China has a police network that stretches across some 30 countries, NGO says

“MuiTypography-root-225 MuiTypography-h1-230″>China has a police network that stretches across some 30 countries, NGO says

The Madrid-based nongovernmental organization Safeguard Defenders says that China has an extended police network in dozens of countries around the world, with the goal of coercing criminal suspects to return home to China. Beijing doesn't deny they exist, but says they are legitimate and used for legal purposes.

The WorldNovember 21, 2022 · 3:00 PM EST

This address is listed on an official police website back in China as an “Overseas Police Service Center,” but the locale appears abandoned. 

Gerry Hadden/The World

Dutch police have arrested a man suspected of working for an alleged illegal police network run by the Chinese government.

Human rights groups say the arrest could be just the tip of the iceberg. Safeguard Defenders, a Madrid-based nongovernmental organization, said that a Chinese police network is active in some 30 countries around the world. And the group says its goals are to coerce criminal suspects to return home to China — while silencing dissent overseas.

The Chinese government doesn’t deny the network exists. But it says that it's lawful, and sometimes helps “persuade” legitimate criminal suspects to return to China to face trial. The government even boasts of their success rate. China’s Ministry for Public Security claims police have persuaded some 230,000 suspects — most of them alleged telecom scammers — to return home voluntarily between April 2021 to July 2022.

What the ministry doesn’t disclose, however, is its methods. Human rights activists say that Chinese authorities use coercion and threats to pressure people to return.

“It’s very simple,” said Laura Harth, a researcher with Safeguard Defenders. “They target your family. They might take benefits away from your family members.”

They even confiscate their bank accounts or their houses, she added. “Their kids might be banned from going to certain schools, and so on.”

Harth said the global network of overseas police stations that have been set up in recent years run covert operations against political dissidents who live far away — the process usually beginning online.

“The overseas police sent a telegram message to me,” recounted political dissident Wang Jinyu, who was granted asylum in the Netherlands this year. “He wanted to meet with me. And I refused. [Afterward], he kept calling me.”

“He also asked me to go back to China to solve my problem,” Wang said. “Also, he asked me, [to think] about my parents” — a direct threat against my family.

Wang said China is after him for his anti-government posts on social media. He said that his father has been jailed back home, and that his mother has gone into hiding. Wang said that Chinese police in Europe have also been stalking him.

“I was just walking on the street and a man with clothes of the People's Republic of China army stopped me.”

Wang Jinyu, Chinese political dissident with asylum in the Netherlands

“I was just walking on the street and a man with clothes of the People's Republic of China army stopped me,” he recalled. “He says, ‘You are a criminal. I will catch you.’ Like this. And many, many times like this.”

Wang said last year, a man with a knife even tried to break into his apartment, but fled when he called the police.

It wasn’t the first time Wang has sought police protection. He called his local precinct with each threat. After the knife incident, an unidentified officer told Wang that if the Chinese government was indeed behind this, there was only one truly secure place for him.

“The safest place to stay is a prison,” the officer said in an audio recording made by Wang. “They can’t come into the prison.”

And Wang said he understands.

China denies allegations

China denies that it’s threatening dissidents abroad. But professor Dani Bello, an expert on international security at Webster University in St. Louis, has his doubts. He said that China has been going after critics overseas since the 1990s. The only thing that’s changed is the rise in surveillance technology — making it easier to find people.

“It's shocking, but not surprising,” Bello said. “They’re trying to create an environment where people who leave China do not actually work against Beijing’s agenda.”  

They can’t do it directly, Bello explained, so they look for other ways that will create an opportunity for plausible deniability. 

“In other words,” he said, “‘if we’re caught, we can say we’re not doing it.’”

And that’s where activists say the overseas police service stations come in. The stations often act on behalf of domestic security authorities from specific Chinese cities. And they operate out of existing businesses, such as a restaurant or a legal services office.

Beijing insists the stations act lawfully. One Chinese diplomat tweeted recently that the services can help citizens renew their driver’s licenses.

But when a Spain-based journalist named Yuan Lee called one of the stations in the municipality of Torrejón de Ardoz, he was told they couldn't help him.

“The agent just told me if I want to renew my license, I need to go to Madrid, to a Chinese neighborhood there called Usera,” Lee said.

Once there, Lee was told, he should ask around for a man named Chen Enguang. No address or telephone number was provided. He was just instructed to ask around on the street.

“That doesn’t seem very logical,” Lee said.

So, if the overseas police can’t help with driver’s licenses, what services do they offer? In Barcelona, it’s hard to tell, because you can’t even find them. One location, listed on the official WeChat account of the police from the southern coastal Chinese city of Fuzhou, turned out to be an empty storefront.

A second address was a document translation business for Chinese citizens. And the employees inside said they’d never heard of Chinese Police Overseas Service Stations.

The Chinese Consulate in Barcelona didn’t reply to questions emailed by The World about the stations. The consul, however, recently urged the press not to create “false scandals and drama.”

Investigations worldwide

Numerous countries are now actively investigating the Chinese police network, including Germany, Spain, Australia, Chile and the United States. In the Netherlands, police have just detained a suspected Chinese overseas police agent, one who called dissident Wang days earlier.

After the agent told Wang that he should meet him at the Starbucks at The Hague’s central station, or that he’d be arrested in the night, Wang agreed — but alerted the Dutch police first.

The police went with him to the train station, where he called back the suspicious number and began filming with his phone when a man answered.

“They’ve finally caught the Chinese Communist Party gangsters,” Wang said in the video, as two officers approached the man. The police asked Wang to stop filming, but they detained the suspect and took him in for questioning.

“I feel it is a little bit of a victory,” Wang said, “because finally we [caught] one guy, one Chinese overseas police” — an alleged policeman still being investigated. 

Human rights groups in Europe are also feeling optimistic. Last month, the European Court on Human Rights halted the extradition of a criminal suspect from Poland to China on grounds that the man could be tortured or mistreated by Chinese authorities. That ruling, which is precedent setting, could effectively prevent dozens of nations, mostly in Europe, from sending anyone back to face trial in China.

Related: Massive data breach in China raises questions around govt's responsibility in securing data, expert says

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