"China's long arm is everywhere in its own society, and it's now coming abroad," said Li Gang, a former real estate developer in China's central city of Wuhan.
Involved in planning disputes with local authorities, Li told VOA Mandarin that the Wuhan officials accused him of corruption and threatened him with prison.
The disputes, starting in 2002, lasted five years, and in 2009, Li moved to an undisclosed location in the United States with his family. In 2017, Chinese authorities formally charged him with corruption and inciting subversion of state power, a move that required him to return to China to stand trial.
Li refused. And once the charges had been filed, men claiming to be from the FBI showed up at his home. Li told VOA Mandarin in a 2020 interview that FBI officials had told him they had done no such thing.
Li is one target of Sky Net, Beijing's global crackdown on Chinese officials suspected of corruption, financiers suspected of wrong dealings and citizens suspected of money laundering. Beijing launched Sky Net in 2015, and according to China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the number of "voluntarily returned" people has increased annually, from 1,023 in 2015 to 1,229 in 2020.
A new report says Sky Net uses methods outside the international legal framework to identify and repatriate individuals targeted by Chinese authorities.
The report, titled Involuntary Returns: China's Covert Operation to Force 'Fugitives' Overseas Back Home, was published Tuesday by Safeguard Defenders, a Madrid-based group focused on promoting human rights in Asia. Last year, the nongovernmental organization spoke out against China's airing of forced confessions on TV.
China claims that from 2014-21, more than 10,000 "fugitives" have "voluntarily returned" to China from 120 countries, according to the Safeguard Defenders report. In its Sky Net campaign, Beijing almost never uses formal legal procedures, such as requesting extradition.
"Instead, these involuntary returns (IR) account for the vast majority of Sky Net's track record: in 2018, IR stood for some 64% of the claimed successful returns, while extradition — the appropriate judicial channel for such returns — represented but 1%," the report said. As used in the report, the term "involuntary returns" refers to people who have been forced through nontraditional means to come back to China.
And although Sky Net's official targets are businesspeople and officials suspected of economic crimes, the report said it found many cases of Beijing using extrajudicial tactics to repatriate dissidents and human rights defenders.
China's tactics are like those used by the U.S. During the 1980s, U.S. officials "developed an alternative approach to circumvent the proper diplomatic channels" to accomplish renditions, according to the Human Rights Policy Lab at the University of North Carolina School of Law. After the 9/11 attacks, the practice transformed "into what is now referred to as the extraordinary rendition program," which has drawn international condemnation.
Russia also operates a rendition program.
China favors three tactics: threatening family in China, targeting victims outside China by using threatening agents in the target's country, and kidnapping the people it wants repatriated, according to Safeguard Defenders, whose report examined 62 cases of attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to engineer involuntary returns.
Chen Yen-Ting, an author of the report, told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview on Monday that these tactics might be carried out separately or together to pressure the targeted individual. "In some cases, the Chinese government sends agents to the host country and at the same time puts pressure on the targeted individual's family in China," he said.
The report cited the case of Xie Weidong, a onetime Supreme Court judge who resigned in 2000 and ended up in Canada in 2014, the year the Huanggang Municipal Public Security Bureau charged him with accepting a bribe of 1.4 million yuan ($221,000) to settle a 1999 civil case in favor of a particular company, according to a 2019 article by Canada's National Post.
Xie claimed Beijing targeted him "when he failed to abide by government interventions in cases he heard. Then after leaving China he spoke out about problems in its legal system," according to an Interpol ruling dismissing China's request. The Post reported that Interpol found China's request for Xie's arrest was politically motivated.
To persuade Xie to return to China voluntarily, Chinese police detained his sister and then his son, according to the Safeguard Defenders report. Chinese authorities also contacted his ex-wife and his former business partner, hoping to use them as leverage.
Li Jinjin, a New York-based lawyer who represents some targets of the Sky Net operation, told VOA Mandarin on Monday that the Chinese government often freezes the property in China of the target's family members.
In other cases, Li said, Beijing will send its police or hire agents to visit an overseas target. Using promises or threats, their goal is to force the target to return to China.
In 2020, this tactic backfired when the U.S. Justice Department charged eight people with conspiring to act as illegal agents for the Chinese government and force U.S. residents to return to Beijing. These people were "allegedly acting at the direction and under the control of PRC (People's Republic of China) government officials, conducted surveillance of and engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk, and coerce certain residents of the United States to return to the PRC," the Justice Department said.
Safeguard Defenders expect China will intensify its Sky Net efforts in 2022 if the Western governments fail to act against Beijing, Chen told VOA Mandarin. "It will be a significant obstacle to legitimate judicial cooperation to counter cross-border crime," he said.
The Chinese government has hailed Sky Net's success. The Xinhua News Agency, a state-controlled news outlet, published on Saturday a piece saying that the operation was recovering people and stolen goods, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The legal net is vast, you can escape the country, but you can't escape the law," Xinhua said.
Li Gang decided to talk to the media to counter reports on Beijing-controlled outlets. "I used to be very fearful of the Chinese government's retaliation, so I refused all media interviews before," Li said told VOA Mandarin in 2020.
"But now I realize the more fearful I am, the more power they have on me," he said. "So that's why I decide to stand out and tell my story."