Hometown associations are community based groups of people from the same town in China, and are connected to the hierarchy of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, which runs outreach and influence operations both in China and overseas.
One of the key operations the service centers are involved in is the “persuasion to return” process, in which pressure is brought to bear on activists overseas using threats and retaliation against their loved ones back in China.
“In the mere fifteen months between April 2021 and July 2022 alone … a staggering number of 230,000 Chinese nationals were returned to face potential criminal charges in China through these methods, which often include threats and harassment to family members back home or directly to the target abroad either through online or physical means,” Safeguard Defenders said.
The “persuasion to return” campaign was rolled out as a pilot project across 10 provinces in 2018, and official guidelines include denying targets’ children the right to an education in China, or targeting their family members for harassment.
“The combination of an absolute absence of minimal judicial safeguards for the target and the association by guilt methods employed on their families, as well as the illegal methods adopted to circumvent official international cooperation mechanisms and the use of United Front Work-related organizations abroad to aid in such efforts, pose a most grave risk to the international rule of law and territorial sovereignty,” the report found.