Thursday, March 16, 2023

By:  Bochen Han

South China Morning Post

  • Motivated also by conduct of Russia and Iran, most comprehensive American legislation on issue to date could expand legal definition of foreign agent
  • Transnational repression to include unlawful renditions or deportations, physical and online surveillance, and libel, among other activity

A bipartisan group of US senators on Thursday introduced new legislation aimed at strengthening efforts to curtail Beijing’s alleged attempts to repress its nationals abroad.

As the most comprehensive legislative effort to date on the issue, the legislation could expand the legal definition of a foreign agent, giving American officials extra ammunition in an intensifying effort across departments to crack down on transnational repression.

Led by Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican – both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – the Transnational Repression Policy Act codifies and enhances existing practices aimed at combating activity defined as “actions of a foreign government, or [their] agents … to intimidate, silence, coerce, harass, or harm members of diaspora and exile communities”.

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Unlawful renditions or deportations, physical and online surveillance, physical assault and intimidation, unlawful asset freezes and slander or libel to discredit individuals are included in the definition.

The legislation would “establish a new US policy to hold foreign governments and individuals accountable” for such abuses and “elevate countering transnational repression as a key foreign policy priority”, Merkley and Rubio said in a joint announcement.

To become law, the bill would have to pass both the House of Representatives and Senate.

The bill requires the State Department to address transnational repression in its annual human rights country reports and to train personnel on identifying relevant abuses. It instructs the intelligence community to prioritise identifying transgressors and US President Joe Biden to sanction them.

The bill further requires the development of an inter-agency plan to raise costs for perpetrators, conduct regular outreach to diaspora groups, engage with diplomats who intimidate their co-nationals and study the costs and benefits around creating a UN special rapporteur for transnational repression.

British lawmakers want harder line against ‘threat’ posed by China

The inter-agency plan should also assess possible reforms such as expanding the definition of “foreign agents” under relevant US law like the Foreign Registrations Act and criminalising information collection of diaspora groups by such agents. It should additionally review steps taken to address the legality of “overseas police stations” set up by foreign governments.

The bill does not name specific countries, but notes that authoritarian regimes “increasingly rely on transnational repression as their consolidation of control at home pushes dissidents abroad”. China, BelarusRussia, and Iran were identified as key motivators of the bill in the senators’ statement.

The US must “ensure that the [Chinese Communist Party] cannot harass or attack individuals on American soil,” Rubio said.

From 2014 to 2021, Washington-based NGO Freedom House documented 735 incidents of physical transnational repression across 84 countries, which included detention, assault, intimidation, unlawful deportation, rendition and suspected assassination. Of the 735, the Chinese government was responsible for 229, or almost a third, the group said.

Yana Gorokhovskaia, a research director at Freedom House, lauded the bill for putting down “a road map for comprehensively addressing transnational repression”.

“The Biden administration has taken quite a few steps in the past to respond to the threat posed by autocrats, but this bill brings many of them together and also ensures that the current efforts to address transnational repression are enduring,” she said.

Since September 2020, the US Department of Justice has launched at least seven cases against dozens of individuals they said had supported Beijing’s conduct of transnational repression, one of which was dismissed in January.

The US government is also investigating accusations of Chinese police outposts on US soil.