The ‘service centres’ are often run from innocuous locations – such as Chinese restaurants or convenience stores
By Simina Mistreanu; Helen Chandler-Wilde and Berny Torre
September 14, 2022
China has opened unofficial police stations in London as part of a growing network of Communist Party-linked offices accused of hunting down and blackmailing Chinese citizens to force them to return home.
Chinese authorities have established 54 “overseas police service centres” around the world in the last few years, according to a new report, as Beijing seeks to expand Chinese powers abroad.
The “110 overseas service stations”, named after the national police emergency phone number in China, were established by local public security bureaus in China, initially as part of an effort to target telecom fraud abroad.
But the growth of the informal police stations come as China is accused of harassing political dissidents on foreign soil, including in the UK. There is no evidence the “police stations” have been used for this purpose.
They are operated by Chinese community associations in various countries, according to a report released this week by Safeguard Defenders, a non-profit organisation.
Centres run from innocuous locations
The police “service centres” are often run from innocuous locations – such as Chinese restaurants or convenience stores, or the offices of business associations.
One of the two police “service” stations in London is registered as an estate agency. Another one based in Glasgow is a Chinese restaurant.
The Telegraph visited the estate agency in north London, which denied any links. But they said the office is also used by a legal firm. Its website says it deals predominantly with Chinese immigration issues.
Another food delivery office in Croydon said to be part of the network also denied links when visited by a reporter.
The stations are ostensibly meant to help Chinese people abroad with paperwork, such as extending Chinese driver’s licences and official documents. But state media reports show some of the centres have been involved in collaborating with Chinese police to carry out operations abroad.
The stations are ostensibly meant to help Chinese people abroad with paperwork
“In general, these stations have both a good and a bad purpose,” Peter Dahlin, director of Safeguard Defenders, told The Telegraph.
“They are there to help say Chinese tourists who get into trouble, they can act as a liaison with the local police, they can help out, basically. The problem is they are not properly registered as [agents for the police] in these different countries.
“This is all taking place under the radar, outside of the view of in this case the British people and the British police, targeting the Chinese diaspora.”
Thirty-six such stations have so far been opened in 16 European countries, including France, Spain, Britain and Germany. Fewer “service” police stations have been opened in the Americas, Asia and Africa.
Some of the stations have been found to help Chinese police conduct so-called “persuasion sessions” remotely, the non-profit said.
In one example documented by Chinese media, a police “service” station in Madrid tracked down a man wanted in China for environmental pollution and had him sit down for a video call with public security agents and a prosecutor from China’s Zhejiang province.
An unofficial Chinese police station in Barcelona, Spain
A family member of the man was asked to sit next to the Chinese authorities in China during the call – a move that can be interpreted as a thinly veiled threat.
Other examples of possible blackmail listed by Safeguard Defenders are authorities threatening to cut electricity to the homes of families back home, or restricting access to public schools for relatives.
Chinese government ‘avoids legal proceedings’
By using the police “service” stations instead of following formal extradition proceedings, the Chinese government “manages to avoid the growing scrutiny of its human rights record”.
It also avoids the difficulties faced in obtaining the return of “fugitives” through legal proceedings, the Safeguard Defenders report said.
“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,” it added.
When contacted on the phone by The Telegraph, a worker from one of the police “service centres” in London said the organisation can help overseas Chinese extend their Chinese driver’s licences and arrange required health checks for documents.
Some of the community associations that operate the police centres are tied to the United Front Work Department, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party that seeks to influence the Chinese diaspora.
The “110 overseas service stations” are just one aspect of what the non-profit describes as “a massive nationwide campaign to combat the growing issue of fraud and telecommunication fraud by Chinese nationals living abroad.”
As part of this effort, Chinese authorities claim that between April 2021 and July 2022, they “persuaded” 230,000 nationals to return to face criminal proceedings in China.
Most of the cases were tied to telecom fraud in Myanmar and other Southeast Asian nations.
The Home Office said any requests for repatriation of suspected foreign criminals must be made in accordance with UK and international law. Illegal repatriation efforts will not be tolerated, it added.