By Nick Schifrin and Teresa Cebrian Aranda
May 18, 2023
The FBI arrested two Chinese nationals in New York last month, accusing them of running a secret police station to watch and intimidate Chinese dissidents living overseas. There are more than 100 of these stations around the world that researchers say Beijing uses to silence its critics. Nick Schifrin and producer Teresa Cebrián Aranda report.
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Amna Nawaz: The FBI arrested two Chinese nationals in New York last month, accusing them of running a secret police station to watch and intimidate Chinese dissidents living overseas. There are more than 100 of these stations around the world that researchers say Beijing uses to silence its critics. Nick Schifrin and producer Teresa Cebrian Aranda reports.
Nick Schifrin: Nearly 6,000 miles from Beijing, on a quiet street in Madrid, a nondescript office claims to offer assistance for Chinese citizens. But the reality is more shadowy. A Chinese dissident leads us to what he calls the source of Chinese repression that begins with an invitation. Yuan Lee, Chinese Dissident in Madrid (through translator): Here, it says we should be careful with telecommunications fraud, that if you receive a suspicious message, you should get in touch with the Chinese Embassy.
Nick Schifrin: But Yuan Lee says the only suspicious messages came from Chinese authorities and were sent in order to silence.
Yuan Lee (through translator): I am sure they did a systemic campaign against me led by these Chinese associations. And now we know there are secret police stations hidden inside Chinese associations.
Nick Schifrin: When the pandemic began, he created a YouTube channel to expose what he calls the truth about the Chinese Communist Party. And he appears on far right Spanish TV, what some call Spanish FOX News.
Yuan Lee (through translator): I had a rebel opinion, because I think everyone is a victim of Chinese communism. We have to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable. It withheld information by censoring doctors who blew the whistle on COVID and threw journalists in jail.
Nick Schifrin: In response to that criticism, he says these posters circulated on Chinese social media calling for him to — quote — "drink tea," that is, submit to interrogation by Chinese officials. He says he received death threats and his family back in China was intimidated.
Yuan Lee (through translator): My sister called and asked, "Brother, what did you do? Because the police came to our house with many police vans. They came in and asked: 'Where's Yuan Lee? When is he coming back?'" My mom was also arrested. She spent three days in jail.
Nick Schifrin: This association is in a residential neighborhood and your Madrid's Chinatown. It was closed when we filmed, but, inside, a photo the Chinese county Chinese county Qingtian, which is in the office's name, the General Qingtian Association in Spain. International researchers say, in 2021, the association worked with Chinese mainland police to question a Chinese entrepreneur, as seen in this video posted by Chinese officials. Beijing says he was — quote — "persuaded" to return to China to face charges.
Yuan Lee (through translator): There are many dissidents in Madrid. And many of them ask me, what can we do to protect ourselves, for instance, in the case of an extradition? Because this could happen to any of us. The Chinese Communist Party controls all Chinese associations.
Nick Schifrin: The association Web site says its police stations — quote — "protect the rights and interests of overseas Chinese." And Chinese state Qingtian launched police stations in 11 countries, including Spain.
Laura Harth, Safeguard Defenders: Beijing is quite explicit in what its attempts are when it conducts its transnational policing or transnational repression activities. It wants to control the overseas communities, but, to a larger extent, also, it wants to control the narrative worldwide about the Chinese Communist Party, about the People's Republic of China.
Nick Schifrin: Laura Harth is the campaign director with Safeguard Defenders, the human rights group that first revealed Beijing's covert police stations using open-source Chinese documents. They found more than 100 Chinese police outposts in 53 countries set up by authorities from four Chinese regions.
Laura Harth: These are stations, centers that have not been declared to the host governments where these are operating.
Nick Schifrin: And, as far as you can tell, how extensive, how expansive is this effort across the globe?
Laura Harth: Really, these stations are the tip of the iceberg of what is a massive, massive campaign to really crack down on dissent around the world.
Nick Schifrin: Xi Jinping has targeted critics both inside China and overseas. He's portrayed his efforts as a way to fight crime and corruption. Hu Xijin, Former Editor in Chief, Global Times: The so-called human rights organization Safeguard Defenders…
Nick Schifrin: Beijing's advocates argue they have every right to target Chinese overseas. Hu Xijin is the former editor in chief of the Communist Party-aligned tabloid Global Times.
Hu Xijin: Most countries have supported and cooperated with China's pursuit of fugitives. The accusation made by Safeguard Defenders is an old-fashioned way by demonizing Thailand by calling criminals fleeing overseas as political dissidents. Breon Peace, United States Attorney For Eastern District of New York: We cannot and will not tolerate the Chinese government's persecution.
Nick Schifrin: But now countries are exposing Chinese tactics. Last month, the United States attorney for New York's Eastern District revealed federal charges that accused Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping of running a police station in New York's Chinatown on behalf of China's Ministry of Public Security, or MPS.
Breon Peace: The MPS officers who have been charged today are not focused on preventing crime. Rather, the complaints charge these MPS officers with engaging in transnational repression schemes.
Jie Lijian, Chinese Dissident (through translator): When I arrived in the United States. I thought that there would be fewer threats, but it feels like the Chinese Communist Party is everywhere in this country. And the threats are very severe.
Nick Schifrin: Jie Lijian is a prominent Chinese pro-democracy activist living in Los Angeles, where Safeguard Defenders found another police station. He criticizes Chinese human rights abuses and the silencing of Chinese doctors who blew the whistle on COVID. He fled China in 2018 after being arrested and he says tortured in a psychiatric hospital for advocating for better labor rights. He says, in California, Chinese agents record his protests, and worse. He says he's been attacked five times and was once stabbed.
Jie Lijian (through translator): In my home, my windows have been destroyed. These threats and harassment have brought me to a dark place. As victims, we experience tremendous psychological pressure and a deep sense of oppression that is difficult to express. They work very efficiently. For example, if we hold protests, even before they end, Chinese agents will have visited some of their homes and threatened and intimidated their families.
Nick Schifrin: Senior FBI officials believe the same actors who physically intimidate also intimidate online. On Twitter, Jie received death threats. This message says: "I will shoot and kill Jie Lijian." Social media researchers say Beijing uses bots to target Chinese critics with thousands of messages. Last year, Google removed more than 50,000 accounts made by a Chinese influence operation. Researchers believe the same operation imitated Safeguard Defenders to try and conceal their reports.
Laura Harth: The Chinese authorities are not completely stupid. They will prefer to do as much of this as possible through online means, because that does kind of insulate those Chinese actors, agents, if you will, from accountability.
Nick Schifrin: But activists including Yuan Lee say their messages won't be obscured. He says he hopes to build his own association that protects, not targets, dissidents.
Yuan Lee (through translator): I can no longer take a step back. This is my face. And I hope this personal sacrifice that I made will be worth it.
Nick Schifrin: But, even as countries crack down, activists know that Beijing is still watching. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.