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The authorities in Beijing are so eager to silence critics of the regime that they are now video-calling dissidents in other countries to try and pressure them to toe the party line. And they’re doing it while sitting next to members of the dissidents’ families.
That’s what happened to an activist in her early 20s based in Melbourne, Australia, who used the pseudonym Horror Zoo to protect her identity.
Even though she never revealed her real identity online, authorities in Beijing still managed to track down her parents, and began harassing them in April, trying to get them to force their daughter to stop criticizing President Xi Jinping.
Targeting the families of overseas dissidents is nothing new for the Xi regime, but then Zoo got a video call from a policeman who was at the time sitting next to her father.
“Let me tell you: You need to remember you are a citizen of the People's Republic of China,” the policeman said, according to a video of the call taken by Zoo and broadcast in Australia by SBS News.
“You are not in the country, but remember, if China wasn't great and strong, you would have no status,” the policeman said. “I’m telling you the truth, although you are [in Australia], you are still governed by the law of China, do you understand?”
"You can record this call but let me make it clear to you, what you are putting out on Twitter is absolutely not permitted," he added.
This is just the latest episode in a months-long campaign against Zoo, who is an outspoken critic of Xi on social media, and has helped organize rallies in Melbourne to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and highlight the plight of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.
Last month she also took part in a high-profile Zoom conference organized by Zhou Fengsuo, the founder of the U.S. nonprofit Humanitarian China and a student leader at the Tiananmen protests in 1989.
The conference became infamous after Zoom appeared to bow to pressure from Chinese government officials and shut down the accounts of several of those taking part, including Zhou.
He says that the harassment Zoo is facing is “real and pervasive” but not unexpected among dissidents, but that Zoo’s bravery is speaking out is unique.
“The CCP has been holding families hostages against overseas Chinese, weaponizing family relationships,” Zhou told VICE News. “I admire her courage for speaking up. This year alone, I have known many cases like this, but most of the others chose to stay silent.”
While Zoo’s parents were being harassed prior to the online meeting, the harassment has ramped up since the conference took place.
“After the conference, the police printed out my Twitter posts and sent them to my parents, and told them I was against the CCP,” Zoo told VICE News last month. “After this meeting, the harassment is getting worse.”
Zoo’s father is a well-known CCP scholar who teaches philosophy at a university, and he has been urging his daughter to stop her online criticism of the government.
“My dad is very angry with me,” Zoo said. “He wants me to go back [to China] and turn myself in.”
But she knows she can never return. “I can’t go back, if I go back, I will be in prison,” Zoo said.
As well as her parents being harassed on a weekly basis and her Twitter activity being monitored, Zoo says someone tried to hack into her Apple account. She received an alert telling her about attempts to log into the account from somewhere in China.
And even though she is in Melbourne, she doesn't feel safe. Zoo told VICE News that an unknown Chinese man was at a Melbourne rally last month taking pictures of all the people in attendance.
Zoo says she doesn’t know how the authorities in Beijing were able to unmask her anonymous online identity in the first place, suggesting they may have been able to track her IP address or possibly force someone close to her to reveal her identity.
But despite the constant harassment, Zoo says she has no intention of backing down. “I think I should be brave and I should tell the truth to the world.”