Chinese secret police stations around the globe

Report claims Chinese citizens in exile are monitored and coerced by their own authorities

Armed police on patrol in Beijing in 2021
Chinese influence overseas has grown via its ‘One Belt, One Road’ project
(Image credit: Kyodo News via Getty Images)

China has been accused of operating more than 100 illegal “police stations” in dozens of countries around the world in an effort to monitor, harass and coerce its citizens in exile.

A new report from Madrid-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders has revealed the extent of the state-run foreign network, and also that Beijing is being helped by at least some of the host nations.

The revelations have sparked international outrage at a time when the Chinese government is already facing domestic pressure over its draconian ‘zero-Covid’ restrictions.

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How extensive are these ‘police stations’?

Safeguard Defenders tracked forced disappearances through open-source data and official Chinese documents for evidence of alleged human rights abuses to uncover the extent of the overseas network.

Having first revealed 54 such “police stations” in September, its new report, entitled “Patrol and Persuade” and shared exclusively with CNN, identified an additional 48. said it “revealed the scale was much wider than first reported, and that the stations were being run with the assistance of at least some host nations”.

The report examined bilateral security arrangements struck with countries in Europe and Africa and the role that joint policing initiatives between China and several European nations, including Italy, Croatia, Serbia and Romania, have played in piloting a wider expansion of Chinese overseas stations.

What do they do?

China has claimed that the facilities are simply for expatriates who need help with administrative tasks like renewing documents and have been set up largely in response to the pandemic.

However, Safeguard Defenders said they predominantly predate Covid-19 and also serve a “more sinister goal”. Most worryingly, the latest report “cited specific examples of a Chinese national being coerced into returning to China from France and other instances of Chinese nationals being forcibly returned from countries including Serbia and Spain”, Business Insider reported.

“Undeclared consular activities outside of a nation’s official diplomatic missions are highly unusual and illegal, unless a host nation has given their explicit consent”, said CNN.

What has the international reaction been?

The revelations, described by as a “bombshell”, have sparked investigations in at least 13 countries, many of which have “reacted with fury”.

Austria’s interior ministry told the APA news agency that “under no circumstances will we tolerate illegal activities by foreign intelligence services or police authorities”.

According to CNN, Ireland has ordered a Chinese station uncovered on its territory to shut down, as has the Netherlands. Canada, which has a large Chinese population, has issued a “cease and desist” warning to Beijing with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police saying it takes “threats to the security of individuals living in Canada very seriously and is aware that foreign states may seek to intimidate or harm communities or individuals within Canada”.

Senior US officials have also expressed outrage at reports a secret “police station” had been set up in New York. In November FBI director Christopher Wray told lawmakers on the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he was “aware of the existence of these stations” and that he was looking at whether they violated US law.

“To me, it is outrageous to think that the Chinese police would attempt to set up shop, you know, in New York, let’s say, without proper coordination,” he added. “It violates sovereignty and circumvents standard judicial and law enforcement cooperation processes.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, where the Chinese government has reportedly set up three undeclared “police stations” in London and Glasgow, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said such activities “must be stopped”. He stressed that it would be “unacceptable” for any foreign government to attempt to operate security apparatus in the UK.

According to Politico, “one of the two alleged police stations in London is registered as an estate agency, while the venue in Glasgow is a Chinese restaurant”.

However, Italy, which has signed a series of bilateral security deals with China since 2015 and where Safeguard Defenders has determined there are 11 “police stations”, “has kept largely silent during the revelations of alleged activities on its soil”, said CNN.

According to the news network, Italian police conducted multiple joint patrols with Chinese police between 2016 and 2018, with similar agreements struck between China and Croatia.

In 2019 Reuters reported that Chinese police officers were operating in the Serbian capital Belgrade. Serbia has signed up to China’s “One Belt, One Road” project to open up trade links for Chinese companies. As part of the deal Beijing “has extended loans worth billions of dollars to build railways, roads and power plants, mainly using Chinese workers”.

Safeguard Defenders also claimed Chinese police stations have been established in South Africa, and in nearby nations, thanks to a similar arrangement with Pretoria.

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