Beijing says Toronto locations are ‘services stations’ to renew licenses – but China watchers say they monitor and pressure country’s diaspora
By Leyland Cecco in Toronto
November 7, 2022
The allegations came after a string of cases around the world in which China has been accused of overstepping to persecute its citizens far beyond its borders. Photograph: Cole Burston/AP
At a strip mall convenience store sandwiched between a hotpot restaurant and hair salon on the outskirts of Toronto, a clerk serves a steady flow of customers on a drizzly autumn morning.
In an office park a few miles away, a travel agent sorts through passports, arranging visas and booking tickets for her Chinese clientele.
And on a quiet street in a nearby suburb, a resident has grown frustrated that he and his family have been roped into an international row over a supposed network of clandestine Chinese police stations.
“I don’t know what this is all about,” the man said. “There’s some kind of mistake. We have nothing to do with this. Look around. This is just a house.”
All three addresses have been linked to a purported network of unsanctioned and illegal Chinese “police stations” around the world, used to exert pressure on exiles and expatriates.
The allegations came after a string of cases around the world in which China has been accused of overstepping diplomatic and legal norms to persecute its citizens far beyond its borders.In a report released last month, the Madrid-based NGO Safeguard Defenders detailed 54 alleged Chinese police stations around the world, prompting authorities in a number of countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, to launch police investigations.
One of the three noted foreign police station locations in the greater Toronto area, a convenience store. Photograph: Cole Burston/AP
“It’s crazy how brazen they’ve become with these operations,” said Laura Harth of Safeguard Defenders. “The message from the ministry of foreign affairs – that you are not safe anywhere, that we can find you and that we can get to you – is very effective.”
The operations are linked to police in Fuzhou, a city in China’s Fujian province, said Harth, and are set up in close cooperation with the United Front work department, an organization in Beijing that monitors and attempts to influence Chinese nationals abroad.
In most countries the “stations” consist of individuals with ties to China’s security agency or intelligence network. Ireland is so far the only country where the police station was explicitly advertised as such.
“In most cases, it seems to fly under the radar, which obviously makes sense, given the activities they’re involved in,” said Harth.
The alleged aim of the stations is to force citizens to return home to face China’s justice system. In June, China’s vice-minister of public security, Du Hangwei, said that in the past year the government had “persuaded” 210,000 people to return to face charges for telecom fraud.
Recently unsealed documents from a New York court provide a glimpse into the extent to which China is alleged to have engaged in a foreign interference campaign. In one case, a Chinese citizen living in Canada was pressured to return to China to face charges of embezzling nearly C$380,000 (US$280,000) in public funds.
In the court document, the US alleges the pressure campaign is related to China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and Operation Fox Hunt, a sprawling campaign against members of the diaspora which has been used to target corruption and dissent.
The allegations – and a recent incident in which a diplomat attacked protesters outside the Chinese consulate in the British city of Manchester – further underscore the escalation of tactics used by the Chinese government against the pro-democracy movement abroad.
China’s embassy in Canada denied that the locations were staffed by police officers, but nonetheless confirmed the addresses, describing them as “services stations” where expatriates can renew driver’s licenses and access other services.
“For services such as driver’s license renewal, it is necessary to have eyesight, hearing and physical examination. The main purpose of the service station abroad is to provide free assistance to overseas Chinese citizens in this regard,” the embassy said in a statement, adding that the stations’ staff were volunteers and “not involved in any criminal investigation or relevant activity”.
But no one at the three known addresses in Toronto said they knew about the existence of the “services stations”. The travel agent rents space within two units occupied by the Canada Toronto Fuqing Business Association, which has also denied any knowledge of the police stations.
The allegation that Chinese police officers are operating on Canadian soil is likely to raise tensions once again between Ottawa and Beijing, a year after the two countries ended their standoff after the arrests of the Huawei executive Meng Wenzhou in Canada and the Canadian businessmen Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China.
“It’s an outrageous and brazen intrusion on Canadian sovereignty – especially since Beijing has admitted that these stations exist and has confirmed their locations,” Michael Chong, a Conservative lawmaker and foreign affairs critic, said. “And the establishment of these illegal police stations is a symptom of a much deeper problem.”
The Chinese government has interfered in democracies for years, he said, pointing to allegations of election interference in Canada’s most recent federal election, as well as instances in which Uyghur people, Tibetan students and Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in Canada have faced harassment.
Chong, who is barred from visiting China because of his outspoken criticism of Beijing, said Canada’s federal government needed to “haul in ambassador [Cong Peiwu] for a démarche” – or official diplomatic reprimand – and demand an explanation for the “violation of international law”.
Chong called on the government to review the accreditation of all Chinese diplomats in the country, to ensure they are not involved in the operation, as well as the immigration status of anybody working out of the offices who is involved in “intimidation operations”.
“Beijing doesn’t think democracies are capable of standing up to the authorities of Beijing on their own soil. And that has to end,” Chong said.
The federal government has not publicly commented on the police stations and the RCMP has said little, only confirming the existence of an investigation.
But for dissidents, the revelations only confirm their perception that China has grown increasingly brazen.
The inside of one of the buildings listed as linked to a network of secret Chinese police stations in Toronto. Photograph: Leyland Cecco
Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China said that the alleged police stations marked an escalation in Beijing’s tactics.
“There have been telephone calls in the middle of the night that family members won’t find work if you don’t cooperate with the government, or that your parents’ phone number will be posted online and they’ll be harassed. Or with Uyghurs, that the rest of your family will be put in camps,” he said. “[But] the physicality of this – that there are actual locations – is alarming. This is simply a visible kind of landmark for the coercion, harassment, that has long existed.”
The RCMP says it has advised residents to contact police if they experience harassment by a foreign government. But Cheuk said he and others have repeatedly asked the federal police force to intervene in cases of harassment and intimidation only to be told the issues are best dealt with by local police, or even police back in China.
“They would just tell us this was a family feud or something that didn’t merit investigation,” he said. “And that’s the most insidious part of this, the naivety [of the federal police] – of them not taking it seriously for so long.”