Contents – The long reach: How authoritarian countries are silencing critics abroad


The Spring 2024 issue of Index looks at how authoritarian states are bypassing borders in order to clamp down on dissidents who have fled their home state. In this issue we investigate the forms that transnational repression can take, as well as highlighting examples of those who have been harassed, threatened or silenced by the long arm of the state.

The writers in this issue offer a range of perspectives from countries all over the world, with stories from Turkey to Eritrea to India providing a global view of how states operate when it comes to suppressing dissidents abroad. These experiences serve as a warning that borders no longer come with a guarantee of safety for those targeted by oppressive regimes.


Up Front

Border control, by Jemimah Steinfeld: There's no safe place for the world's dissidents. World leaders need to act.

The Index, by Mark Frary: A glimpse at the world of free expression, featuring Indian elections, Predator spyware and a Bahraini hunger strike.


Just passing through, by Eduardo Halfon: A guided tour through Guatemala's crime traps.

Exporting the American playbook, by Amy Fallon: The culture wars are finding new ground in Canada, where the freedom to read is the latest battle.

The couple and the king, by Clemence Manyukwe: Tanele Maseko saw her activist husband killed in front of her eyes, but it has not stopped her fight for democracy.

Obrador's parting gift, by Chris Havler-Barrett: Journalists are free to report in Mexico, as long as it's what the president wants to hear.

Silencing the faithful, by Simone Dias Marques: Brazil's religious minorities are under attack.

The anti-abortion roadshow, by Rebecca L Root: The USA's most controversial new export could be a campaign against reproductive rights.

The woman taking on the trolls, by Daisy Ruddock: Tackling disinformation has left Marianna Spring a victim of trolling, even by Elon Musk.

Broken news, by Mehran Firdous: The founder of The Kashmir Walla reels from his time in prison and the banning of his news outlet.

Who can we trust?, by Kimberley Brown: Organised crime and corruption have turned once peaceful Ecuador into a reporter's nightmare.

The cost of being green, by Thien Viet: Vietnam's environmental activists are mysteriously all being locked up on tax charges.

Who is the real enemy?, by Raphael Rashid: Where North Korea is concerned, poetry can go too far - according to South Korea.

The law, when it suits him, by JP O'Malley: Donald Trump could be making prison cells great again.

Special Report: The long reach - how authoritarian countries are silencing critics abroad

Nowhere is safe, by Alexander Dukalskis: Introducing the new and improved ways that autocracies silence their overseas critics.

Welcome to the dictator's playground, by Kaya Genç: When it comes to safeguarding immigrant dissidents, Turkey has a bad reputation.

The overseas repressors who are evading the spotlight, by Emily Couch: It's not all Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. Central Asian governments are reaching across borders too.

Everything everywhere all at once, by Daisy Ruddock: It's both quantity and quality when it comes to how states attack dissent abroad.

A fatal game of international hide and seek, by Danson Kahyana: After leaving Eritrea, one writer lives in constants fear of being kidnapped or killed.

Our principles are not for sale, by Jirapreeya Saeboo: The Thai student publisher who told China to keep their cash bribe.

Refused a passport, by Sally Gimson: A lesson from Belarus in how to obstruct your critics.

Be nice, or you're not coming in, by Salil Tripathi: Is the murder of a Sikh activist in Canada the latest in India's cross-border control.

An agency for those denied agency, by Amy Fallon: The Sikh Press Association's members are no strangers to receiving death threats.

Always looking behind, by Zhou Fengsuo and Nathan Law: If you're a Tiananmen protest leader or the face of Hong Kong's democracy movement, China is always watching.

Putting Interpol on notice, by Tommy Greene: For dissidents who find themselves on Red Notice, it's all about location, location, location

Living in Russia's shadow, by Irina Babloyan, Andrei Soldatov and Kirill Martynov: Three Russian journalists in exile outline why paranoia around their safety is justified.


Solidarity, Assange-style, by Martin Bright: Our editor-at-large on his own experience working with Assange.

Challenging words, by Emma Briant: An academic on what to do around the weaponisation of words.

Good, bad and everything that's in between, by Ruth Anderson: New threats to free speech call for new approaches.


Ukraine's disappearing ink, by Victoria Amelina and Stephen Komarnyckyj: One of several Ukrainian writers killed in Russia's war, Amelina's words live on.

One-way ticket to freedom?, by Ghanem Al Masarir and Jemimah Steinfeld: A dissident has the last laugh on Saudi, when we publish his skit.

The show must go on, by Katie Dancey-Downs, Yahya Marei and Bahaa Eldin Ibdah: In the midst of war Palestine's Freedom Theatre still deliver cultural resistance, some of which is published here.

Fight for life - and language, by William Yang: Uyghur linguists are doing everything they can to keep their culture alive.

Freedom is very fragile, by Mark Frary and Oleksandra Matviichuk: The winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize on looking beyond the Nuremberg Trials lens.

China’s feminists walk a tightrope

It was in 2015, during my internship at one of China’s most prominent digital media publications, that I had my first close encounter with censorship. Every so often the editor-in-chief would repost a message to our online chat group coming from someone whose username was “The Person is Present” (“人在呢”). They were from the Cyberspace Administration, which is the national internet regulator and censor of China. The message was always an instruction such as “Look up and delete all related reportage on the topic of A, report by 6PM.” The username, together with the requests they made, created an Orwellian atmosphere that even at my level as just an intern was chilling. All I could think was: “Big Brother is watching you.”

That same year, “the Feminist Five”, a group of feminist activists, were arrested for planning to protest against sexual harassment on public transport just before International Women’s Day. Today even more feminists have been targeted, including Index 2022 award winner Sophia Huang Xueqin, who has been in jail for years now for her journalism and activism. Many of those who protested and were later arrested during the White Paper Revolution were also connected to the feminist movement. But not all discussions around women’s rights were or are silenced.

“To be honest, in today’s China, it's difficult to discuss other topics in detail, but the topic of feminism can be discussed to some extent,” the journalist Qing Wang said in one episode of her podcast The Weirdo. Books about feminism by authors such as the Japanese feminist Chizuko Ueno have become bestsellers in China, even though the publishing sector censors other subjects. Feminist conversations with Chinese characteristics, which oppose the display of female sexuality and eroticism, as exemplified in the discussions around K-pop star Lisa’s Crazy Horse cabaret performance, are allowed to flourish rather than being censored because they essentially align with the ruling patriarchal and traditional Confucius values.  

The most recent incident that sparked a widespread debate on feminism in the Mandarin-speaking world was a unique eulogy article written by Dr Lang Chen, the wife of assistant professor Xiaohong Xu at the University of Michigan, in which she delineated the gender dynamic in an intellectual household. The single article went viral online and reached more than 100,000 readers this January.

General feminist topics such as period poverty and gender-based healthcare inequalities are also essentially allowed. The latter discussion has even led to positive change. For example, in September 2022, after a woman's complaint about the unavailability of sanitary towels on bullet trains became a trending topic on Weibo, the bullet trains started selling period products.

As shown in the Baidu Index, searching for the word “nvquan” (feminism) surged to a historical high at the time of the 2022 Tangshan restaurant attack, in which four women were savagely beaten by a group of men after rejecting their unwanted advances. However, the censorship machine soon turned the narrative from gender-based violence and femicide towards gang violence. Any efforts to approach the incident from a feminist angle on social media such as Weibo and WeChat was subject to the accusation of “inciting conflict between genders” and therefore scrubbed by the censors. For example, an article from the account Philosophia哲学社, which discussed the incident under the title “The Tangshan Barbecue Restaurant Incident Is Exactly An Issue of Gender”, was promptly removed from the WeChat platform. All the while other discussions asserting the idea that it was not a gender issue but rather a matter of human safety were allowed to spread.  

Another illustration of where it starts to move into murkier waters is the well-known case of Zhou Xiaoxuan (better known as Xianzi) accusing Zhu Jun, a host from the state broadcaster CCTV, of sexual harassment. This case did spark widespread feminist discussions and helped launch the #MeToo movement in China. But the #MeToo term itself was promptly banned on social media (which led to a series of other terms to try and bypass the censors), Xianzi was suspended from Weibo and the court case ruled against her, symbolising a setback for China’s feminist movement.

The Chinese-US novelist Geling Yan was also silenced on Chinese social media because she voiced her anger in 2022 about the Xuzhou chained woman incident, where a woman was trafficked before being chained to a wall for years, continuously raped and gave birth to eight children. Yan called Xi Jinping “a human trafficker” in one interview. Directing her anger to the top was not appreciated. Her essays were removed from social media, she was blocked and her name was even removed from a Zhang Yimou film based on one of her novels. 

So how can we make sense of the fact that some discussion of feminism is allowed while some discussion is not? Essentially feminist debate faces censorship once it starts to attract public attention, challenge the ruling power and has the potential to move to offline collective action. As one activist and member of the civic group BCome, who acted in the feminist theatre play Our Vaginas, OurSelves, has said:

“The censorship machine is most concerned with the potential of offline gathering and organised collective action. As made evident in ‘the Xuzhou chained woman incident’, Wuyi was just an ordinary netizen who had no previous activist records, and she got arrested only because she took the action of going to the actual place and investigating the incident herself.”

Due to the action-oriented nature of her work, the actor-turned-activist suffered from constant harassment from state security agents, and her phone which was registered in China, was traced and tapped.

This also helps explain the swift action around Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a top Chinese official of sexual harassment. Shuai has largely disappeared from the public space since she spoke out. While what she did didn’t necessarily fit into the box of collective action, like the Feminist Five's actions, Peng still went after a top official. As this Index article highlights, China has space for people to accuse low-level officials but not those at the top and Peng learnt the hard way. 

Another issue that feminists now face is China’s low birthrate, which fell for the seventh year in a row in 2023. Fear is that censorship of feminism will increase as an growing number of Chinese feminists now hold negative views on marriage and childbearing. This is especially true for those identified as “radical feminists”, who are strongly against heteronormative marriage and childbearing. Many believe this was the reason behind the overnight crackdown on eight radical feminist groups in 2021 on Douban, with the officially stated reason being that they “consisted of extremism and radical political ideology”.

One episode of the critically acclaimed feminist podcast Seahorse planet, which discussed resisting the tradition of unconditionally obeying one’s parents, was similarly censored as filial piety is seen as the bedrock of the Chinese patriarchal order – which demands an increasing birthrate. On the flipside you have labels like "leftover women", a negative term that gained traction from 2006 to essentially try and shame women into getting married, which continues to be used on one form or another. Ultimately it’s expedient for the government to pressure Chinese women into having children and they'll ramp up rhetoric that helps that, while curtailing conversations advocating the opposite. 

So is the topic of feminism free to discuss in China? Yes, so long as it's not oriented towards collective-action, it leaves the ruling power of the party-state untouched and doesn’t threaten the birthrate, which doesn’t really leave much to discuss at all, except perhaps sanitary pads and lipstick. 

Jimmy Lai’s “co-conspirators” speak out after being named in Hong Kong trial

The desperation with which the Hong Kong authorities and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party are trying to stifle criticism has reached new levels this week, with fresh developments in the trial of publisher Jimmy Lai.

The 76-year-old Hong Kong-British businessman and publisher has been detained since December 2020. His assets were frozen in May 2021 and his publication Apple Daily was forced to close in June the same year. He has been in prison ever since.

On 18 December 2023, Lai’s long-delayed trial on charges of sedition and collusion with foreign forces began. Lai pleaded not guilty.

Earlier this week, the prosecution presented a list of people they termed as Lai’s co-conspirators.

Among Lai’s alleged co-conspirators are Bill Browder, founder of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign and Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch, along with James Cunningham, former US consul general in Hong Kong and chairman of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation and Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).

Browder and Rogers have dismissed the allegations against them.

Browder told Index this week, “I have never met or spoken to Jimmy Lai and for them to accuse me of being a co-conspirator with him or him with me is a total fabrication. It is just an indication of how illegitimate and trumped up the changes are against Jimmy Lai.”

Browder said that the charges are an indication of how China is “trying to take its authoritarian oppression international by going after people like me who have not set foot in China for 35 years”.

Benedict Rogers told Index that Lai is being punished for “daring to publish stories and opinions which Beijing dislikes; the crime of conspiracy to talk about politics to politicians; and conspiracy to raise human rights concerns with human rights organisations”.

He said, “Jimmy Lai is, as the head of his international legal team Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC puts it so brilliantly, charged with the crime of conspiracy to commit journalism.”

Rogers said his supposed conspiracy with Lai is nothing more than journalism.

“Citing a message from Mr Lai to me, requesting me to ask whether the last governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten would provide a comment to journalists from his newspaper, as evidence of a crime signals that the normal, legitimate, day-to-day work of journalists in Hong Kong is no longer possible. Journalism is not a crime, but in Hong Kong it now is,” he said.

Despite the flimsy nature of the charges against the alleged co-conspirators, Browder said his naming along with others in the court case is “a very real threat”.

“The Hong Kong authorities have come up with the national security law and are saying that Jimmy Lai has conspired with others to violate that law and there are criminal punishments. I can imagine a scenario in which the authorities decide to issue Interpol Red Notices against me, Benedict Rogers, Luke de Pulford and others and request assistance. This is what dictators and authoritarian governments do,” he said.

Browder is no stranger to being singled out by authoritarian regimes abusing the Interpol system.

Browder, through his Hermitage Capital Management fund, was once the largest foreign investor in Russia. In 2005, Browder was denied entry to the country and labelled as a threat to national security for exposing corruption in Russia.

Three years later, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million fraud involving government officials and was arrested, thrown in jail without trial and kept in horrendous conditions. A year later, Magnitsky died.

Browder has since led the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign which seeks to impose targeted visa bans and asset freezes on human rights abusers and highly corrupt officials.

In the time since, Russia has called on Interpol eight times to issue red notices against Browder.

“Interpol has for a long time been the long arm of dictators to pursue their critics and opposition politicians. I have been a poster child of that in relation to Russia. We know that China and other countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, regularly abuse Interpol and Interpol doesn’t seem to have the controls and mechanisms in place for weeding out these illegitimate red notices,” he said.

As a result of Russia’s use of Interpol’s red notices, Browder said that it has closed off 95% of the world for him and that little will change if Hong Kong goes down the same route.

“It won’t change anything for me but will change things for all other people who have been named,” he said.

Browder said the case against Lai is abusive and he should be released immediately, adding: “This needs a robust response from the British Government. You can’t have a bunch of British citizens being threatened for nothing other than expressing their political opinions.”

Before Christmas, the recently appointed foreign secretary and former prime minister David Cameron called on Hong Kong to release Lai. Cameron said in a statement, “Hong Kong’s national security law is a clear breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. Its continued existence and use is a demonstration of China breaking its international commitments.”

Asked whether the new foreign secretary, who has a record of striving for a closer relationship with China from his previous time in office, would be the person to provide that robust response, Browder said: “I think we are living in a different world vis a vis China and I am confident he will do the right thing here.”

Chinese election interference tests Taiwan’s capability to defend freedom of speech

As Taiwan gears up for the presidential and legislative election on 13 January, the Chinese government is also ramping up its efforts to interfere. From sponsored trips to China for local leaders, economic coercion, fake opinion polls, and disinformation campaigns, some analysts say the wide-ranging tactics that Beijing has unleashed will have an impact on the election’s outcome.

In recent weeks, Taiwanese authorities have launched investigations into several cases of individuals attempting to sway voters by inviting local borough chiefs and village leaders on group tours to China. These trips are partially sponsored by local Chinese authorities.

During the trips, participants were allegedly encouraged by officials from China’s propaganda department to vote for political parties and candidates favoured by Beijing. At least one man has been indicted while several others are facing ongoing investigations.

Apart from sponsored trips, Beijing also rolled out coercive economic measures to pressure Taiwan, suspending tariff relief on imports of 12 Taiwanese petrochemical products, and blaming it on the trade barriers enacted by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“Since 2023 is a major year of cross-strait exchange for China, Chinese authorities have devoted a lot of resources to facilitate influence campaigns against Taiwan,” Puma Shen, chairperson of Taipei-based research group Doublethink Lab, told Index on Censorship. “They want to make sure that Taiwanese people feel threatened but also are not too afraid of the influence campaigns from China.”

The most recent example of China’s influence campaign is an investigation into alleged lip-sync by popular Taiwanese rock band Mayday, a practice that is banned for live musicians in China. A Taiwanese security agency internal memo claims the investigation is Beijing’s attempt to pressure the rock band into publicly supporting the position that Taiwan is a part of China.

Shen from Doublethink Lab said Taiwanese people who have huge financial stakes in China, such as artists and businessmen, often become targets of China’s influence campaign. “Even though they are earning money in China, they are more like victims,” he said.

Multi-pronged cognitive warfare

In addition to economic coercion and influencing local politicians, some experts say China has also launched multi-pronged cognitive warfare against Taiwan ahead of the election, amplifying narratives criticising the ruling party through state media outlets and initiating disinformation campaigns on social media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube and Facebook.

Over the last few months, China’s state-run media outlets have repeated the narrative that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is pushing Taiwan to the brink of war with its efforts to pursue “Taiwan independence”. The narrative resonates with criticisms against the DPP by opposition candidates in Taiwan, who have repeatedly accused DPP’s presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te, of being “the golden child of Taiwan independence.”

There are also signs that Chinese state media and online troll groups are amplifying narratives aimed at damaging the image and credibility of the Taiwanese government, including controversial domestic issues such as the de-sinicization of Taiwan’s curriculum and scepticism toward the Taiwanese government’s deepened relations with the USA.

According to Taiwan AI Labs, online troll groups have mirrored narratives promoted by Chinese state media, including the People's Daily, Haiwainet, Xinhua News Agency, Global Times, and China Central Television (CCTV). While there is no direct evidence to prove that China is behind all online troll groups, Taiwan AI Labs said their behaviours fit the criteria of autocratic countries’ interference in democratic elections.

“Since the online troll groups promote narratives about Taiwanese domestic issues and U.S. President Joe Biden and there is a high similarity between the narratives they promote and the narratives preferred by Chinese state media, we can conclude that it fits the methods that autocratic countries use to interfere in democratic elections,” Ethan Tu, the founder of Taiwan AI Labs, said.

Compared to China’s efforts to interfere in previous Taiwan elections, it is becoming harder to determine whether disinformation targeting the upcoming Taiwanese election originates from China or not.

“This time around, it’s very difficult to determine whether the disinformation originates from China or is created by actors within Taiwan,” Chiaoning Su, an associate professor in communication, journalism, and public relations at Oakland University, told Index on Censorship.

In her view, China has built up a better understanding of public opinion in Taiwan and they realise that for efforts of election interference to work, the narratives they amplify need to match the trend in Taiwan’s public opinion.

“The way that China is amplifying social economic issues such as the controversy of lack of eggs or the debate about reducing the amount of ancient Chinese literature in the curriculum shows that their efforts to initiate disinformation campaign are becoming more localised and harder to trace,” Su said.

Shen from Doublethink Lab said one of the main goals of China’s disinformation campaign is to denigrate democracy. “They want to show the Taiwanese public that Taiwan’s democracy is a mess and that while the DPP claims to protect democracy and freedom, in the end, it is not democratic and free at all,” he told Index on Censorship.

Since Taiwan is a democracy that values freedom of speech, Shen thinks Taiwanese authorities need to deal with the threats that come with China’s election interference through ways that will safeguard Taiwanese people’s freedom of expression, by specifically identifying remarks which originate from sources external to Taiwan.

“Otherwise, they will fall into China’s trap,” he said.