China runs global hit squads to hunt dissidents

China watchers believe that Beijing has created a global network of spies and assassins, under the cloak of diplomacy, to silence critics and dissidents in different parts of the world.

The network is similar to the network run by Pakistan with its intelligence agency deploying mercenaries and staff to hunt down activists and journalists who have been critical of the state, especially the army. It is not publicly known how deep is the collaboration between the Chinese and Pakistani global network but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

This global dragnet is run by the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and is believed to be present in over 44 countries.

Although these operations have been in place for a few years, the US Justice Department for the first time, in early July this year, made public the indictment of one former and another current homeland security officials for aiding the Chinese government-run `transnational repression` plan, a lame euphemism for a global hit team. The Justice Department noted that the operation’s objective is to  “silence, harass, discredit and spy“ on  Chinese nationals living in the US.

This was not the first time the activities of Chinese hit squad teams were discovered in the US but it was the first known case of these hit teams recruiting federal agents, a clear indication of the sophisticated nature of the operations.

The US-based non-profit organization, Freedom House, working for democracy, in its recent report documented 735 incidents of “transnational repression“ between 2014 and 2021; of these China accounted for more than  30% of the incidents. A well-known think tank in Washington, Woodrow Wilson Center, discovered (January 2022) “1,574 publicly reported cases of detentions and refoulements of Uyghurs to China, where they faced imprisonment and torture in police custody.” In its report,  “The Great Wall of Steel: China’s Global Campaign to Suppress the Uyghurs“, the centre highlighted that there were additional 5,532 cases of Chinese government targeting Uyghurs abroad using intimidation and harassment to monitor and silence them.

The Chinese Community Party (CCP) has been systematically targeting  ethnic and religious groups, including Uighurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong practitioners, numbering in hundreds of thousands globally. In the past few years, the list has expanded to include Inner Mongolians and Hong Kongers residing outside China.

The Ministry of Social Security (MSS) is responsible for targeting of Uighurs, Tibetans, and political dissidents. The MSS works closely with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) which engages in threatening family members of dissidents in China. Another covert agency, 6-10 Office is responsible for suppressing religious groups and works with MPS.

Chinese global operations against its dissidents are reportedly run with the aid of cultural associations, student bodies, diaspora groups, and in some cases, organised crime networks, all of which help the Chinese government to feign deniability of running one of the biggest global syndicates to intimidate dissidents, ethnic and religious minorities, who are critical of the government policies. These networks are allegedly operated from the United Front Work Department (UFWD), embedded within the CCP.

The operations are believed to be aided by PLA hackers running spyware campaigns from within China and other groups engaged in sophisticated hacking, phishing attacks, malware and coercion threats. A key software used to deploy repressive tactics overseas has been the WeChat platform, a messaging, social media, and financial services app, widely popular among the Chinese worldwide.

The Chinese network, working in close cooperation with ally Pakistan’s own global network of hit teams, could prove to be a great danger to the countries in which they operate, apparently without much restraint.

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