Hong Kong’s Transnational Repression Threatens Human Rights in America
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Last month, two Washington, D.C., residents awoke to the news that an authoritarian government halfway across the world had slapped a bounty on their heads. Sadly, their experience is not unique. It represents an increasingly widespread phenomenon that threatens human rights here in the United States.

On Dec. 14, the Hong Kong government announced HK$1 million bounties against five human rights activists, including Frances Hui, who received political asylum in the U.S. in 2022, and Joey Siu, a U.S. citizen. They joined eight others, including U.S.-based Anna Kwok and Dennis Kwok (no relation), who had the same action taken against them in July. Their crime? “Collusion with foreign countries or external elements to endanger national security.” In layman’s terms, they advocated for democracy and human rights in their native city and asked the U.S. and other foreign governments to do the same.

The Hong Kong government’s long-arm repression should worry Americans of all stripes. Not only does it threaten the constitutional rights guaranteed to people on U.S. soil, but Siu’s targeting shows that even U.S. citizens aren’t safe. This is especially concerning given Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s pledge to “pursue [the targeted activists] for the rest of our lives even if they run to the ends of the earth.”

Hong Kong used to be a bastion of freedom. Even after the UK handed the city back over to China in 1997, mainland Chinese dissidents would flock to Hong Kong, and Beijing usually left them alone, in deference to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework agreed to before the handover.

Everything changed in 2020 when, after a year of unrest sparked by the government’s callous response to pro-democracy protests, Beijing imposed a draconian National Security Law (NSL) on the city, which banned a broad range of political speech. Many freedom-loving people have since fled Hong, but even now they aren’t truly free. The NSL is extraterritorial, meaning it applies to activities conducted anywhere in the world, as the experiences of these 13 activists show.

The “crimes” for which they stand accused aren’t illegal in the countries where they operate, nor were they considered unlawful in Hong Kong until 2020. Nevertheless, if the Hong Kong authorities ever get their hands on them, these individuals face possible life imprisonment or even prosecution in mainland China, where the outcome could be even worse. Though they are theoretically safe in America, they must live the rest of their lives knowing they have targets on their backs.

The State Department condemned the bounties and reiterated that “Hong Kong authorities have no jurisdiction within United States borders, where the advocates for democracy and freedom will continue to enjoy their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights.” Statements such as this are helpful, but more must be done to ensure activists are protected not only in word but also in deed.

In 2022, I wrote about Operation Sky Net, a Chinese government program under which its security services conduct unsanctioned operations abroad to harass and intimidate wanted persons to return to China and face prosecution. Under this program, Chinese police pressure their targets’ relatives in China, employ local thugs to harass targets abroad, and even enter the U.S. and other countries on tourist visas, where they illegally intimidate their targets into returning to China.

Fortunately, Hong Kong law enforcement have not yet emulated their mainland counterparts’ extreme disregard for other countries’ sovereignty. But it’s likely only a matter of time before either mainland Chinese or Hong Kong authorities use these tactics in their efforts to repatriate Hong Kongers in the U.S.

Hong Kong has already begun applying pressure on family members and associates of some activists on its bounty list. Furthermore, in May a Boston man was charged with giving Chinese government officials information regarding activists, including participants in pro-Hong Kong democracy protests that Frances Hui organized back in 2019. Hui also faced stalking and death threats at the time, harassment that went unpunished.

In December testimony to the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Anna Kwok described what it’s like to live in the U.S. while being wanted in Hong Kong. “Even though I [am] in the Land of the Free," she said, "I [am] not free; I [am] trapped in the constant mental pressure of being hunted.” Kwok’s testimony further explained the chilling effect such transnational repression has, not only on the targeted individuals, but on entire communities, where free expression is stifled by the fear of suffering similar consequences.

Washington must use all the diplomatic and legislative tools at its disposal to clamp down on these repressive acts by Hong Kong, China, and other hostile foreign forces inside the United States. Such activities violate America’s sovereignty and the rights which the U.S. Constitution guarantees to everyone in this country.

Congress should pass legislation requiring the State Department to report on cases of transnational repression on American soil, create a tip line for victims and witnesses, and require U.S. government employees to be trained to recognize and deal with such repressive acts.

More fundamentally, the entire justice system needs training. Police departments and courts at the federal, state, and local levels aren’t prepared to deal with the influx of transnational repression now taking place on U.S. soil. Education is needed to train law enforcement and justice officials and to ensure immigrant communities understand their rights and how to report transnational repression to the authorities.

Hostile foreign forces routinely stifle the constitutional rights of people in America, including U.S. citizens. America must awaken to this threat and act now to safeguard both U.S. sovereignty and the rights of everyone who lives in this country.

Michael Cunningham is a research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.