I Was Sanctioned by China

Beijing’s campaign of repression is already shaping what we can say, where we can travel, what products we buy, and even the news we read.

Tasos Katopodis / Stringer / Getty

It is a bit disorienting to wake up early expecting to go out for a walk, and find that you have been personally targeted for sanctions by the most powerful authoritarian state in the world.

As friends began emailing and texting me Monday morning, I learned that I had been placed on a list of leaders of prodemocracy organizations and members of Congress to be punished by the Chinese government in retaliation for U.S. sanctions imposed last week on 11 Chinese and Hong Kong officials, for their role in diminishing freedom in the former British colony. The contrast between the U.S. and Chinese sanctions is telling: The former aim to punish human-rights violations, and the latter aim to punish speech about those violations.

I’m the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan, independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world; I’m no stranger to repressive governments. Even so, I was taken aback.

I must confess a bit of anxiety over being singled out by a regime that has shown itself willing to forcibly abduct dissidents beyond its borders. But the legal and practical implications of the sanctions are opaque. The most serious consequence will probably be that I cannot soon return to Hong Kong, the city where I was born and for which I have great personal affection. (My dad was a U.S. diplomat there.)

This consequence pales in comparison with the repression faced by the people of Hong Kong, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, and millions of others who find themselves disfavored by the current totalitarian-minded leadership in Beijing. Nevertheless, it signals the Chinese government’s growing willingness to threaten its foreign critics, even American citizens who are accustomed to robust constitutional protections for free speech and assembly.

Since Xi Jinping rose to power eight years ago, the Chinese Communist Party has choked off the few remaining political rights and civil liberties available to its own people (according to Freedom House’s annual assessments) while ramping up efforts to export its repression. Beijing’s tactics have included directly threatening overseas dissidents and members of persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, bullying international corporations, manipulating foreign media coverage, imposing censorship on Hollywood movies, attempting to control speech on foreign college campuses, and misusing international institutions to exclude Taiwan.

More and more, Beijing’s cross-border offensive is directly affecting what Americans are able to do in their day-to-day life.

Samuel Chu, an American citizen, recently had an experience very similar to mine—but with a much more frightening twist. Chu woke up on August 1 and discovered he was being targeted by the Hong Kong government for his prodemocracy views. He is now facing trumped-up criminal charges of “inciting secession” and “colluding with foreign powers,” having lobbied the U.S. government on its Hong Kong policy. These charges could carry a life sentence in prison under the new National Security Law approved this summer in Beijing.

As Chu pointed out, if he can be targeted for what he’s said in America, then anyone anywhere in the world can be targeted. Not only can Chu no longer safely travel to Hong Kong or mainland China, but he can’t travel to any country that might extradite him to those places, or he risks spending decades behind bars.

Staff at American organizations like Freedom House have long been denied visas for travel to mainland China, and Freedom House as an institution was slapped with sanctions by Beijing last December, months before I was personally blacklisted. The new National Security Law for Hong Kong places Freedom House staff at higher risk as we continue to monitor domestic repression in China and the CCP’s efforts to undermine freedom abroad, including within the United States. Though these risks might be minor compared with those faced by the people of Hong Kong and Chinese citizens struggling to defend their own rights, they are a clear example of the transnational authoritarian influence we and many others have sought to highlight.

The CCP’s efforts go well beyond intimidation of well-known human-rights groups. In July, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment of two Chinese nationals alleged to have conducted a 10-year computer hacking campaign for the Chinese government that included the targeting of “individual dissidents, clergy, and democratic and human rights activists in the United States.” Uighurs living in the U.S. have received threats from security officials in China, intended to silence their reports about what has been happening to their family members detained in mass internment camps in Xinjiang. Major U.S. news outlets, Chinese media in the diaspora, activist groups supporting freedom for Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, Chinese human-rights defenders, and campaigners against high-level corruption in China have also been hit with costly website blocks, cyberattacks, threats against advertisers, and pressure to self-censor.

Hong Kong has emerged as a new CCP redline for U.S. corporations, which have come under pressure to censor their own communications and products for audiences outside China.

In October 2019, the Chinese Basketball Association cut ties with the Houston Rockets, and Chinese state television refused to air Rockets games, after the Houston general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” a slogan popular among prodemocracy demonstrators in the territory. Chinese officials expressed outrage. The NBA and various players quickly apologized and distanced themselves from Morey’s post. This in turn sparked criticism from groups such as Freedom House, which objected to the NBA’s failure to defend free speech. Human-rights protesters who showed up at NBA games were ejected or had their signs confiscated for holding up slogans as benign as “Google: Uyghurs.”

Hong Kong protesters began covering one eye in August, after a protester’s eye was seriously wounded by police. The American jewelry company Tiffany & Co. was pressured into removing an advertisement that depicted a model covering one eye, after outraged buyers from China complained that it looked like the Hong Kong protest symbol. Tiffany & Co. said its advertisement had been approved in May and was completely unrelated to Hong Kong’s protests, but it removed the ad anyway.

My colleagues at Freedom House are often told that although the repression happening in Hong Kong may be terrible, it doesn’t necessarily affect us here at home. But that’s just not true. CCP repression is already shaping what we can say, where we can travel, the products we buy, and even the news we read.

When such issues are raised with the CCP, it often offers a twofold response: asserting the principles of sovereignty and noninterference in China’s domestic affairs and deflecting the criticism by pointing out problems here in the United States. But while the United States certainly has its own problems, we are well aware of them thanks to our free press, pluralistic political system, and independent civil-society groups like Freedom House. These features of American democracy provide us with the tools to correct long-standing injustice and inequities, and we have an obligation to lend our support to similar democratic processes elsewhere. If the Chinese leadership had any intention of addressing its own people’s genuine grievances, it would not be working so hard to demolish and suppress such instruments of peaceful improvement.

That the CCP routinely breaks Chinese laws and international commitments by violating the rights of people in mainland China and Hong Kong is appalling enough. The regime certainly should not be permitted to do the same in the United States, or any other country.