Amnesty International: China and Hong Kong students abroad facing transnational repression by home government News
Emcc83, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Amnesty International: China and Hong Kong students abroad facing transnational repression by home government

Students from China and Hong Kong studying abroad fear engaging with ‘sensitive’ or political issues while overseas, according to a report published by Amnesty International on Monday. The report, entitled “On My Campus, I am Afraid” details a campaign of transnational repression felt by Chinese and Hong Kongese nationals studying on campuses across Western Europe and North America.

Based on research by Amnesty International between June 2023 and April 2024, the report details the reluctance of international students from China to exercise their human rights on campus. Experiences and the effects of intimidation, harassment, and surveillance by Chinese authorities are explored through interviews with 32 Chinese students, including 12 from Hong Kong, who studied at overseas universities between 2018 and 2023. Those interviewed expressed how Chinese officials would harass family members in mainland China, such as by threatening to revoke their passports or get them fired from their jobs. Other interviewees claimed being photographed or recorded at events such as protests. A ‘climate of fear’ made self-censorship a universal experience for the interviewees. Interviewees reported that they suffered from a wide range of mental health issues as a result.

Amnesty International’s China Director, Sarah Brooks, has since stated: “The surveillance of overseas students and the targeting of their China-based family members are systematic tactics designed to control nations from afar.”

Systematic surveillance is facilitated by the “Great Firewall“, where overseas students must rely on state-approved apps such as WeChat to communicate with family and friends in China. Recent changes to Hong Kong’s national security laws are no exception to the surveillance of public opinion. Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law – marks a further tightening of discourse, and has been criticized by international NGOs, including Amnesty International, as “severely undermining human rights”.

The report’s findings warn of the chilling effects fear can have on freedom of speech:

[T]he resulting chilling effect on university campuses risks the perpetuation of a system in which the ability of some students to exercise their rights is more secure than others. It also deprives individuals – as well as researchers and teachers in host countries – of the opportunity to receive and benefit from the free thoughts, ideas and opinions of their colleagues, impeding academic exchanges and undermining the principle of academic freedom on campuses across affected regions.

With an estimated 900,000 Chinese students studying abroad, the report urges host governments and universities to protect the rights of their students by educating communities and setting up reporting mechanisms to protect enrolled students.