A growing number of governments are launching investigations into alleged clandestine Chinese police stations operating in their countries.
It follows a series of investigations by the Spanish human rights organization, Safeguard Defenders, which put a spotlight on the alleged overseas policing operations.
On December 22, Japan announced it was investigating reports China was secretly operating police stations on Japanese soil.
Two days before, South Korea announced a similar investigation, following earlier probes in Europe and North America into China’s alleged covert policing activities abroad.
A journalist from South Korea's Yonhap News Agency asked Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning about Beijing’s alleged covert overseas policing stations on December 22. Mao denied the reports.
“China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, strictly observed international law, and respected the judicial sovereignty of all countries. The so-called ‘overseas police stations’ simply do not exist.”
That is misleading. While China may contest the allegations, several of the so-called "police service stations" were apparently set up without the knowledge of the host countries. That, Safeguard Defenders argues, makes them illegal.
In an earlier report, published in September, Safeguard Defenders revealed the existence of what it called 54 clandestine police stations, sometimes called 110 Overseas, after China’s emergency phone number, operating in "dozens of countries across five continents."
That report was substantiated by a range of sources, including Chinese government documents and announcements along with Chinese state media coverage of the policing efforts to combat telecom fraud.
Spanish newspaper El Correo, and the Dutch-language outlets Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws, further helped corroborate the allegations with their own investigations.
That prompted Ireland and the Netherlands to order China to shutter the reported stations on their territories.
Safeguard Defenders also published a follow-up report, revealing what it says were an additional 48 Chinese Overseas Police Service Stations, along with the 54 previously reported on, “bringing the total to 102 with an overall claimed in-country presence in 53 countries.”
Safeguard Defenders’ previous report had traced the clandestine policing activities back to local police jurisdictions, known as public security bureaus, in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. Safeguard Defenders said, “The vast majority of the newly documented stations were established in two newly discovered local Chinese jurisdictions: Nantong and Wenzhou."
While central authorities do not directly run the police stations, Safeguard Defenders said that some statements and policies” indicate the central government is stepping up its role in encouraging the establishment of such stations.
China has previously said these places are not involved in clandestine policing activities, but rather aid in administrative tasks for Chinese nationals abroad, like helping with the renewal of driver’s licenses, and providing other services interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Safeguard Defenders argues the majority of the new stations “have been set up starting in 2016,” refuting China’s claims the “operations started in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The rights group further says the establishment of such posts without permission from the host countries, even if they are only providing consular services, “represents a severe breach of territorial and judicial sovereignty.”
For example, when the Netherlands ordered the closure of the alleged police stations in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Dutch foreign minister noted, “No permission was sought from the Netherlands” to set them up. China had said the centers were offering diplomatic assistance.
In their report, Follow The Money and RTL Nieuws said the posts were used to harass Chinese dissidents.
The reports from Safeguard Defenders further indicate China’s “persuasion to return” campaigns are run through these alleged stations.
This dovetails with Operation Fox Hunt, Beijing’s controversial anti-corruption program to force purported overseas “fugitives” to return to China.
Allegedly, these operations are at times conducted without notifying or coordinating with the government of the country where the target lives.
Members of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority living abroad have also reportedly being subject to campaigns of Chinese state-sponsored intimidation, including attempts to compel them to return home.
In its most recent report, Safeguard Defenders uncovered evidence that an overseas police station in Aubervilliers, an area in Paris, was involved in a "persuasion to return" operation.
According to the report, the station, set up by the Overseas Chinese Federation and public security officials from Zhejiang province in 2018, was headed up by Hu Renai, founder of the Sino-French Garment Industry Chamber of Commerce.
“In October 2019, I was also entrusted by the domestic public security organs to help persuade a criminal who had been absconding in France for many years to return to China through many visits,” Safeguard Defenders cites Hu as telling Chinese media in October 2021.
An official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Shanghai, speaking on condition of anonymity, seemingly confirmed China’s policing operations abroad to Spain’s El Correo newspaper, arguing they helped overcome bureaucratic hurdles.
"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.”
In their reports, Safeguard Defenders said Chinese nationals elsewhere, including Serbia and Spain, had also been persuaded to return to China.
Sometimes China works in conjunction with other countries to carry out these persuasion operations. Safeguard Defenders reports that “official stations involving central government bodies are also being established across Asia and Africa with the cooperation of host governments.”
Safeguard Defenders has criticized those governments for being complicit in helping those repatriation efforts to China “without regard for internationally established standards of due process and protection mechanisms.”
For example, Italy, which signed several security agreements with China, including a “2015 Ministry of Public Security bilateral agreement on joint police patrols,” reportedly hosts 11 clandestine Chinese police stations.
“To date, despite having the largest number of liaison outposts on its soil, the Italian government is among the very few European countries that has not yet publicly announced an investigation into the Chinese Overseas Police Stations or declared their illegality,” Safeguard Defenders reported.
On December 19, Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, said the country would stop letting China participate in joint police patrols on its territory. But earlier, Piantedosi said a joint patrol act between the countries had no relation to China running police service stations on Italian territory.
Then, on December 23, an Italian lawmaker said "an investigation has been launched to look into the issue."
In a separate investigation, Newsweek reportedly identified nine confirmed or suspected Chinese proxy police stations and courts operating in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.