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Chinese transnational repression poses a threat to democracy

Hongkongers in the Netherlands share their stories


by Esmeralda Vane – August 2021


“It is a sad reality, a sad truth. I feel restricted in the freedom that I can exercise here [in the Netherlands]. If I go to a protest, it may not lead to immediate safety threats, but there are other consequences given what we have seen in the news.” Katy[1], a Hongkonger residing in the Netherlands, shares that she exercises her freedom with caution, as she fears becoming subject to the repressive activities of the Chinese Government. Freedom House reports that “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.”

With transnational repression, authoritarian states reach across borders to silence dissent among diasporas and sometimes others who criticize them. It encompasses a spectrum of tactics, such as threats, exile, assassinations, prosecution, surveillance, and family intimidation. The Chinese Government is not new to these practices, as it represses Tibetans, Mongolians, Uyghurs, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, Falun Gong practitioners, journalists, human rights defenders, and others who criticize it. Twenty-one stories from Hongkongers in the Netherlands were collected, and from these accounts concerns over democracy grow.

Hong Kong national security law reaches beyond national borders

To secure Chinese sovereignty and security, the Chinese Government passed the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) in June 2020. The law criminalizes any act of subversion (undermining the authority or power of the central Government), secession (breaking away from the country), terrorism (using intimidation or violence against people), and collusion with external or foreign forces. In other words, the NSL punishes political speech, limits foreign contacts, and targets individuals opposed to the Chinese Government. Such a law applies to anyone on Earth, regardless of nationality or location, making it legal for the Chinese Government to target individuals outside of its borders. Hongkongers in the Netherlands describe the law as repressive due to its vagueness and extraterritorial reach. They believe that the Chinese Government leaves the description of the NSL broad and vague so that they do not know when their actions cross the red line. Sophia, also a Hongkonger living in the Netherlands, explains that as a result of this “People are just afraid and people self-censor.” Andrew agrees. He raises concern about how the NSL connects to other repression methods, such as prosecution, family intimidation, or harassment: “The way the NSL is written applies to anybody in the world, regardless of nationality. […] If they know who you are, they may arrest you when you are visiting Hong Kong, or they might put your family or anything in danger. Even if you are here in the Netherlands, there is also a presence of the Chinese Government […]. So, you might get harassed or things like that.” Similar to Andrew, other Hongkongers believe there is a presence of the Chinese Government in the Netherlands. It is argued that Chinese patriots abroad work for the Chinese Government and collect information for it. There is a shared belief that Chinese businesses and Dutch-Chinese residents in the Netherlands support the NSL, which can result in surveillance by those who support the law. Hongkongers also point out that the Chinese Government is capable of surveilling individuals abroad through, for example, Huawei or social media. As Andrew says, if they know who you are, you may face prosecution, family intimidation, or harassment.

Hongkongers often base their stories on the experiences of others who faced Chinese repression, such as Uyghurs or well-known Hong Kong activists abroad. One person said fear started to creep in after reading a BBC article with stories about Uyghurs experiencing repression abroad. The article included the story of Qelbinur Sedik, an Uyghur residing in the Netherlands who received a threatening phone call from a Chinese policeman after she spoke up about China’s detention camps. Another story scaring various Hongkongers is that of activist Gwyneth Ho, their fellow national. She studied journalism at the University of Amsterdam, though now she is being prosecuted under the NSL. For Hongkongers abroad, these stories are a constant reminder of the reach of the NSL, making the possibility of falling victims to Chinese repression enough to self-deprive of the democratic freedoms granted to them in the Netherlands.

Self-deprivation of democratic freedoms

Katy is one of the Hongkongers that constrains herself in the democratic freedoms granted her by the Netherlands. Katy is afraid of speaking up about the Chinese Government in public because she believes that the Government and its supporters may be watching her wherever she goes. Katy says that news stories about the intimidation of family members of Uyghurs abroad make her worry about the safety of her family members in Hong Kong. She also fears that if she speaks up, she would be unable to re-enter Hong Kong without suffering any consequences. Similar to Katy, other Hongkongers living in the Netherlands voice that the Chinese Government threatens their freedoms in the Netherlands. This results in Hongkongers restricting themselves in their freedom of expression and assembly. They share that they feel constrained to talk about home-country politics, online and offline. They avoid political demonstrations and conversations and are careful with exposing their views on Hong Kong and the Chinese Government on social media or during online conversations. Some Hongkongers who study in the Netherlands feel restricted in their academic freedom too. They are afraid to talk about Hong Kong politics in the classroom or to make their academic work on their homeland available to a broader public. This self-deprivation particularly happens when Hongkongers are in circles with other co-nationals, as exposing yourself to supporters of the Chinese Government could have serious consequences. However, when interviewed, they were also careful not to provide detailed personal information or answer questions about the Chinese Government or external or foreign forces, attributing these feelings to the NSL.

The threat to democracy

Even though there is no clear evidence that transnational repression tactics are employed, Hongkongers in the Netherlands prefer to keep their political views to themselves and avoid speaking freely and assembling. Even the mere possibility of falling victim to China’s repressive methods, therefore, is enough to prevent criticism. China is not alone in using transnational repression tactics. Other authoritarian states also expand their reach beyond national borders, such as Rwanda, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Authoritarian states do not only target diaspora members, but sometimes also foreign nationals abroad. The Dutch Government strongly opposes these practices and states that home-country governments that recognize and repress dissident voices can form a threat to the Dutch state, as it can harm its democratic values.

By threatening the basic civil rights of their diasporas by preventing them to voice their opinions, China and other authoritarian governments are eroding the democratic freedoms granted to individuals residing in democracies around the world. This directly harms the values of democratic states, undermining the very way in which they function. Therefore, transnational repression should be given more attention and it should occupy a larger space in democratic countries’ agendas.

[1] All the names used in this article are pseudonyms to guarantee full anonymity and security for Hongkongers in the Netherlands that agreed to share their story.


2021-08-19 Transnational Repression - Esmeralda
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About the author: Esmeralda Vane Esmeralda Vane is a Conflict Studies and Human Rights master’s student at Utrecht University. She worked as a research intern at the Dutch Ministry of Defence and did literature research into state threats. For her bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, she has lived abroad in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. Throughout her career, she has been interested in and focused on international relations regarding China. Therefore, she wrote her thesis on resistance and submission by Hongkongers in the Netherlands to Chinese authoritarian repression.

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