(CNN) — Beijing has established more than 100 overseas police stations around the world to monitor, harass, and in some cases repatriate Chinese citizens living in exile, using bilateral security agreements reached with countries in Europe and Africa to gaining a widespread international presence, alleges a new report shared exclusively with CNN.
Madrid-based human rights activist Safeguard Defenders says it has found evidence of China operating an additional 48 overseas police stations since the group first disclosed the existence of 54 such stations in September.
Their new finding, dubbed “Patrol and Persuade,” focuses on the scale of the network and examines the role joint policing initiatives between China and several European nations, including Italy, Croatia, Serbia and Romania, have played in piloting a broader expansion of Chinese stations abroad than was known until the organization’s revelations surfaced.
Among the new claims put forward by the group: that a Chinese national was forced to return home by agents working undercover at an overseas Chinese police station in a Paris suburb, recruited expressly for that purpose, in addition to an earlier revelation that two other Chinese exiles have been forcibly returned from Europe, one in Serbia, the other in Spain.
Who runs the police stations?
Safeguard Defenders, which analyzes open-source Chinese official documents for evidence of alleged human rights abuses, said it identified four different police jurisdictions of China’s Ministry of Public Security active in at least 53 countries, spanning the four corners of the world. world, ostensibly to help expatriates from those parts of China with their needs abroad.
Beijing has denied establishing undeclared police forces outside its territory, and its Foreign Ministry told CNN in November: “We hope the relevant parties will stop exaggerating to create tensions. Using this as a pretext to smear China is unacceptable.” Instead, China has claimed that the facilities are administrative centers, set up to help Chinese expatriates with tasks like renewing their driver’s licenses. China has also said the offices were a response to the covid-19 pandemic, which has left many citizens locked up in other countries and outside of China, unable to renew documentation.
When CNN reached out last month to discuss the original Safeguard Defenders allegations, China’s Foreign Ministry claimed that overseas stations were manned by volunteers. However, the organization’s most recent report says that one police network it examined had hired 135 people for its first 21 stations.
The organization also won a three-year contract for a contract worker at an overseas station in Stockholm.
Undeclared consular activities outside of a country’s official diplomatic missions are highly unusual and illegal unless a host country has given explicit consent, and the Safeguard Defenders report claims China’s overseas offices predate the pandemic for several years.
His reports have sparked investigations in at least 13 different countries so far and have ignited an increasingly heated diplomatic fight between China and countries like Canada, home to a large Chinese diaspora.
China is not the only superpower accused of using extrajudicial means to achieve targets for law enforcement or political persecution abroad.
Russia, for example, was twice accused of deploying deadly chemical and radioactive substances on British soil to try to assassinate its former spies, accusations that Russia has always denied.
In the United States, the CIA was embroiled in a scandal over the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects from the streets of Italy to Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.
However, the suggestion of a large-scale crackdown on Chinese citizens in foreign countries comes at a crucial time for a nation facing its own unrest at home, amid fatigue over China’s restrictive zero-covid policy. country, as leader Xi Jinping’s third term in power gets underway. China last week indicated it would loosen some of its pandemic restrictions, three years after the start of covid-19.
As the world’s second-largest economy, China has developed deepening relationships with many of the countries where the new police stations have allegedly been found, raising uncomfortable questions for national governments balancing commercial interests with security. National security.
China signs police patrol deals with countries
Italy, which has signed a series of bilateral security agreements with China over successive governments since 2015, has remained largely silent over revelations of alleged activities on its territory.
Between 2016 and 2018, Italian police conducted multiple joint patrols with Chinese police, first in Rome and Milan, and then in other cities, including Naples, where at the same time, Safeguard Defenders says, they found evidence of a security system being added. video surveillance to a Chinese residential area apparently “to effectively deter crime there.”
In 2016, an Italian police officer told NPR that joint surveillance “would lead to broader international cooperation, information sharing and resource sharing to combat criminal and terrorist groups that afflict our countries.”
The NGO determines that Italy has hosted 11 Chinese police stations, including in Venice and in Prato, near Florence.
Italian police officers attended a ceremony in Rome to mark the opening of a new station in 2018, according to videos posted on Chinese websites, demonstrating the close ties between police forces in the two countries.
Earlier this year, the Italian newspaper La Nazione reported that local investigations at one of the stations had not uncovered any illegal activity. Il Foglio quoted police chiefs as saying recently that the stations did not present any particular concern as they appeared to be merely bureaucratic.
Italy’s foreign and interior ministries did not respond to questions from CNN.
China also signed similar joint police patrol agreements with Croatia and Serbia between 2018 and 2019 as part of the nation’s growing strategic footprint on the path of Xi’s foreign policy definition, dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Chinese agents were seen on a joint patrol with their Croatian counterparts on the streets of the capital Zagreb in July this year, Chinese media reported.
A Zagreb police officer interviewed by Xinhua said the patrols were essential to “protect and attract foreign tourists.”
A 2019 Reuters report indicated that Chinese agents had joined Serb agents on patrol in Belgrade to help deal with the influx of Chinese tourists. A Serbian official pointed out that the Chinese did not have the power to make arrests.
Safeguard Defenders also says that the Chinese stations were able to establish themselves in South Africa and nearby nations thanks to a similar agreement with Pretoria, in place for years.
China began laying the groundwork for closer police ties with South African law enforcement nearly two decades ago, and then established a network of what are officially called “Overseas Chinese Service Centers” in cooperation with the government of South Africa thanks to successive bilateral security agreements.
The Chinese consulate in Cape Town has said the plan “unites all communities, both South African and foreign in South Africa.”
Since its establishment, the framework “has been actively preventing crimes against the community and significantly reducing the number of cases,” the consulate said, while noting that the centers are non-profit associations without “law enforcement authority.” ”.
Chinese media have frequently featured South African government officials expressing support for the centers and saying their work has helped police deepen their relationship with Chinese expatriates living there, according to a 2019 report by the Jamestown China Brief. .
CNN has contacted the South African Police Service but has yet to hear back.
China tries to return people against their will
Safeguard Defenders encountered police networks while trying to assess the scale of China’s efforts to persuade some of its people to return to China, even against their will, which, according to official Chinese data, could number almost a quarter of a million. of people around the world during Xi’s time in power.
“What we see coming from China are increasing attempts to suppress dissent around the world, threaten people, harass them, make sure they are scared enough to stay silent or face being sent back to China against of their will,” said Safeguard Defenders campaign director Laura Harth.
“It will start with phone calls. They might start intimidating their relatives in China, threatening them, doing whatever they can to persuade overseas targets to come back. If that doesn’t work, they’ll use covert agents abroad. They will send them from Beijing and use methods like lure and trap,” Harth said.
The French Interior Ministry declined to comment on the allegation that a Chinese national was forced to return home by a Chinese police station in a Paris suburb.
Reports spark anger and investigations
The revelations have sparked outrage in some countries and conspicuous silence in others.
Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Homeland Security commission that he was deeply concerned by the revelations. “It’s outrageous to think that the Chinese police would try to set up, you know, in New York, let’s say, without proper coordination. It violates sovereignty and circumvents standard judicial and police cooperation processes,” he stated.
Ireland has closed the Chinese police station on its territory, while the Netherlands, which has taken similar measures, has an ongoing investigation, as does Spain.
Harth told CNN that the organization will probably find more stations in the future. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“China does not hide what it is doing. They expressly say that they are going to expand these operations, so let’s take it seriously. This is a time when countries need to consider that it is about upholding the rule of law and human rights in their countries for both the people of China and everyone else around the world,” he said.