The Chinese government has stated that the stations were established to provide Chinese nationals in foreign countries with bureaucratic assistance, such as document renewals, and to fight transnational crime, such as online fraud.
However, a recent report by human rights group Safeguard Defenders has alleged that the stations are being used to intimidate Chinese dissidents and criminal suspects abroad into returning to China. The allegations have caused increased scrutiny and investigations of the stations by the governments of host countries.
The first batch of such stations were established in 2016 in six countries. “Volunteers” at the stations reportedly assisted crime victims with dealing with the host country’s police and integrating new immigrants.
Lack of transparency
But a lack of transparency around the relationship between the centers and the Chinese government slowly attracted suspicion.
Safeguard Defenders has alleged that the stations are part of a programme to harass and coerce individuals wanted by the Chinese government, including dissidents, by threats to their families and themselves to head back to China to be detained.
It claimed that between April 2021 and July 2022, the Chinese government recorded 230,000 “suspects of fraud” who were “persuaded to return”. Additionally, the group claimed the stations violated the sovereignty of host countries by allowing Chinese police to circumvent police cooperation rules and procedures.
“These operations eschew official bilateral police and judicial cooperation and violate the international rule of law, and may violate the territorial integrity of third countries involved in setting up a parallel policing mechanism using illegal methods,” read the report named ‘110 Overseas. Chinese Transnational Policing Gone Wild’. The ‘110 Overseas‘ refers to China’s national police emergency phone number – 110.
Alternative policing and judicial system
The use of irregular methods – often combining carrots with sticks – against the targeted individual or their family members in China undermines any due process and the most basic rights of suspects, read the report.
Furthermore, the disregard for the use of proper channels and processes in international relations is blatant. Rather than cooperating with local authorities in full respect of territorial sovereignty, China prefers to cooperate with overseas “NGOs” or “civil society associations” across the five continents, setting up an alternative policing and judicial system within third countries, and directly implicating those organizations in the illegal methods employed to pursue “fugitives”, the report said.
This methodology further allows them to circumvent firmly-set international principles such as the non-derogatory principle of non-refoulement under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Protection of Refugees, or the guarantees established under international mechanisms such as the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Countries order probe
In reaction, some countries including the US, Canada, the UK, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands announced they would investigate the stations on their territory.
England and Scotland have also stated that they will be carrying out an investigation to seek further clarification.
FBI director Christopher Wray said the US is deeply concerned about the Chinese government setting up unauthorised ‘police stations’ in US cities to “possibly pursue influence operations”. Republicans in Congress have requested answers from the Biden administration about their influence.
“I’m very concerned about this. We are aware of the existence of these stations,” Wray told a US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, acknowledging but declining to detail the FBI’s investigative work on the issue.
“But to me, it is outrageous to think that the Chinese police would attempt to set up shop, in New York let’s say, without proper coordination. It violates sovereignty and circumvents standard judicial and law enforcement cooperation processes,” said Wray.
Issue being hyped: China
China’s embassy in Washington acknowledged the existence of volunteer-run sites in the US, but said they were not “police stations” or “police service centers”.
“They assist overseas Chinese nationals who need help in accessing the online service platform to get their driving licenses renewed and receive physical check-ups for that purpose,” said embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu.
“They are not police personnel from China. The US side should stop the groundless hyping of this issue,” Liu said.
Under the guise of corruption crackdown
According to the report by Safeguard Defenders, China’s growing campaign to police Chinese nationals abroad has gone hand in hand with its expanded “anti-corruption” campaign domestically — a pet project of President Xi Jinping.
While it is known that lower value targets are often pursued via “persuaded to return” tactics, the report stated that Beijing’s Sky Net campaign – which includes operation Fox Hunt targeting higher value suspects – surpassed 10,000 successful returns by Christmas 2021, from 120 different countries.
It further stated many of these returned individuals had fled religious and/or ethnic persecution.
The establishment of the overseas police station has come as an addition to China’s surveillance and spying methods that the world has largely remained unaware of. China has a history of carrying out surveillance in Africa, and now it has expanded to other countries as well.
(With inputs from agencies)