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OPINION: We Need to Talk About Transnational Repression

magine you’re a young student in China. You’ve worked hard your entire life and earned admission to a top American university. Your parents and maybe other relatives have scrimped and saved to afford the tuition — an even more challenging prospect in China where the median income is much lower.

You’ve heard rumors about the freedoms people enjoy in the United States. You can’t wait to learn in an open environment and to see democracy up close. You have opinions you’ve had to keep bottled up your whole life that are just waiting to burst out. You’re so excited you can’t sleep the night before you fly. Finally, you arrive. You’ve left China behind. So you thought. On campus, you quickly learn you haven’t left China at all.

Maybe you’re hanging up posters supporting Hong Kong protests, and a middle-age man starts following you, tearing down your posters, and then physically attacking you. Maybe you’re organizing a pro-democracy panel on campus, and pro-Chinese Communist Party students blockade the entrance to the venue, occupying nearly all seating to stymie attendance. Perhaps you’re putting up protest artwork to speak out against the Beijing Olympics. The artwork is torn down, and you’re reported to the school administration for stoking racism.

These are just a few of the victims’ stories that we, members of the House Select Committee on the CCP, heard at Columbia University alongside Athenai Institute, a nonpartisan student-founded group devoted “to educating American students, scholars and the public about the dangers posed by the genocidal, anti-democratic Chinese Communist Party’s influence on our college campuses.”

The FBI has a phrase for what these brave students experienced: “transnational repression.” Last week, the Justice Department handed down dozens of transnational repression-related indictments — some involving a secret Chinese Communist Party police station in New York City — revolving around the harassment of dissidents on an American telecommunications platform.

Most students, representing several universities, spoke to us under the condition of anonymity because they fear reprisal from the Chinese Communist Party against them and their families in China. For a comment about Taiwan or a rally for Hong Kong, their relatives in China are terrorized by police. Many students never return home, afraid of what awaits.

This is a reality in America today.

Thousands of American citizens, as well as those taking refuge in our country, are harassed, blackmailed and assaulted by agents of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP’s transnational repression tactics are expansive, from digital threats and spyware to violence and coercion by proxy –– in some cases, by fellow students.

This psychological warfare is being waged on American soil by a dizzying array of innocuously named entities such as the Chinese Student Scholar Associations (CSSA’s). As of 2021, there were 150 CSSA chapters across the United States. CSSA’s often masquerade as independent student associations that provide legitimate support to Chinese students when, in fact, they are part of the CCP’s United Front system.

In 2017, the New York Times reported that “the ties between the Chinese government and the student groups are not exactly secret. At some colleges, like the University of Connecticut and the University of North Texas, the groups’ websites mention that they are supported by or affiliated with Chinese consulates.”

One Foreign Policy report found that many CSSAs “officially describe themselves as under the ‘guidance’ or ‘leadership’ of the (Chinese) embassy.”

CSSA’s often engage Chinese students before they arrive in the United States. Once here, they surveil their activities, noting who is for and against the party. We heard from students that through apps like WeChat and TikTok, CSSA’s champion anti-American and pro-CCP sentiments. The students at our roundtable also reported that WeChat groups are used to monitor and report on their peers and on their professors.

Universities must do better to protect their students. Foreign adversaries cannot be allowed to compromise academic freedom, undermine our values, or expand their Orwellian police states on U.S. soil. This starts by prohibiting CCSA’s on American university campuses if they receive funding from or act on the instructions of the Chinese government.

We must decide: Will America remain a haven from persecution or become a hunting ground for dictators?

We in Congress should expand criminal penalties for individuals who violate U.S. law while engaging in transnational repression, and we should ensure that Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which requires universities to disclose foreign money, is enforced. American universities have reported receiving more than $1 billion in donations from China since 2013, but that figure is likely an understatement as universities routinely fail to report foreign money. That figure also does not include tuition paid by Chinese students, whose number in the United States reached 291,000 in 2022. U.S. universities must be transparent about financial ties with adversary regimes.

We wish the whole country could have heard the bravery of these students, speaking out despite the threats to themselves and their families. We need more students like them, not fewer, and we must ensure we do everything in our power to protect them. We cannot allow international students to be attacked on American soil for believing in — and exercising — fundamentally American values.