Beijing has set up more than 100 so-called overseas police stations around the world to monitor, prosecute and in some cases repatriate Chinese nationals living in exile, using bilateral security arrangements with European and African countries in an effort to establish itself widely internationally. A new report shared the allegations exclusively with CNN.
Madrid-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders says it has found evidence that China has operated a further 48 police stations abroad since the group first revealed 54 such police stations in September.
His new release, titled Patrol and Persuade, focuses on the scale of the network and examines the joint role of policing initiatives by China and several European countries, including Italy, Croatia, Serbia and Romania, in China’s attempted broader expansion. overseas stations than was known before the organization’s revelations.
Among the new claims made by the group were that a Chinese national was forced to return home to a Chinese overseas police station in a Paris suburb by undercover officers recruited specifically for the purpose, in addition to two other Chinese exiles previously revealed. were forcibly returned from Europe – one in Serbia, the other in Spain.
Safeguard Defenders, which collects open-source official Chinese documents in search of evidence of alleged human rights abuses, said it had identified four different police jurisdictions under China’s Ministry of Public Security operating in at least 53 countries spanning all four corners of the globe. to help expatriates from those parts of China meet their needs abroad.
Beijing has denied operating an undeclared police force outside its territory, and its Foreign Ministry told CNN in November: “We hope that the relevant countries will stop making this a source of tension. It is unacceptable to use it as a pretext to defame China. Instead, China said the facilities were administrative centers set up to help expatriate Chinese with tasks such as renewing their driver’s licenses. China also said the offices were a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has left many citizens locked up in other countries and locked out of China and unable to renew their documents.
When contacted by CNN last month about the initial Safeguard Defenders allegations, China’s foreign ministry said the overseas stations were staffed by volunteers. But a recent report by the organization said one police network it studied had hired 135 people in its first 21 posts.
The organization also awarded a three-year contract to an employee hired at an overseas station in Stockholm.
Undeclared consular activity outside of a country’s official diplomatic missions is highly unusual and illegal unless the host country has given express consent, and a report by Safeguard Defenders said China’s overseas offices were several years old before the pandemic.
Their reports have so far prompted investigations in at least 13 different countries and fueled an increasingly heated diplomatic row between China and nations such as Canada, which has a large Chinese diaspora.
China is not the only superpower accused of using extrajudicial measures for law enforcement or political persecution abroad.
For example, Russia has twice been accused of deploying deadly chemical and radioactive materials on British soil to kill its former spies, allegations Russia has always denied.
In the United States, the CIA became embroiled in a scandal over the extraordinary transfer of terror suspects from the streets of Italy to Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.
Still, the proposal for a wide-ranging crackdown on Chinese citizens abroad comes at a crucial time for a nation grappling with its own unrest at home, fatigue from the country’s restrictive zero-covid policy as leader Xi Jinping begins his third term in power. . Last week, China indicated that it would lift some of the pandemic restrictions three years after the start of COVID-19.
As the world’s second-largest economy, China has forged deeper ties with many countries that have reportedly installed new police stations, raising uncomfortable questions for national governments about balancing commercial interests with national security.
Italy, which since 2015 has signed bilateral security agreements with China under successive governments, has remained largely silent when suspected activities on its territory have been revealed.
2016-2018 Italian police have carried out several joint patrols with Chinese police, first in Rome and Milan, and later in other cities, including Naples, where at the same time, Safeguard Defenders said, they found evidence of a video surveillance system attached to the police. A Chinese residential area ostensibly “to effectively deter crime there.”
in 2016 An Italian police official told NPR that joint police work “will lead to wider international cooperation, information exchange and resource sharing to fight criminal and terrorist groups that harm our countries.”
The NGO found 11 Chinese police stations in Italy, including in Venice and Prato, near Florence.
According to videos published on Chinese websites showing close ties between the police forces of the two countries, in 2018 one ceremony in Rome dedicated to the opening of a new station was attended by Italian police officers.
Earlier this year, Italian newspaper La Nazione reported that local investigations into one of the stations had not revealed any illegal activity. Il Foglio quoted police chiefs as saying recently that the stations are not of particular concern because they appear to be purely bureaucratic.
Italy’s foreign and interior ministries did not respond to CNN’s questions.
China also entered into similar joint police patrol agreements with Croatia and Serbia in 2018-2019 as part of the country’s growing strategic footprint under Xi’s foreign policy, dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese officials were spotted with their counterparts from the Croatian capital Zagreb on the streets of Zagreb back in July this year, Chinese media reported.
A Zagreb police officer interviewed by Xinhua said the patrols are necessary “to protect and attract foreign tourists”.
in 2019 A Reuters report said Chinese officials had joined Serbian officers patrolling Belgrade to help combat the influx of Chinese tourists. One Serbian official noted that the Chinese had no power to arrest.
Safeguard Defenders also says Chinese stations have been able to establish themselves in South Africa and nearby countries because of a similar agreement with Pretoria that has been in place for years.
China began laying the groundwork for closer police ties with South African law enforcement nearly two decades ago, and later established a network of what it officially calls “overseas Chinese service centers” in cooperation with the South African government on successive bilateral security arrangements. .
The Chinese consulate in Cape Town said the plan “unites all communities in South Africa, both South African and foreign nationals”.
Since its inception, the system has “proactively prevented crime in the community and significantly reduced the number of cases,” the consulate said, noting that the centers are non-profit associations with no “law enforcement authority.”
Based on 2019 According to the Jamestown China Brief, Chinese media have often featured South African government officials expressing support for the centers and saying their work has helped police deepen relations with Chinese expatriates living there.
CNN reached out to the South African Police Service but did not immediately receive a comment.
Safeguard Defenders has been caught in police nets trying to assess China’s efforts to persuade some of its people to return to China against their will, which according to official Chinese figures could amount to nearly a quarter of a million people. Xi in power.
“What we’re seeing from China is more and more attempts to stifle dissent around the world, to threaten people, to harass people, to make sure they’re scared enough to keep quiet or go back to China against their will. Laura Harth, director of the Safeguard Defenders campaign, said.
“It will start with phone calls. They may start to intimidate your relatives back in China, threaten, do whatever it takes to persuade the targets abroad to come back. If that doesn’t work, they will use secret agents abroad. They will send them from Beijing and use methods like luring and entrapment,” Harth said.
France’s interior ministry declined to comment on allegations that a Chinese national was forced to return home to a Chinese police station in a Paris suburb.
These revelations caused great outrage in some countries and silence in others.
Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Homeland Security Committee that he was deeply concerned by the revelations. “It’s unbelievable that the Chinese police would try to set up shop in, say, New York without proper coordination.” It violates sovereignty and bypasses standard judicial and law enforcement cooperation processes,” he said.
Ireland has closed a Chinese police station found on its territory, while the Netherlands, which took similar measures, is investigating, as is Spain.
Harth told CNN that the organization will likely find more stations in the future. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“China does not hide what it is doing. They make it clear that they intend to expand these operations, so let’s take it seriously.
“This is a moment when countries have to think that this is an issue of the rule of law and human rights in their countries, both for people from China and for everyone else around the world,” she said.