By Alvise Armellini
December 15, 2022
ROME, Dec 15 (Reuters) - EU countries are failing to provide a united front against the threat posed by dozens of secret Chinese "service stations" on their soil, a human rights group behind the exposure of the alleged facilities said on Thursday.
Safeguard Defenders, an Asia-focused rights group based in Spain, has published two reports since September, indicating that Chinese authorities have established 102 overseas police stations in 53 countries, including 11 in Italy, the highest number of any foreign nation.
Chinese authorities have characterised the facilities as volunteer-run centres which help Chinese citizens renew documents and offer other services that were disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several governments, including in Canada, the United States and the Netherlands, reacted to the NGO reports with investigations, but a common effort across the European Union is missing, according to the group.
"We have seen no indication that there is a will from various EU governments to coordinate (their actions), and as far as we are concerned this is a great pity, a great mistake," Safeguard Defenders' campaign director Laura Harth said.
Speaking at a news conference in Rome, Harth said her organisation worked with open source data from Chinese media and government sources. "All that we have found is based on what can be found online," she said.
The NGO sees the stations as an extension of Beijing's efforts to pressure some Chinese expats to return to China to face criminal charges. It says such operations are illegal and most likely target dissidents.
In Italy, Safeguard Defenders says China has run "service centres" since 2016, but last week Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said Italian police had found evidence of only two of them, rather than 11.
Responding to a parliamentary question about the NGO reports, Piantedosi said police and intelligence services were on high alert while he was ready to take "sanctioning measures" if any illegal activity was proven.
Harth said Italy and France stand out in having been "weaker in their responses, less transparent on what they are doing", as opposed to other countries who were more prompt with shutting down the stations.
Some Chinese police officers have operated in Italy openly, thanks to a cooperation deal from 2015 that allowed them to take part in joint patrols with Italian counterparts in places like Rome, Milan and Naples.
In 2019, Italy became the first major industrialised nation to sign up to its Belt and Road Initiative - a colossal project designed to improve Beijing's trade reach.
Little has so far come of the pact, and Italy's new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has struck a more hawkish tone on China.