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China's offshore police 'service stations' fuel human rights concerns

Outposts seen serving intimidation campaigns against exiled activists

By KATSUHIKO MESHINO, Nikkei senior staff writer

December 11, 2022

TOKYO -- Chinese cities including Fuzhou and Qingtian have been quietly setting up "police service stations" outside the country, from Tokyo and New York to Amsterdam, ostensibly to offer assistance to compatriots living overseas.

Those outposts have come under the spotlight as concerns grow over their role in human rights violations against those who have fled China.

The increased scrutiny also comes as protests against strict zero-COVID measures have spread among overseas Chinese as well. While the government says the stations are not official police facilities, a lack of clarity on their actual operations has only fueled suspicion.

Human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders published a report in September, saying Fuzhou police announced in January that the Chinese city's Public Security Bureau had opened 30 of them across 21 countries.

The tally has grown since. Chinese state media reported that the Fuzhou police had opened 38 such stations as of late June.

The Qingtian county police had also opened service stations in 21 cities across 15 countries as of 2019.

Safeguard Defenders also added Jiangsu's Nantong and Zhejiang's Wenzhou to the list of localities with such stations in a report released in early December.

These operations initially drew little interest from the international community. But the Safeguard Defenders report raised the alarm, especially in Europe.

The Netherlands deemed stations in Amsterdam and Rotterdam illegal and ordered their closing. Ireland requested a service station in Dublin to be shut down. The U.K. and Canada are planning to look into their operations.

Undeclared activity by Chinese police on foreign soil can be considered a violation of the host country's sovereignty. European authorities are concerned that the stations are being used to harass Chinese activists in exile.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies that these stations are tied to law enforcement activities. They are instead run by local Chinese volunteers to help other local Chinese with administrative tasks, like renewing their Chinese driver's licenses, it claims.

Still, a bulletin from the Public Security Ministry suggests that they actually cover much more ground. A vaguely worded list of the Qingtian stations' responsibilities included monitoring public opinion among local Chinese, notifying them of policies, studying complex issues, and other overseas security measures.

Qingtian police have also stated publicly that one of the stations' purposes is to convince criminals to return home to China. The Communist Party launched Operation Fox Hunt in 2014 to repatriate corrupt public servants who had fled abroad. It has also cracked down hard on cross-border online scam rings in recent years. In other words, the authorities have increased monitoring of certain nationals overseas.

A total of 210,000 people accused of fraud were persuaded to return to China in 2021, Vice Public Security Minister Du Hangwei told reporters in Beijing this April.

The issue is that many who return to China are believed to have been more coerced than convinced. A Safeguard Defenders report from January shed light on China's campaign to repatriate activists and others flagged for political reasons by the Communist Party. Pro-democracy activists and Uyghurs in exile have long spoken out about threats to their friends and family back home.

Individuals have been detained overseas and forcibly returned to China as well in recent years.

Take the case of Dong Guangping, a human rights activist from Zhengzhou who fled to Thailand in 2015. Despite being granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he was detained while awaiting resettlement to Canada at an immigration detention center in Bangkok, according to the Safeguard Defenders report. He was later forcibly returned to China -- a violation of international norms by both the Thai and Chinese authorities.

Dong was released from Chinese prison in August 2019. He fled again in January 2020, this time to Vietnam, and was granted permission by Canada to join his family there. But he has been missing since late August. His family fears that he may have been taken to China once again.

Among the questions the Safeguard Defenders report raises is why local police in places like Fuzhou and Qingtian have been so brazen in carrying out operations that may well break international law.

The police operations may tie into the dynamic between local and central Communist Party officials. © Reuters

In Fuzhou's case, the local leadership could be acting in response to central government criticism of Fuzhou police over the number of online fraudsters in the city. Meanwhile, Qingtian has touted the overseas service centers as "innovative," suggesting that the goal is more to show off its work to Beijing.

From the "reform and opening up" era in the 1980s, top local Communist Party officials prioritized economic performance over everything else to impress their superiors. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took over as party leader in 2012, however, more emphasis has been placed on results elsewhere, forcing local officials to change tack. The extensive overseas police operations of Fuzhou and Qingtian can be seen as part of this shift.

They can also be viewed as an overseas extension of a sort of dynamism shown in recent years by the Chinese police, whose focus on innovation in security has given rise to the nation's extraordinary artificial-intelligence-powered surveillance system.

How involved is China's central Communist Party leadership is with the overseas policing effort, and have local authorities outside Fuzhou and Qingtian made similar moves?

Judging from responses by the Foreign Ministry and a publication affiliated with the Ministry of Public Security, the central leadership is not entirely unaware of the situation. Less clear is how much they have actively encouraged it or provided funding or personnel.

Whatever the case may be, the release of the Safeguard Defenders report is likely to make future efforts to appeal to Beijing less overt -- or could just obscure matters further.

Fuzhou officials have also opened a service station in Tokyo, according to Chinese media.

Authorities in Japan have had no particular reaction. Incidentally, repeated phone calls to the number listed for the service station have gone unanswered. Perhaps key to facing China is to not let what's opaque stay opaque.

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