Self-kidnappings by Chinese Students Abroad: Mystery Solved

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Self-kidnappings by Chinese Students Abroad: Mystery Solved

The puzzle presented by these incidents can only be understood in the context of China’s police brutality and growing transnational repression.

Self-kidnappings by Chinese Students Abroad: Mystery Solved
Credit: Depositphotos

One of the most baffling news items in recent years has been the cases of Chinese students abroad who effectively kidnap themselves for ransom. They leave home, even tie themselves up with ropes, all on the orders of Chinese cyber-criminals – who are not even there with them

They may be asked to put bags on their heads, or to cry on camera. They are invariably made to take kidnapping selfie pictures or videos of their suffering. The criminals then use these to blackmail their parents into depositing ransom money to bank accounts in China. 

Occasionally, the criminals mix in threats of pending arrest, or extradition back to China, as would-be punishment for alleged fraud or other crime said to have been committed by the students or their families. Invariably, the victims are told to cut off all contact with their family and the outside world, and to perform for the camera. Sometimes this is framed as necessary to help the consulate or the police with their “investigations.” There is no logic – except that of perceived power.  

During the last few years, a long series of incidents along these lines have involved Chinese students in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States – all destinations where Chinese parents with a lot of money send their children to study. 

It’s easy to see that this creates an opportunity for criminal fraudsters. The basic scheme of the student kidnappings forms part of a wider array of phone scams, and the peculiar niche of student scams seem to have perpetrators moving from country to country, perhaps as media attention disrupts their chances of success.

But why do all these Chinese students allow themselves to be kidnapped by telephone, and even go on to stage the crime themselves? How should we understand this phenomenon?

One of the most recent examples occurred in December 2023, when Kai Zhuang, a 17-year-old Chinese student in the U.S. state of Utah, obediently carried out his own kidnapping following instructions delivered by phone, from criminals specializing in this new kind of remote cyber-kidnapping.

Kai was in the U.S. as a high school student; it is common among Chinese middle class and society’s elite to send even their younger children to study abroad. Chinese criminals called him up, apparently posing as representatives of the Chinese authorities, and claimed that his family back home in China was in danger. Kai must now obey their commands, they insisted, and not tell anyone. He was told to buy a tent and go camping in the woods in wintery Utah, and take pictures of himself there.

Kai’s parents back home in China then learned that the son had been kidnapped in the United States, and that they had to pay a ransom. The family paid the kidnappers the equivalent of $80,000. But they also told the Utah high school about the purported kidnapping, and local police managed to find the tent and rescue the boy. 

In another case, in Australia, a wealthy Chinese father paid 2 million Australian dollars (US$1.3 million), to save his daughter, supposedly kidnapped and in grave danger. But she was later found by Australian police, safe and sound, watching TV in a hotel room. The criminals were nowhere to be found. 

In fact, the perpetrators almost always operate remotely, so they are rarely, if ever, apprehended. Very few cases have been reported with actual kidnappers present; one other case in Australia included a story about criminals tasering a student and holding him in a car trunk, but this could easily have been made up as part of the fraudster’s invented stories. The cyber-kidnappings clearly are different from “ordinary” kidnappings and abductions that deploy physical violence.

Still, the emotional toll on targeted students is sometimes severe, with some victims requiring hospitalization. Occasionally the cyber-criminals demand the students harm themselves or strip naked, to enhance the impact of the photo selfies and videos. And because of the shame involved, these cyber-kidnapping crimes are almost certainly underreported.

In regard to the cyber-kidnappings, local police in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere have issued statements urging foreign students to trust them (the local police in the host country) and ask for help instead of accommodating the kidnappers. But the problem is not only that the cyber-kidnappers explicitly forbid such contacts, but also that the criminals often claim to be the police – the Chinese police, that is.

And this is where it gets really interesting. Why would educated young Chinese believe such things? Why would they agree to bind themselves with rope or tape, and take fake pictures of themselves in distress, on the orders of such fake police, or officials, who aren’t even present?

One Australian police officer observed, “Unfortunately, on all the cases we’ve seen, the victims legitimately believe they are speaking to Chinese officials and that the threats will occur if they don’t comply.”

The FBI in the United States issued a warning that wisely noted how criminals involved in these schemes may convincingly pose as Chinese police, complete with official phone numbers, arrest warrants, and the like. But even this warning fails to grasp the key point. The grim reality is that Chinese students actually have reason to fall for such scams.

First of all, almost everyone in China assumes that the police and authorities are corrupt. The never-ending series of forced confessions that are regularly broadcast on Chinese television shows how citizens who have been “disappeared” by the police turn up after several months, only to smear themselves with implausible confessions – before and outside any trial. 

As the victims denounce themselves in these scripted and staged sessions, it’s obvious to audiences that they have been coerced by the police and the state media. The victims have no recourse, and must simply obey. Everyone understands that everything about those broadcasts is fake – but the shameless actions of the Chinese regime and police are very real. 

The most famous case is that of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who was kidnapped from Thailand in 2015. Gui is currently languishing in Chinese prison and denied consular access and legal aid; there has been no sign of life for over four years now. Gui actually holds the record of the most forced confessions (three); most victims vanish after just one.

It is also widely known that police torture is endemic in China. The most striking public example in recent months was when the Caixin newspaper published a detailed investigative article about how the Chinese citizen Sun Renze was brutally tortured to death in Xinjiang. Sun wasn’t even a criminal suspect, just a potential witness, but he was killed by police torture, including by way of simulated drowning (waterboarding). 

The article was taken down by the censors after only 10 minutes, but by then it had already been widely circulated. It confirmed for Chinese audiences what they already knew: the Chinese authorities face no accountability.

Add to that how in recent years the Chinese state has set up its own police stations in some 50 countries – including Australia, the United States, Canada and Sweden – with the task of monitoring Chinese abroad, intimidating them or even forcibly returning them to China. Often the stations have been set up without permission, but Chinese representatives nevertheless openly defend them, saying that the legal procedures in the West are “too complicated,” so their police work takes too long. (Despite this, there have not been many repercussions.)

Sometimes the Chinese police show up for a sting operation, uninvited by the host country. Chinese TV audiences could recently watch a special program showing how a planeload of police was flown to Fiji, where they seized and then forcibly repatriated 77 Chinese citizens – an operation the Fijian government was not even informed about. No extraditions, no legal procedures – and all showcased openly.

People in China see all this, including even the ominous news about the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, and they draw their own conclusions. The grim reality is that it might very well happen that Chinese police suddenly decided to harass you, regardless of whether you are in Australia or in the United States, and regardless of whether you’ve done anything wrong.  

In this perspective, the Chinese students no longer appear as naive, and the incidents aren’t “bizarre,” as often claimed in Western media headlines. 

On the contrary, the students are being realistic: They simply can’t know if it is really the Chinese police or the Chinese consulate calling and instructing them to tape their legs together and put plugs in their mouths – or if it is some scammer convincingly impersonating those same authorities. 

In a series of incidents in Vancouver, Canada, which exclusively targeted young women from China, one of them indeed recognized the phone number of the Vancouver Chinese consulate on her phone as the extortionists called. 

Australia’s federal police at one point slipped into victim-blaming, saying the kidnappings were partly due to the victims’ own excessive “trust in authorities and fear of doing the wrong thing.”

This is wrong. These Chinese students have a rational fear of their own country’s authorities, which cannot easily be distinguished from professional criminals. The Chinese authorities, their consulates, and their police have earned this reputation, and continue to build it though a regime of fear and intimidation. They are not government authorities or police that are responsible to their own people; in fact, they only report to the Communist Party and its bosses. 

The Australian police statement gives an indication of how little the police in Australia and elsewhere have understood their Chinese “counterparts.” Of course, they share this failure with many other democratic countries that have long suffered from excess credulity toward the Chinese regime. Some countries even invited Chinese police in to patrol their streets (like South Africa and others; Italy halted this troubling practice in 2022). Now it seems we’re waking up

Actually, the Chinese students could teach us a thing or two about China. 

Off the record, of course.