchdog group says it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to non-judicial efforts to secure the return of people wanted by the Chinese state in 120 countries.

Sky Net and Operation Fox Hunt are two examples of anti-corruption drives Chinese President Xi Jinping launched to target wealthy Chinese citizens and corrupt Communist Party members who fled overseas after committing crimes.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director David Vigneault has warned these anti-corruption campaigns also target dissidents who criticize China’s ruling Communist Party.

In its report, called Involuntary Returns, Safeguard Defenders said: “With the Chinese diaspora growing at an even faster rate as more people seek to leave China, and with the Chinese Communist Party keen to keep control of them also, Beijing has never been more motivated to expand the powers of its security forces overseas.”

The group’s co-founder Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human-rights activist once incarcerated in China, said Beijing has increasingly resorted to unilateral efforts to repatriate its citizens because Western countries, including Canada, are reluctant to sign extradition treaties. Even countries with such agreements have restricted their application, and sometimes deny China’s requests.

The report identifies three methods China employs to forcibly retrieve citizens, two of which have been used against people in Canada.

Chinese authorities first attempt to coax a return through the target’s family and relatives who still live in China. They harass loved ones and try to coerce them to pass messages to the person abroad.

Returnees under these forced retrieval programs hit a high of 2,041 in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and even during the coronavirus restrictions in the two years that followed, another 1,421 were extracted in 2020 and 1,114 in 2021, the report said. Those numbers are an increase from 680 in 2014, when the campaign began.

Mr. Dahlin said he hopes Canada is pushing back. “If China is seeking real criminals in Canada, even without an extradition treaty, there are methods to pursue such, but China is choosing to utilize involuntary returns instead, just as they do in countries that actually have extradition treaties too,” he said in an interview.

Canadian-connected cases crop up in the report, some of which have been reported in the The Globe and Mail. Xie Weidong, a former judge on China’s Supreme Court, criticized the justice system after he moved to Canada. Chinese authorities accused him of corruption and detained his sister, still in China, and then his son, in an effort to draw him back. “Police also reached out to his ex-wife, a former long-term business partner, and others, such as the lawyer who was representing his sister,” the report said.

A second method is directly approaching the target outside mainland China, including by sending Chinese agents. In 2017, billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who holds a Canadian passport, and was a financier to China’s elite, was abducted from Hong Kong and was last reported living in Shanghai under house arrest.

In 2016, the father-in-law of Jiang Qian, a former executive of a state-owned corporation who was accused of corruption, first recorded a video asking Mr. Jiang to return. When that didn’t work, he flew to Canada to plead with him.

Former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson acknowledged that not enough is being to done to stop coercion activities by China in Canada.

“I don’t think the laws need to be changed. The laws relating to extortion and threatening behaviour still apply, but federal policy is woefully underfunded to deliver,” he said. “We hadn’t devoted resources to this. … I can’t think of an instance where we have succeeded on the back of a complaint that Chinese agents were strong-arming citizens. You have to throw your shoulder into it.”

Andy Ellis, a former assistant director of operations at CSIS, said intelligence services and police, including local forces, have failed to handle seriously complaints of harassment and intimidation.

China is a “sophisticated adversary,” and the Canadian system isn’t adequately prepared to counter a complaint of harassment, Mr. Ellis said. “When a local Burnaby policeman comes to your door, does he know how to respond? They need to be informed of what to do when it does take place.”

But he said the Canadian government must also make it clear to China’s rulers that their activities are inappropriate and diplomats will be expelled if they intimate people. Non-diplomats caught threatening people should be charged, he said.

A third method is what Safeguard Defenders calls “kidnappings abroad,” in which Chinese authorities arrest targets on foreign soil and take them back to China. In 2015, Chinese human-rights defender Dong Guangping, who was in a Bangkok immigration centre awaiting resettlement in Canada, was forcibly taken into custody by Chinese police “in front of Thai officers,” the report said. Mr. Dong later surfaced in China, where he was sentenced to three years in prison.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s message is that nowhere is safe; fleeing overseas will not save you. There is no escape,” the Safeguard report said.

The number of Chinese citizens seeking asylum abroad has jumped 700 per cent since 2012, when Mr. Xi took power – from 15,362 to 107,864, according to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

As well, many residents of Hong Kong, the former British colony, have taken steps to flee after a draconian security law was imposed there in 2020 that criminalizes dissent. That year, Safeguard said, the Chinese territory recorded its biggest population drop since measurement began in 1961, with almost 90,000 moving overseas.

The Chinese government has cited the lack of progress in securing extradition treaties with Canada, the United States and Australia as justification for its efforts. The director of Peking University’s anti-corruption study centre, Zhuang Deshui, told the Sydney Morning Herald several years ago that China will try other means if it can’t secure agreements abroad.

“If the treaty can’t be signed in the near future, there are other options. … When this gate is not open, we can try the window, and if windows are not open, we can try digging holes,” he said.

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