TNR Watch: Beijing Expands Hunt for Exiled Dissident with Cash Bounties

We explore how Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law is being weaponized by Beijing to threaten dissidents who have fled abroad.

Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law has been used to crush civil liberties in the territory since it was imposed by the central government in Beijing three years ago. Now Hong Kong authorities are invoking the law’s extraterritorial provisions to threaten dissidents who have fled abroad with arrest and extradition. The move represents a troubling escalation in the Chinese regime’s already daunting campaign of transnational repression.

Pursued for life: On July 3, the Hong Kong government—backed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—stepped up its application of the controversial National Security Law (NSL) to harass and silence dissent among exiles. Authorities offered US$128,000 bounties for the arrest of eight exiled activists and former lawmakers who currently live in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Hong Kong’s national security police charged the suspects with political offenses under the NSL, which empowers the local government to enforce its restrictions outside the territory. Hong Kong chief executive John Lee warned the eight targeted exiles that they would be “pursued for life” unless they surrender.

Beijing’s transnational repression toolkit: The Chinese government is responsible for the world’s most sophisticated and far-reaching campaign of transnational repression, accounting for 253 of the 854 direct, physical incidents recorded by Freedom House since 2014. Moreover, the CCP has steadily diversified its methods for targeting people abroad in recent years. For example, Chinese authorities have allegedly enlisted private investigators in the United States to collect information on exiled dissidents. In June, a US jury convicted a former New York police officer and two Chinese nationals on federal charges related to the stalking of a former Wuhan city official living in New Jersey. Another emergent tactic that Beijing’s agents have reportedly employed against exiles is swatting—the use of false threats or emergency calls to trigger local police action against targeted individuals.

Ramifications: By issuing bounties for exiles, the Hong Kong government is attempting to limit the fundamental freedoms of people living far outside China’s borders. While the targeted activists may avoid arrest because their host countries have suspended extradition treaties with China, the threat of detention will still limit their freedom of movement and expose their relatives and colleagues back home to further pressure. The announcement of the bounties came two weeks after the pro-Beijing daily Ta Kung Pao noted that Hong Kong police could exploit Interpol mechanisms to capture wanted Hong Kongers abroad. Interpol claims not to have received any related requests from Hong Kong so far, but the intergovernmental agency has previously been manipulated by the CCP to assist in transnational repression.

Responses: Democratic governments are keenly aware of how this latest threat fits into the CCP’s broader pattern of transnational repression. Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese labeled the bounties “unacceptable,” while the US State Department pledged to “continue to oppose” Beijing’s transnational repression efforts. The activists themselves remain uncowed. London-based dissident Nathan Law declared, “We should not limit ourselves, self-censor, be intimidated, or live in fear.”