By Hal Brands
For years, China has purported to be a new type of great power: one that rises peacefully and respects the rights of other states rather than chasing the foreign domination of empires past. “China will never seek hegemony, expansion or a sphere of influence,” President Xi Jinping said in April.
Yet many of Beijing’s policies have a distinctly imperial feel. A case in point is a wide-ranging effort to give Chinese law enforcement global reach, and thereby hound the regime’s enemies wherever they may go.
The programs in question are known as Operation Fox Hunt and Operation Skynet. As ProPublica has reported, their stated purpose is to track down white-collar criminals who have sought refuge abroad. Yet in many cases, the real targets are dissidents or political foes of Xi.
Networks of Chinese agents have fanned out across countries around the world, usually without the knowledge of local authorities, to surveil and apprehend wanted individuals, according to the US Justice Department and press reports. They often rely on heavy doses of coercion, reportedly using family members who still live in China — and are thus at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party — as leverage to bring those individuals home.
Chinese officials say that these programs have nabbed more than 8,000 fugitives since 2014. And China’s “fox hunters” are not simply stalking their prey in small, underdeveloped countries with weak law-enforcement capabilities.
One unsuccessful operation, involving 19 agents and local accomplices, targeted a Chinese citizen living outside of New York City, according to US authorities. It was not, apparently, an isolated incident. Director Christopher Wray of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has said that “hundreds of the Fox Hunt victims that they target live right here in the United States, and many are American citizens or green card holders.”
Operation Fox Hunt is part of a wider Chinese campaign to suppress dissent across borders. The Communist Party has, according to CNN and Freedom House, allegedly induced Middle Eastern and Asian states to arrest and repatriate Uyghurs who have fled from repression in western China. There are credible reports that Chinese agents have sought to intimidate regime critics in Europe, and that the Beijing has kidnapped dissidents in Southeast Asia.
As John Demers, the former head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told ProPublica, Fox Hunt reflects “the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and their use of government power to enforce conformity and repress dissent.” It also testifies to an older tradition — the way empires extend their influence at the expense of other countries’ sovereignty.
China should be very familiar with this phenomenon. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, foreign powers, including the UK and the US, established a system of extraterritoriality in China, in which their own citizens were subject to the laws of their home countries rather than Chinese laws. Another decaying power, the Ottoman Empire, had a similar system imposed on it by European rivals.
The US itself has certainly taken a selective view of sovereignty in its run as a global power. Even today, US military personnel serving overseas enjoy a degree of extraterritoriality, thanks to the “status of forces” agreements that host governments negotiate with Washington. What makes these arrangements different from classic imperial coercion is that host countries are free to opt out of them. The Pentagon withdrew American forces from Iraq in 2011 after Baghdad withheld ironclad guarantees that US personnel would not be subject to the Iraqi legal system.
China is now an aspiring empire that is exporting its norms and institutions to the world. Its exploitive labor practices are spreading to other countries, through infrastructure projects that employ Chinese workers and force them to toil in abysmal conditions. The People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary organization that blends law enforcement and combat capabilities, is quietly expanding its overseas presence, to provide security in Central Asia and other stops along the Belt and Road Initiative. In countries such as Serbia and Italy, Chinese police patrol the streets along with local forces to protect Chinese tourists. Most notably, Beijing is trying to take its free speech restrictions global, using its market power to intimidate critics abroad.
That Beijing is deploying these instruments on behalf of an authoritarian political system will make its international influence more heavy-handed and threatening to the democratic world. This behavior also gives the lie to China’s assertions that it is a kinder, gentler sort of superpower.
That claim is pervasive in Chinese rhetoric. Xi and other Chinese officials say that the Communist Party respects national sovereignty and self-determination, in contrast to an overweening America that tries to impose its values on the world. It’s a nice story with little basis in China’s history, or its contemporary conduct.
The historic Chinese tribute system was a classically hegemonic order, in which states in Asia paid tribute to the emperor in exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic benefit, or paid the consequences. After the Communist Party took power, Mao Zedong spoke the language of self-determination while supporting guerillas and revolutionary movements in Southeast Asia, Africa and other parts of the developing world. Xi’s regime has now taken up the mantle, developing its own forms of intervention in foreign states.
Empires do what empires do. As much as China may deny it, its behavior looks more imperial all the time.