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Amnesty accuses China of harassing overseas students

Chinese students in Europe and North America face ‘surveillance,’ their families back home face retaliation
Students hold up placards including blank white sheets of paper on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in solidarity with protests held on the mainland over Beijing's Covid-19 restrictions, in Hong Kong on Nov. 28, 2022.

Students hold up placards including blank white sheets of paper on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in solidarity with protests held on the mainland over Beijing's Covid-19 restrictions, in Hong Kong on Nov. 28, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 13, 2024 11:23 AM GMT
Updated: May 13, 2024 11:25 AM GMT

Amnesty International has accused China of intimidating its overseas students through harassment and surveillance to prevent them from engaging with ‘sensitive’ or political issues.

Amnesty’s report titled ‘On my campus, I am afraid,’ published on May 12 had statements from 32 Chinese overseas students including 12 from Hong Kong located in various parts of Europe and North America.

In a May 13 statement, the global rights group’s China Director Sarah Brooks said the report is a “chilling picture of how the Chinese and Hong Kong governments seek to silence students even when they are thousands of miles from home.”

This assault on human rights activism is “playing out in the corridors and classrooms of the many universities that host Chinese and Hong Kong students,” she added.

The report had statements from Chinese students studying in universities in eight countries – Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

One of the interviewees, Rowan (name changed), said that her father in China was contacted by security officials after she attended a commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Rowan said her father was told to “educate his daughter who is studying overseas not to attend any events that may harm China’s reputation in the world.”

Reportedly, Rowan had not shared her real name with anyone involved in the protest or posted online about her involvement.

She pointed out that the message from China was clear – “You are being watched, and though we are on the other side of the planet, we can still reach you,” Amnesty reported.

Thousands of overseas Chinese students voiced their support for the ‘White Paper’ protests of 2022 that led to the end of China’s zero Covid policy, the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

These actions had drawn the attention of – and often repercussions from – Chinese authorities, Amnesty said.

“The impact of China’s transnational repression poses a serious threat to the free exchange of ideas that is at the heart of academic freedom, and governments and universities must do more to counter it,” Brooks said.

Almost a third of the students interviewed said that the Chinese officials had harassed their families to prevent the students from criticizing the Chinese government or its policies while overseas.

Several students alleged the Chinese government was conducting surveillance on them through their agents abroad. More than half of the students Amnesty interviewed said that they regularly self-censor their conversations and posts on digital platforms out of fear that Chinese authorities were monitoring their activities, including on non-Chinese social media platforms such as X, Facebook, and Instagram.

Nearly one-third of students interviewed experienced censorship on Chinese social media platforms, such as WeChat, to a similar degree as in mainland China, despite being located overseas.

Logan [name changed] told Amnesty that his fear of being identified by Hong Kong authorities had undermined his ability to pursue an academic career in his chosen field.

“I would really want to publish my thesis… but I’m worried, so I chose not to,” he told Amnesty.

Nearly half of those interviewed said they were afraid of returning home, and six students said they saw no option but to apply for political asylum after their studies, as they believed they would face persecution if they returned to China.

Amnesty has urged the host governments and universities to take “concrete steps,” to counter the climate of fear described by students.

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