At least four countries, including Canada and Spain, are probing offices operated by Chinese law enforcement agencies in their territories, after reports exposed their extensive presence and alleged covert policing activities overseas.
Ostensibly established to help Chinese nationals with administrative procedures, such as the renewal of their passports or driving licenses, these unofficial police service stations are being used to hunt down Chinese criminal suspects and dissidents overseas, according to reports by a human rights advocacy group and news outlets.
The existence of these stations was reported by Spain-based NGO Safeguard Defenders in September, which found that the security bureaus of the Chinese cities of Qingtian and Fuzhou had opened 54 “overseas service centers” in 25 cities across 21 countries.
They are connected to a wider Chinese campaign to combat transnational crimes, such as online fraud that have proliferated in Cambodia and Myanmar. According to Chinese official statements, authorities pressure suspects to return home to face justice through a number of coercive methods, such as suspending government subsidies for suspects’ families, barring their children from schools, and freezing their properties.
The Chinese government said 230,000 nationals had been “persuaded to return” to face criminal proceedings in China from April 2021 to July 2022. According to the report, the overseas stations play a part in that by tracking down suspects overseas and forcing them to give in.
“We have committed fraud in Myanmar. We have now returned to the embrace of our motherland to accept reeducation,” a group of Chinese detainees shouted in unison, in a viral video posted by provincial authorities in Jiangsu on Chinese social media last year to demonstrate China’s successful crackdown on crime.
But the rights group called into question the legality of these mechanisms. “These operations eschew official bilateral police and judicial cooperation, violate the international rule of law, and may violate the territorial integrity of third countries by setting up a parallel policing mechanism using illegal methods,” the Safeguard Defenders said in its report.
More alarmingly, it isn’t just suspects of fraud and telecommunications crimes who could be targeted. There are concerns the stations, whose scope of activities remain unknown, could also be used to silence Chinese activists and critics.
“The justification is to bring back people who are corrupt or participating in fraud. But there are existing mechanisms for this already. So it’s not clear why this kind of shadow structure has to be set up,” Alexander Dukalskis, an associate professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin, told VICE World News.
“The system can be abused to target dissidents, activists and ethnic minorities like Uyghurs or Tibetans abroad, which we have ample evidence that the Chinese government harasses, threatens, monitors and generally intimidates through a lot of different channels,” he added.
Dutch broadcaster RTL Nieuws and the investigative journalism outlet Follow the Money on Tuesday reported on the existence of two stations in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The Rotterdam office’s staff reportedly includes a former member of the Chinese military.
Wang Jingyu, a Chinese dissident who was granted asylum in the Netherlands in April, told the outlets he received calls from someone who claimed to be from the Chinese police station in Rotterdam and repeatedly urged him to return to China.
Wang said he also received threatening messages and calls from unknown numbers, as part of a harassment campaign he believes was orchestrated by Chinese agents. “I thought I was safe here, but they follow me everywhere,” he said in an interview with RTL.
The Dutch foreign ministry said it is investigating reports that China set up police stations in the country.
“What is correct is that the Chinese government never informed us about the centers via diplomatic channels, so that makes them illegal to begin with,” spokesperson Maxime Hovenkamp said on Wednesday.
China denied it runs illegal police stations overseas. Asked on Wednesday about reports of Chinese police stations in the Netherlands, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said they are “overseas Chinese service centers” to help nationals who cannot return home due to the pandemic.
But an official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Shanghai acknowledged the stations are used to catch Chinese suspects overseas. “The bilateral treaties are very cumbersome and Europe is reluctant to extradite to China. I don’t see what is wrong with pressuring criminals to face justice,” he told the Spanish outlet El Correo last week.
Other countries are also looking into their operations. Ireland recently ordered the Chinese embassy to shut a “police service station” in Dublin, whose presence it was not notified of.
In the UK, the Chinese Research Group of members of parliament urged authorities to launch an investigation into claims of Chinese police stations in the country.
“As a matter of urgency – the Home Office must launch an investigation into the activities of these police stations and whether they are illegally operating in the UK,” the group said.