Failed Boat Trip Shows Fear of China's Reach Into Thailand

  • Junta criticized for deportations of Uighurs, asylum seekers
  • China flexing political muscle overseas via economic clout

Song Zhiyu hid for 10 hours in the luggage compartment of a bus on the final leg of his escape from China to Thailand, a country where he planned to seek asylum.

Song Zhiyu, center, and others after being rescued.
Song Zhiyu, center, and others after being rescued.
Photographer: Li Minwei

Almost two years later, with his application still pending and fearing a greater reach by Chinese authorities, he boarded a small boat at the resort town of Pattaya and set off with eight other Chinese in the hope of reaching New Zealand, more than 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) away.

The boat quickly foundered in rough seas. Less than 48 hours later Song was in Thai custody and at risk of being returned to China, where he’d been jailed for more than five years for membership of the banned religious group Falun Gong.

"I knew this path was full of risk, might lead to either life or death, but I was willing to give it a try," Song, 43, said in a recording he sent to his wife on March 2, shortly after his group was rescued by Thai authorities. "I see no hope in Thailand, so I was willing to risk my life to seek a path, for myself, my family and all other Chinese refugees in Thailand."

Economic Fugitives

Song’s case reflects growing insecurity among Chinese exiles as President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on dissent spreads beyond the country’s borders and as authorities also chase economic fugitives. From Hong Kong to Australia and the U.S., the country’s security forces are casting a widening net.

“Not only are we seeing the increasing internationalization of China’s crackdown on dissent, but it’s being done in a fairly brazen way that shows contempt for international law and international institutions,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

China’s economic clout increasingly gives it leverage with Southeast Asia nations. In the past decade it has surpassed both the U.S. and Japan as the largest trading partner of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with total commerce topping $366 billion in 2014. China is also set to invest tens of billions of dollars in the region under its plan to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes linking Asia and Europe.

In Thailand, the military junta that seized power in 2014 has stepped up engagement with China, in part as ties with some western nations are strained.

The country was rebuked by the United Nations last July for deporting more than 100 ethnic Uighurs -- a Muslim minority who mostly come from the restive western Chinese region of Xinjiang. Months later it sent back two political dissidents who’d been recognized as asylum seekers and approved for resettlement in Canada.

Thailand recognizes the “sensitivity” of sending people back to countries where they could face persecution and gives special consideration to those identified by the UN as asylum seekers, said government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak. He said there has been no increase in surveillance of Chinese nationals in the country.

"The only thing that we have stepped up is the law enforcement,” he said. “We use the law enforcement on illegal entrants to Thailand or those who stay longer than allowed according to the visa that they have."

Missing Booksellers

The recent furor over the disappearance of a group of men associated with a Hong Kong book publisher has drawn fresh attention to Thailand.

Gui Minhai, a prolific author of thinly sourced, often salacious books about Chinese leaders marketed to mainland tourists, disappeared in October from his apartment in Pattaya and reemerged on Chinese state television in January, saying he turned himself into authorities to answer for a 2004 drunk driving accident.

Four other men associated with Gui’s company, Mighty Current, also disappeared, including Lee Bo, who vanished from Hong Kong in December, prompting a police probe. He reappeared in China, saying he clandestinely traveled to the mainland to help with an investigation of his colleagues.

International Pressure

The disappearances of Gui and Lee, who respectively have Swedish and U.K. citizenship, led those governments to press China for details on their whereabouts. The U.S. and a group of 11 nations, including the U.K. and Sweden, on Thursday issued a statement to the UN Human Rights Council expressing concern about China’s “deteriorating human rights record.”

“We remain concerned about the unexplained recent disappearances and apparent coerced returns of Chinese and foreign citizens from outside mainland China,” the countries said. “These extraterritorial actions are unacceptable, out of step with the expectations of the international community, and a challenge to the rules-based international order.”

Fu Cong, China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN offices at Geneva, rejected the criticism and faulted the U.S. over its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, widespread gun violence and rampant prison abuse, the official Global Times reported.

"China is a country governed by law,” he said. “Fighting crime by law is our judicial sovereignty. Nobody is above the law.”

Since taking power in November 2012, Xi has moved to curb dissent alongside graft. Last year, the government intensified its campaign against rights lawyers and activists, with more than 240 detained or questioned since July and 25 missing or in custody at the end of 2015, according to Amnesty International.

China’s overseas security operations "are controversial and problematic, because the Chinese authorities sometimes have vague definition about who they’re targeting, and tend to expand the scope of what they aim at to achieve the effect of ’executing one as a warning to one hundred,’ " said Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, citing a Chinese idiom.

Operation Sky Net

Xi has also targeted economic fugitives. China’s Operation Sky Net -- which involves multiple ministries, including the intelligence service -- repatriated almost 900 people globally through the end of November 2015. Sky Net officials have stepped up cooperation with U.S. authorities, while Australia is preparing to implement an extradition treaty first drafted in 2007.

For Chinese seeking to flee, the UN High Commission for Refugees in Bangkok is often a first stop. There are about 2,000 recognized refugees and just under 7,000 asylum seekers in urban Thailand registered with the UNHCR. It doesn’t give a breakdown by nationalities.

Human Traffickers

To reach the UNHCR, Song paid traffickers for a seven-day journey that took him through Myanmar overland, before crossing the Thai border by bus. On his boat trip two years later, the group only made it 300 kilometers before striking trouble. With him was political dissident Li Xiaolong and five family members, one other Falun Gong practitioner, and another dissident, Song’s wife Zhang Hong said.

Song, front, and Li at a detention center in Thailand.
Song, front, and Li at a detention center in Thailand.
Photographer: Li Minwei

Police confirmed nine Chinese nationals were rescued off Chumpon province in the Thai south. Three adults and two children were detained as a document check showed they’d entered illegally, said Witoon Palasarn, a local police superintendent. Some had UN documents indicating they were asylum seekers and the courts would decide if they’re deported, Witoon said.

"Police are threatening to expatriate them back to China," Zhang said in an interview from Bangkok. "The situation is really dire here."