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Beijing Covers Up After China’s Overseas Police Spy Stations Are Exposed

By William Echols

November 4, 2022

A Chinese overseas police station reportedly operating without the knowledge of the country's Interior Ministry, in Budapest, Hungary, on October 27, 2022. (Anna Szilagyi/AP)

On November 1, the Netherlands ordered China to immediately shutter clandestine police stations operating on Dutch soil. Dutch authorities said an investigation is under way to determine the exact nature of the stations’ activities.

Days earlier, Ireland also ordered China to shut down a “police service station” operating in Dublin. And investigations into China’s overseas policing activities are happening elsewhere as well, thanks to an expose by the Spanish human rights organization Safeguard Defenders alleging the operations are illegal.

On November 2, a journalist from Agence France-Presse asked Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian about the matter, noting the Dutch government said Beijing had never asked permission to open police service stations in the Netherlands.

Zhao denied that China was operating such stations on foreign soil:

“[T]he sites you mentioned are not ‘police stations’ or ‘police service centers.’ They assist overseas Chinese nationals who need help in accessing the online service platform to get their driving licenses renewed and receive physical check-ups for that purpose.”

That is misleading.

Zhao asserts that the centers are solely intended to “assist overseas Chinese nationals” with documents and other administrative actions. But evidence from Safeguard Defenders argues they are part of China’s broader effort to bring home dissidents and accused criminals under China’s “persuasion to return policy.”

The Chinese Embassy in Rome, Italy on October 27, 2022. China has reportedly established dozens of “overseas police stations” in around the world that could be used to track and harass dissidents. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Existence of the stations — sometimes called 110 Overseas, after China’s emergency phone number — was revealed in September. Safeguard Defenders said China runs at least 54 such stations in “dozens of countries across five continents.”

Although Chinese overseas assistance centers have existed without an extraterritorial policing role, Safeguard Defenders said that starting in 2018 they took on the “more sinister goal” of cracking down on alleged criminal activity and dissident behavior “involving overseas Chinese.”

Safeguard Defenders said the impetus was China’s desire to track down individuals accused of financial and telecommunications fraud, specifically in “nine forbidden countries,” including Myanmar and Cambodia, where Chinese nationals were believed to be engaged in such activities.

However, the group said most of police service stations are in Western democratic nations, particularly in Europe, not the “nine forbidden countries.”

And Safeguard Defenders said Chinese authorities provided “direct evidence” of the centers' involvement in coercing Chinese nationals to return home.

The group described the case of a suspect identified as Liu residing in Spain. Liu was wanted in connection with environmental pollution in China. In that case, Chinese authorities operating in Spain and China worked together to see that Liu would eventually surrender in Qingtian, a county in southeastern Zhejiang province.

“Following the success of the operation, Ji Yongjun, a full-time member of the Procuratorate Committee of Qingtian County and chairman of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese (ACFROC), was quoted to have said that ‘the procuratorate will launch a quick mechanism for handling cases involving overseas Chinese,’ ” Safeguard Defenders said.

Spanish newspaper El Correo reported that video evidence confirms the Chinese prosecutor's office worked with ACFROC and the Qingtian Overseas Chinese Association in Spain to intimidate Liu, with a relative present, through one of the three Madrid police service centers.

El Correo said it had verified that two Madrid-based businesses mentioned by Safeguard Defenders cooperated with Chinese police.

Speaking with El Correo, an official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Shanghai, who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the operation.

"Bilateral treaties are very cumbersome, and Europe is reluctant to extradite [to] China. I don't see what's wrong with pressuring criminals to face justice with all the guarantees contained in Chinese law," El Correo reported the source as saying, including the claim that “only legal means are used.”

But Safeguard Defenders said the activity “violate[s] the international rule of law and may violate the territorial integrity of third countries.” Safeguard’s report said:

“In eschewing regular cooperation mechanisms, the [Chinese Communist Party government] manages to avoid the growing scrutiny of its human rights record and the ensuing difficulties faced in obtaining the return of ‘fugitives’ through legal proceedings such as formal extradition requests. It leaves legal Chinese residents abroad fully exposed to extra-legal targeting by the Chinese police, with little to none of the protection theoretically ensured under both national and international law.”

Separately, the Dutch-language outlets Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws, said at least two police stations had been opened in the Netherlands since 2018.

The two identified stations, in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, were used to pressure dissidents to return home. Wang Jingyu, a Chinese dissident, told the Dutch news platforms that the Rotterdam station had urged him “to go back to China” and to “think about” his parents.

As with other Chinese repatriation efforts, Safeguard Defenders said, “collateral punishment” against the family members of dissident and alleged criminal suspects is a key part of the “persuasion to return” operation.

Safeguard Defenders outlined one such case in Mozambique:

“On April 11, 2022, an ‘110 Overseas’ notice was received from Mozambique by the Yangxia Police Station, with a businessman reporting that one of his employees had stolen a large amount of cash from the company before fleeing back to China in 2020.

“Upon receiving the notice, the police station immediately took to investigate and arrested the suspect on 18 May. When the suspect confessed to the existence of an accomplice, ‘Yu,’ the police quickly identified Yu and immediately mobilized to persuade him (to return) after confirming that he was still in Mozambique. After being persuaded to return, [Yu] decided to cooperate with the police and fly back to China from Mozambique.”

“According to another official source on this case, the local police ‘contacted Yu’s relatives back in China and urged them to persuade Yu to surrender as soon as possible’ and, meanwhile, ‘directly got in touch with Yu and told him relevant laws and policies’, making Yu give in.”

The Safeguard Defenders’ report noted that on May 23, 2019, China's People's Public Security News published an article that “expressly references the overseas centers’ role in the 'collection of overseas Chinese sentiments, public opinions and policy information push,’ as well as its global policing efforts under Operation Fox Hunt.” previously reported on Operation Fox Hunt, a controversial anti-corruption program to force purported overseas “fugitives” to China.

Fox Hunt entails dispatching global teams of Chinese fugitive hunters to persuade individuals to return to China, or forcibly take them, Safeguard Defenders said. The operations are at times carried out without notifying or coordinating with the government of the country where the target lives.

Fox Hunt has been absorbed into a larger program called Sky Net, which expands the range of measures to target corrupt officials and others abroad. Safeguard Defenders said the goal is to crack down on money laundering, fake passports and seizing the illegal income of those who have left China.

The problem, Safeguard Defenders said, is that:

“Abandoning any pretext of due process or the consideration of suspects’ innocence until proven guilty, targeting suspects’ children and relatives in China as “guilty by association” or “collateral damage,” and using threats and intimidation to target suspects abroad, is now itself becoming an endemic problem.”

Safeguard Defenders cited a range of sources for its report, including government documents and announcements along with Chinese state media coverage of the policing efforts.

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