Tahir Imin knew that romances sometimes end. So he did not expect the long arm of global authoritarianism when the woman he had been planning to marry broke things off in March.
Perhaps he should have.
He had fled China’s oppression of Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority, in 2017. From his new home in Washington, D.C., he spoke out about Beijing’s indoctrination camps and systems of control, which he and the U.S. government have called a genocide.
Threatening messages flooded in, some from people identifying themselves as the Chinese police. He got word that his mother and brother were arrested on spurious charges, a common occurrence for family of Uyghur activists abroad.
But Mr. Imin persisted, starting a Uyghur rights organization. He fell in love with a Uyghur exile living in the United States. Just after she ended things, Chinese authorities accused Mr. Imin of aiding a separatist group.
“Later she called me and said, ‘Today I will tell you why I left you,’” he said. She had gotten a call from her parents in China, who said the police were with them and had ordered them to ask her for information on Mr. Imin’s dealings.
“I realized that my relationship with you would harm my parents, so it’s best to cut it off,” he recalled her as saying.
“I said that I got it,” he said. “These kinds of things happen all the time.”
And not just to Chinese Uyghurs. Authoritarian governments large and small are increasingly reaching beyond their borders to intimidate, kidnap and kill troublesome émigrés.
In just the past two weeks, Belarus forced a civilian airliner to land in its territory, arresting a journalist on board. Turkish spies grabbed a citizen living in Kenya whose uncle is a prominent dissident, bundling him off to Turkey. And Hong Kong authorities pressured an Israeli web hosting company to shutter the website of democracy activists in London.
“There are just not a lot of safe spaces anymore,” said Alexander Cooley, a Columbia University political scientist who studies what scholars call transnational repression.
“It’s becoming much more routine,” Mr. Cooley said. “Just bolder and bolder.”
Refugees, exiles and dual citizens who speak out are facing forcible rendition on trumped-up charges. They are summoned to their home embassies, never to return. They are hacked, threatened, tarnished by disinformation.
Freedom House, a rights group, has recorded 608 such incidents since 2014 — a number that researchers consider the tip of the iceberg — conducted by 31 governments. The operations reached into at least 79 countries, including nearly all of Europe.
In this way, authoritarians do more than silence critics and whistle-blowers. They send a message that no one is beyond their grasp, pressuring whole diasporas to stay quiet.
With a handful of exceptions, border-crossing dictators have faced little consequence, seemingly confirming that authoritarianism’s jurisdiction now extends even into the cities and suburbs of the supposedly free world.
A New Playbook
Repression has always crossed borders. A Soviet assassin killed Leon Trotsky, leader of a breakaway faction, in Mexico in 1940. During the Cold War, both sides routinely helped allied governments capture or kill dissidents abroad.
But the American-led war on terrorism opened a new era. Washington, partnering with some of the world’s most oppressive states, sponsored the rendition of dozens of suspected terrorists and targeted many more with drone strikes. The Americans insisted that this was a global war, in which sovereignty and citizenship would have to be set aside.
The campaign set a norm of governments crossing one another’s borders to sweep up supposed terrorists — a label that dictators quickly applied to separatists and activists.
Also in the 2000s, a series of so-called color revolutions in former Soviet states led an increasingly authoritarian Russia to cooperate with regional governments in targeting one another’s democracy movements. It established many methods that would later be deployed globally.
Then came the Arab Spring democracy protests of 2011. Many had been organized online, including by swarms of everyday citizens living abroad.
Rising migration means that diasporas are larger. And yet they are nearer than ever. Social media and smartphone penetration allows them to shape day-to-day discussion back home, challenging governments’ control of information and public sentiment.
In response, authoritarians have set out to coerce overseas communities almost as aggressively as they did those at home.
For all the attention on Russian operations like poisoning a former spy in small-town Britain or China’s sweeping persecution of Uyghurs abroad, researchers say that the leading trendsetter has been Turkey.
After an attempted military coup there in 2016, state agents began scooping up Turks abroad connected with an exile dissident group, seizing 80 people in 18 countries, officials claimed. Turkey repeatedly pushed the United States to deport the group’s leader, Fethullah Gulen.
Turkey also flooded Interpol — an agency that distributes arrest warrants internationally — with names of overseas nationals it accused of terrorism. Many appeared to have been targeted for association with the Gulenists, who also run schools and businesses.
Still, a number of governments complied. Kosovo deported six, all teachers, sparking outrage there. Turkey has trumpeted the campaign as a major success.
“Once they saw that they could get away with it, it became a standard operating thing,” Mr. Cooley said. Other countries quickly followed.
“It’s not just Russia and it’s not just China. It’s Rwanda, Turkey. It’s Tajikistan,” he added. “It’s become a much more standard part of the playbook of autocrats in smaller and middling powers.”
Authoritarianism Without Borders
Seemingly every few months, another government adopts new methods of cross-border repression, expanding the reach of global authoritarianism.
Last fall, a Rwandan activist, portrayed in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” for saving hundreds from genocide, vanished after flying from Chicago to Dubai. He reappeared in handcuffs in Rwanda. Critics accused the government of kidnapping him and fabricating terrorism charges to silence a political rival.
Such cases often hint at broader campaigns. Rwandans in Europe and the United States frequently report receiving threats, including of harm to family in Rwanda, for criticizing the country’s government.
Many also say they are targeted by propaganda that inspires waves of online harassment — a growing tactic worldwide. Though hardly a danger as grave as kidnapping, it’s diffuse enough to compel everyday émigrés to think twice before speaking out.
Increasingly, despots use the machinery of foreign law enforcement to repress without resorting to assassination or rendition.
Some report the passports of journalists or activists who live abroad as stolen, leading host countries to deport them.
Others leverage economic and political ties. Several countries that have deported Turkish nationals have close links with Turkey’s government. China pressured Egypt to deport about a dozen Uyghurs living there, and Thailand to deport about 100.
Mostly, they upload dubious charges to Interpol, hoping that pliant or disinterested officials somewhere will comply. Often, they do. Thai police arrested a Bahraini political exile while he was vacationing in Thailand. American immigration authorities jailed a Russian exile for more than a year, having revoked his visa over Russian accusations of money laundering.
In the Freedom House study, over half of recorded incidents included some allegation of terrorism, often through Interpol.
As authorities learn to check twice when foreign despots claim terrorism, warrants often cite money laundering instead.
The airliner diverted over Belarus, Mr. Cooley said, indicated how far norms had been stretched.
“It’s not happening in isolation,” he said. “It’s a result of pushing the envelope in so many different ways that something like this becomes contemplated.”
So was, he argued, the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist whom government operatives killed and dismembered after luring him to a consulate in Istanbul.
Both drew heavy international condemnation. But most incidents do not.
“There are just very few repercussions,” Mr. Cooley said. As the number of cases grow, he added, global inaction amounts to “a very clear green light.”
A Green Light
Last week, Mr. Imin, the Uyghur activist, posted a photo online of himself with other volunteers. A few days later, one of the people in the photo, who is based in a Western European country, called him in a panic.
The police had visited her parents, who live in China, and said she was involved in dangerous political activities. Her parents called her to plead with her to stop. She had no choice, she told Mr. Imin.
“This is a very common story,” he said. Diaspora Uyghurs, he said, often receive panicked phone calls from home or threatening messages from the Chinese police that cite a recent meeting they attended or social media post.
The message is clear: So much as have coffee with the wrong person, or say the wrong thing online, and your family may pay dearly.
“People will say, ‘I really want to do something, but if I speak up, my brother and sister will be put in prison,’” he said.
This may be the greatest impact of cross-border repression: the millions of overseas citizens who must live with a degree of fear. Each incident sends a message that they will never be wholly free of the restrictions and dangers of home.
“A single killing or rendition sends ripples throughout a huge circle of people,” the Freedom House report states. Even disinformation or harassment campaigns “create an atmosphere of fear among exiles that pervades everyday activities.”
Diasporas like Mr. Imin’s are learning that, even in the United States, they are often on their own.
“I still get messages from people who say they know me, they know my secrets,” he said. Some claim to be calling from his hometown, a veiled threat to harm friends and family.
Such calls are familiar in his circles now, he said. “It has become part of our lives.”