A ruling that went into effect in January by the European Court of Human Rights halting all extraditions to China passed an important test earlier this month when the Italian Supreme Court overturned a decision to extradite a businesswoman to China.

The human rights court had determined that states that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes virtually all European nations except Russia and Belarus, cannot extradite people to China unless the Chinese government can demonstrate that the extradited person will not be tortured or be subject to inhuman and degrading treatment. This shuts down extraditions to a country that does not allow international scrutiny of its penitentiaries, underscoring international concern over the Chinese government’s widening dragnet that tries to bring home dissidents and critics living in exile.

But China still has the capability to tie down its citizens in lengthy legal battles by issuing Interpol red notices — an international alert that requests other countries find and arrest suspects who have fled abroad for extradition or other legal actions — while also deploying an array of illegal tools of repression. Despite Europe’s attempt to close the door on China’s extradition campaigns, Beijing has ratified a spate of new extradition treaties with countries outside of Europe.

In Liu v. Poland, the human rights court, which is based in Strasbourg, France, ruled that extraditing Hung Tao Liu, a Taiwanese man who had appealed his extradition from Poland, would place him at a significant risk of ill treatment and torture. 

The judgment “substantially reduces the chances of extradition of persons to the PRC”, said Marcin Gorski, referring to the People’s Republic of China. Gorski is a Polish professor of law at the University of Ludz who represented Liu in the case.

China alleges Liu led a major telecommunications fraud. In an earlier case, the Spanish government in 2019 extradited 94 Taiwanese citizens to China as part of the same probe. The human rights court’s ruling covers anyone facing extradition to China, whether they are wanted for political reasons or for white-collar economic crimes.

China’s attempts to bring home dissidents and critics who are Chinese citizens living abroad have been intensifying over the past decade in tandem with China’s integration into the global financial system and its emergence as a world power, according to Nate Schenkkan, a senior director of research at Freedom House whose work focuses on authoritarianism.

Beijing has pursued dissidents in all corners of the world, triggering a response from the U.S. The White House has sought to control technology exports that can be used by China to conduct acts of repression while boosting the capacity of domestic law enforcement agencies to deal with the targeting of Chinese dissidents on U.S. soil. Members of Congress have introduced a bill that would define and criminalize transnational repression in federal law.

Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine last year was a wake-up call for Europe to the security threat posed not just by Moscow but by Beijing. But it has been left mostly to courts to protect people from China’s expanding reach.

European officials are failing to take action when it comes to the threat posed by China, often relying too heavily on the legal system to sort out the problem, said Laura Harth, the campaign director at the China-focused organization Safeguard Defenders.

While in many cases it is unlikely that China will be successful in its extradition attempts, the burden of defending themselves means the targets are quickly bogged down in costly legal battles, said Harth.

Europe’s human rights court has come under criticism from governments in recent years, accused of politicizing the domestic affairs of countries in Europe. The U.K. has made attempts to ignore the court’s rulings on granting prisoners the right to vote, and ministers have flirted with the idea of quitting the European Convention in response to the barriers it poses to the U.K.’s controversial plans on national immigration policy.

But for now, the court’s ruling on Chinese extraditions seems to be respected.

A Chinese businesswoman last summer was detained while passing through Italy. She was on her way to collect her kids from a holiday with their father in Greece. China had issued an Interpol red notice for her arrest and then requested her extradition.

Enrico Di Fiorino, a lawyer representing the businesswoman, said the European Court of Human Rights ruling was an important part of her defense and was likely to have played a role in winning the case.

Di Fiorino’s client is now free from extradition in Italy, but if she travels to other European countries, she is still at risk. If an Interpol red notice is issued against her while she is in a country that the Chinese government has an extradition treaty with, she risks being caught up in another lengthy legal battle. Hung Tao Liu, in the Poland case, spent five years in prison while litigating his extradition.

Formal extraditions comprise a small part of China’s larger campaign to silence and intimidate its dissidents into returning home. Coercion and harassment make up the bulk of China’s tactics. In fact, extraditions accounted for just 1% of the overall number of people returned to China. Involuntary returns, which include kidnappings, accounted for 64%.

Dissidents in Europe live in a climate of fear, frequently surveilled while their families back in China are harassed by the state. Several European countries have been investigating these more clandestine operations, most notably the use of overseas police stations, which can be used to silence Chinese dissidents living abroad.

Italy has been accused of hosting 11 overseas police stations. Chinese dissidents in the country are relieved by Italy’s court ruling while still fearful of China’s reach, said Harth.

In December, China ratified extradition treaties with Kenya, Congo, Uruguay and Armenia.

For Reinhard Butikofe, a German member of the European Parliament, this is concerning. But he cautioned that Europe should get its own house in order before European politicians can criticize other countries for cooperating with China’s extradition strategy. “I think before we can credibly approach anybody else, we have to clean up our own act first,” he said.