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Amnesty: Repression against Chinese students abroad grows

May 13, 2024

Students from China and Hong Kong living in Europe and North America are being repressed by the government in Beijing, according to a new Amnesty International report. Students in Germany have also been affected.

Expats and Berliners attend a demonstration to support the protests in Hong Kong and against police violence
Students were among the demonstrators calling for freedom of expression and democracy in China in Berlin in 2019Image: Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Students from China and Hong Kong who are studying at European or North American universities may be far away from home, but they are also menacingly within reach of their home governments. The message we get, Chinese student Rowan* told the human rights organization Amnesty International is: "You are being watched, and though we are on the other side of the planet, we can still reach you."

Rowan is one of 32 students Amnesty interviewed for its report entitled "On My Campus, I Am Afraid." Researchers sought to document China's transnational repression at universities and spoke with Chinese students in eight countries: Belgium, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and the United States. The real names of all individuals and universities have been withheld in order to protect their identities.

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Threats against families in China

Rowan told Amnesty that she took part in a commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre that was held in the city where she studies. Commemorating the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy movement that took place in Beijing on June 4, 1989, is banned in China and Hong Kong.

Only a few hours after the protest, Rowan's father contacted her from China, saying security officials had told him to keep his daughter from taking part in events that could damage China's reputation in the world. Rowan had not given her name to anyone and had not reported on her participation anywhere.

DW also spoke with Chinese students in Europe. Before Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Paris earlier this month, Yongzhe* told DW that Chinese authorities threatened those who planned to organize demonstrations and paid visits to their families in China. This kind of thing happens frequently, Yongzhe added.

Amnesty International concluded that it's not only the students who are getting the message. "Exercising freedom of expression is not acceptable. No matter where you are, whether in Germany, France or elsewhere, there is no way to escape China's surveillance," said Yongzhe.

The students' family members back in China are also being threatened, Theresa Bergmann told DW. She is an Asia expert with the German branch of Amnesty International. "For example, there have been threats to confiscate passports, terminate jobs and cut pensions or restrict educational opportunities if students continue their activities abroad," she said.

"These attempts at intimidation are coming from government officials in China," said Bergmann.

Accounts of Chinese repression

Many students from China and Hong Kong studying overseas live in fear of intimidation and surveillance, according to Amnesty International, with Chinese and Hong Kong authorities trying to prevent them from raising controversial issues.

Authorities have targeted any show of solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and the 2022 White Paper protests in China, in which people used blank sheets of white paper to protest against draconian measures to curb the COVID-19 measures imposed and against restrictions on freedom of expression.

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Bergmann said Amnesty has raised the allegations with authorities in China and Hong Kong. "We have not received any response from mainland China," she said, adding that "a sort of denial" had come from Hong Kong.

Students are a particularly vulnerable group because of their residency status and financial situation, she explained. Amnesty's researchers cannot speak for all of the estimated 900,000 Chinese students living abroad, but the accounts of repression are similar across borders and match previously known cases.

In 2023, DW and the investigative platform Correctiv reported on how China tightly controls students who have received scholarships from the government's China Scholarship Council in Germany and prevents them from making any critical statements.

WeChat used to spy on students online

"One student who took part in a protest and then took a selfie in front of the embassy reported that she was followed on her way from the embassy to the subway," said Bergmann, describing an account from a student in Germany. When students are followed or photographed at protests, it has not always been clear whether this was on behalf of the Chinese government.

Online surveillance plays a very important role. There are many indications that the Chinese app WeChat provides data to the government in Beijing. "We have cases where WeChat accounts have been closed or content blocked because people have spoken out openly about protests," said Bergmann, calling this the "Great Firewall." Students rely on state-approved apps like WeChat to communicate with relatives and friends in China, even though it may be monitored.

Surveillance and intimidation are frightening Chinese and Hong Kong students studying abroad, Amnesty reported. This has resulted in emotional stress and even depression. "I sought support from the university's psychological counseling service after having psychological problems, but they had little understanding of the Chinese context and were unable to provide effective support," student Xing Dongzhe* told DW.

Some students sever ties with their families in order to protect them, said Bergmann. Almost half of those interviewed are afraid to return home. Six said they wanted to apply for asylum in the country where they were studying

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Bergmann said students are censoring and isolating themselves, unsure whether they can trust other Chinese students or whether they might inform on them.

"With the security law in Hong Kong, for example, this is possible. There is now a hotline where people who are suspected of violating the security law can be reported directly," she said.

Amnesty calls for better protections, counseling

Amnesty International has called on universities and host governments to take action, contacting 55 universities directly. Bergmann said the rights group has received a response from 24 universities, with some early signs that the problem is being addressed. But overall, she said, the institutions have a lot of catching up to do.

She said Amnesty has asked universities and governments to set up reporting centers that have experience working with trauma. Universities should also provide psychological support, counseling and financial assistance for those affected.

"Germany has an obligation to protect international students," said Julia Duchrow, secretary-general of Amnesty International in Germany, adding that the German government should take concrete measures to counter the climate of fear among Chinese students.

*Name withheld for protection

This article was originally written in German. DW's Chinese language department contributed to the research.

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Andrea Grunau
Andrea Grunau Reporter and author