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The Reach of The State: China Tries to Muffle Those Living Abroad by Intimidating their Families

FILE - Paramilitary police officers march in formation near a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the gate to the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China, May 22, 2020.
FILE - Paramilitary police officers march in formation near a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the gate to the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China, May 22, 2020.

Editor’s Note: China’s government is expanding its censorship controls by targeting Chinese citizens overseas who criticize Beijing on social media. The pressure tactic is called “zhulian” – an ancient punishment meaning “guilt by association.” It usually involves police threatening family members in China for the actions of their relatives overseas.

This happened to “Zoo” (short for @HorrorZoo, her main handle on Twitter), a Chinese student pursuing graduate studies in Australia, whose father has been repeatedly summoned to the police station because of her criticism of Chinese Communist Party leaders on social media.

But instead of censoring her Twitter account, “Zoo” has become more outspoken, providing multiple videos of police intimidating her via video chat. Her story provides a rare look at how China tries to use the families of dissidents to silence them.

In April, Zoo’s father was summoned to the police station in a small city in Southern China.

The police questioned him about Zoo’s Twitter account @FakeNewsOfChina. The account had around 5,000 followers at the time of her interview with VOA, and she regularly uploads pictures and Tweets critical of China’s President Xi Jinping.

The police asked Zoo’s father to call her via video chat on the spot, trying to force her to hand over the account password. Zoo recorded the whole conversation and later shared it with VOA.

In the video chat, her father repeatedly urged her to tell the police her password.

"You are being used by foreign forces,” her father said. “President Xi is such a great leader for our country.” Ironically, her father is a professor of Marxism in a university, teaching Communist Party history as well as Xi Jinping’s political philosophy.

“You speak Chinese, right?” said an officer who identified himself as Hu. "No matter where you are, you got to remember you are Chinese, you have to remember all your families are Chinese.”

Zoo denied having any association with the Twitter account.

"There are lots of anti-Xi Twitter accounts, and we linked this one to you,” the officer said. “That means you are in charge of the account!” Officer Hu then toughened his tone.

“You have taught others how to use VPN to bypass the firewall, haven’t you? You think we are not aware of your actions?”

“You asked others to protest in front of the Chinese embassy, didn't you? With such advanced technology, you still think we can’t trace messages on Twitter?”

This intimidation tactic was first practiced on mainland Chinese Twitter users. Starting in 2018, authorities launched a nationwide crackdown to silence critical Twitter users, even though the social media platform is unavailable in China without a VPN to bypass the country’s firewall. Still, users within China who post objectionable content get summoned by police who order them to delete Tweets or their entire accounts.

China Change, a news site about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China, documented 42 Tweets from users writing about the pressure they faced from authorities. These included well-known journalists, dissidents, intellectuals as well as students and ordinary people who decided to speak their mind.

Some were detained. At least one is awaiting criminal charges.

Twitter has not commented on the actions taken by the Chinese authorities. But now, the crackdown at home is steadily expanding to Chinese Twitter users living overseas.

Zoo told VOA that her dad genuinely supported the police view of her situation, even though he was compelled to go to the station when they asked him.

"My dad collected evidence for guobao [secret police], he told them about my friends… He keeps telling me that I should turn myself in,” Zoo told VOA.

Instead of stopping her critical Tweets, Zoo decided to become more public. On May 31st, she participated in an online commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. She was the only young participant who dared to show her face.

Survivors of China's 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown Speak Out

That brought trouble for her father again. The police summoned him multiple times after the online forum.

“My heart is broken,” her father said to her in WeChat messages. “You have to come back to the motherland and start a new life. You have to get away from those evil people. Only so can I live a few more years.”

Her father then proposed the family take a trip together.

“I’m not super close to my parents, we’ve never taken a trip together,” Zoo told VOA. “They want to use this method to force me to turn myself in, I feel disgusted. They are making use of my love for them.”

But she said she also understands them. Because “they are also victims.”

Zoo still has not handed over the password to her account. She wants to protect her 5,000 followers, and she wants the Chinese Communist Party to know they cannot just do whatever they want.

“If I listen to them, they will think they can do whatever they want even to overseas Chinese,” she said. “I’m not going to compromise. I will keep my fight.”