The number of Chinese nationals seeking political asylum overseas has skyrocketed under ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping, according to a recent report.
Figures released by the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR showed that while around 12,000 Chinese nationals sought asylum overseas in 2012, the year that Xi took office as CCP general secretary, that number had rising to nearly 120,000 by 2021.
“Year by year since Xi Jinping came to power, in lockstep with a more oppressive system of governance, the number of asylum-seekers from China has continued to grow at an alarming rate,” the overseas-based rights group Safeguard Defenders reported on its website.
“In 2020, and now with new figures just released for 2021, it shows continued growth despite COVID restrictions,” it said.
In total, around 730,000 Chinese nationals have sought asylum since 2012, with more than 170,000 living outside China under refugee status, the report said.
“Seeking asylum is for many a desperate act, reserved for those with few other options, which does not apply to the great many Chinese who have moved, and continue to do so, to the U.S, Australia, and beyond, often via naturalization, work visas or property purchases,” Safeguard Defenders said.
The U.S. remains the most popular destination, accepting 88,722 applicants from mainland China last year. Australia took 15,774 asylum-seekers in the same year, the figures showed.
Thousands also apply for asylum in Canada, Brazil, South Korea, and the U.K.
The group warned of a growing risk of transnational repression, including the use of involuntary returns, now that a growing number of Chinese nationals have fled the country.
Safeguard Defenders researcher Jing-jie Chen said the data also reflect the impact of Xi’s zero-COVID policy, that has led to grueling lockdowns and draconian restrictions of people’s movements under the guise of disease control and prevention.
“China has basically been in a state of lockdown during the past couple of years that these data are from, and it is actually very difficult for asylum seekers to go abroad,” Chen told RFA.
“Yet we can see that the number has reached a new high … with the number of asylum seekers rising every year over the past three years.”
The figures don’t include Hong Kong, where a draconian crackdown on public dissent and peaceful political opposition has been under way under a national security law imposed by Beijing since July 1, 2020.
Chen said many more people are voting with their feet and opting to emigrate from China, either through overseas study or investment visas and residency cards.
World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said many of the asylum-seekers are Uyghurs fleeing a network of concentration camps and technological totalitarianism in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
He said overseas Uyghurs remain at risk from the Chinese authorities.
“Uyghurs in exile are constantly at risk from China putting pressure on their countries of residence to detain and forcibly return them,” Dilxat Raxit said.
“We call on the international community to continue to take measures to provide Uyghurs at risk with adequate protection,” he said, adding that many Uyghur asylum-seekers had been unable to renew expired passports and sometimes had trouble documenting the oppression they suffered back home.
Foxhunt and Skynet
Chen said the CCP has a coordinated international operation called “Operation Foxhunt” to force Chinese nationals to return home.
“Since Xi Jinping took office, he has brought the ‘foxhunt’ plan for the global oppression of dissidents that extends internationally,” Chen said.
“If you only have a simple immigrant residency status, you may not be able to actually be protected in some countries,” he said. “Sometimes, asylum and refugee status application can offer more protection.”
The CCCP’s law enforcement agencies routinely track, harass, threaten and repatriate people who flee the country, many of them Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, under its SkyNet surveillance program that reaches far beyond China’s borders, using a variety of means to have them forcibly repatriated.
Beijing often relies on pliant allies to circumvent criminal justice processes and ensure political refugees and Muslims are sent back.
China will target ethnic groups like the Uyghurs, but also political dissidents, rights activists, journalists and former officials using its overseas networks, according to a 2021 report by Safeguard Defenders.
Between the launch of the SkyNet program in 2014 and June 2021, China repatriated nearly 10,000 people from 120 countries and regions, the report said. Yet according to Safeguard Defenders, just one percent are brought back to China using judicial procedures; more than 60 percent are just put on a plane against their will.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.