According to the NGO Safeguard Defenders, China has expanded its “surveillance network” beyond its borders.
Human rights organizations have been denouncing for years that China has become a “surveillance state” that uses cutting-edge technology to maintain social control within the country.
But a group of activists specialized in China has now warned that this surveillance network does not only work within its borders.
The Madrid-based NGO Safeguard Defenders has published a series of reports denouncing the alleged existence of at least 102 “Chinese police service centers” in 53 countries, including seven in Latin America.
These offices were officially created to help Chinese living abroad with administrative procedures.
But, as Safeguard Defenders campaign manager Laura Harth told their goal is actually to “persuade and coerce [Chinese citizens] to return to China” to face prosecution for various offences, mainly fraud.
In some cases, they have also been used to silence critics of the Chinese government, they warn.
The investigation has generated a multitude of investigations by governments in different parts of the world and the media, as well as orders to close some of these facilities in Europe.
It even led to the FBI expressing its “concern” and its director, Christopher Wray, specifying that they are reviewing the “legal parameters” of these centers.
The Chinese government denies that it is behind its management and assures that Chinese volunteers abroad are in charge of promoting aid services with procedures such as driver’s licenses.
“None of them are from the police,” said Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the Information Department of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
What the report says
Safeguard Defenders researcher Jing-Jie Chen told that the list of stations was compiled based on information published in official Chinese media.
Corroborated the existence of various articles in the official Chinese press announcing the opening of “Police Service Stations Abroad” in various countries, and even giving their address.
Most of these centers are in Europe, but bases appear on five continents.
Several are reported in the Americas, including four in the United States, five in Canada, and 12 in Latin America: three in Brazil and Ecuador, two in Argentina, and one each in Chile, Colombia, Cuba, and Peru.
For the NGO, the true function of these stations is to put into practice an illegal system of extraditions that is part of the Sky Net operation: the so-called “voluntary returns”.
It consists of finding Chinese fugitives abroad and “persuading” them -according to the NGO, through extortion- to voluntarily return to China to face charges.
Sky Net is part of the vast anti-corruption campaign promoted by President Xi Jinping in China.
Sky Net originally targeted senior Chinese officials accused of crimes such as embezzlement – as part of the vast anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping – but the operation was reportedly expanded to include tens of thousands of Chinese accused of commit fraud online, “an endemic problem in China,” according to the NGO.
Safeguard Defenders bases its accusation on an announcement the Chinese government itself made last August, in which it claimed to have convinced nearly a quarter of a million fugitives abroad to turn themselves in.
“The number of cross-border telecom fraud cases targeting Chinese residents has dropped significantly in China, with 230,000 telecom fraud suspects having been educated and persuaded to return to China from abroad to confess to crimes from April 2021 to July 2022,” reported the Ministry of Public Security.
According to the NGO, to “persuade” the fugitives, the Chinese authorities track them down, contact them and threaten them with action against their family in China if they do not return, something that “violates the rule of international law and the mechanisms of cooperation between countries”, they denounce.
The body collected the testimony of at least two people wanted by China who received threatening calls from local numbers, something that they connect with police bases abroad.
Safeguard Defenders map showing the location of alleged Chinese police stations abroad.
“Instead of cooperating with local authorities [to extradite suspects] in full respect of territorial sovereignty, [China] prefers to cooperate with ‘NGOs’ or ‘civil society associations’ abroad, establishing a police system and alternative justice system in third countries, and directly implicating these organizations in the illegal methods used to persecute ‘fugitives,'” they denounced in their report.
Safeguard Defenders researcher Jing-Jie Chen assured that the first fifty bases found were installed by the police forces of two cities: Fuzhou and Qingtian, in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, respectively, which have large diasporas. abroad.
In the NGO’s second report, published on December 5, it is stated that the Security departments of two other Chinese cities had installed about 50 more stations outside the country: Wenzhou, also in Zhejiang province, and Nantong, in another coastal province: Jiangsu.
Following the report’s publication, at least a dozen of the countries involved launched investigations to determine the existence and possible role of these databases.
Among them is Chile. At the end of October, the Minister of the Interior, Carolina Toha, indicated that the government is collaborating with the investigation carried out by the Investigative Police.
“As long as there is relevant information to communicate to the public, we will tell them. For now we are participating in the investigation,” he said of the alleged police station located in Vina del Mar, in the Valparaiso region.
Consulted the press office of the Chilean Ministry of the Interior about the progress in the case, but received no response.
The governments of Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador, indicated in the original report, did not respond to the queries of this medium either.
And neither they nor Colombia, Cuba and Peru, involved in the most recent report – which does not give details about the location of the alleged stations – have commented on the subject.
In Europe, the Irish authorities ordered the Chinese embassy to close one of these reported offices in Dublin, which – according to Safeguard Defenders – even had a sign outside that said in Chinese: “Overseas Police Service Station”.
The same happened in the Netherlands, where the authorities ordered the closure of two bases that, according to the list, operated in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
There, in addition, investigative media reported the case of a Chinese dissident residing in the country, Wang Jingyu, who claimed to have been persecuted by Chinese police.
Wang said he received a call from someone who claimed to be from one of these police bases urging him to return to China to “resolve” his problems and “think about his parents.”
Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States also announced investigations.
How China has responded
The Chinese government or the country’s legations in various parts of the world assured that they respect national sovereignty and international norms and deny having carried out any irregularity.
“Their activities are to help local Chinese citizens who need to apply for expired driver’s license renewal online and activities related to physical examination services by providing the venue,” said Zhao Lijian of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. , asked about the cases in the Netherlands last November.
In China, the police deal with procedures such as the renewal of the driver’s license.
Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Canada told the CBC public media that the objective of these places was to help Chinese citizens abroad who could not return to their country to carry out their procedures, due to the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic. of coronavirus.
The embassy also assured that these centers are staffed by volunteers who are not Chinese police officers and are not involved in any criminal investigation or relevant activity.
For its part, the Chinese embassy in the Chilean capital, Santiago, issued a statement that assured that what worked in Vina del Mar was a “care center for Chinese citizens abroad that was in charge of the Chinese citizen Wang Yinle.” and that it operated between March and June 2022.
“It was a stopgap measure during the pandemic. As the global pandemic situation becomes stable and control measures are eased, and with the renewal of the online transaction platform, the Fuzhou authorities have asked its citizens to return to China at carry out these procedures, and those who have difficulty traveling can directly access the virtual platform,” the statement said.
“The speculation of a supposed ‘secret police station’ in Chile is unfounded and its dissemination is only intended to damage the image of China and Sino-Chilean relations,” added the embassy of the Asian country.
From Chambers of Commerce to massage parlors
Other media tracked many of the addresses where, according to the list published in the official Chinese press – and denounced by Safeguard Defenders – there are police bases.
The first station supposedly located in the Argentine capital was at a non-existent address.
However, the Argentine Chinese Network outlet -whose objective is to provide local information to the Chinese community in the country and which is recognized as a press by the Chinese Foreign Ministry- reported the opening of a police base in Buenos Aires in February 2022.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied the accusations.
“Recently, the Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station, launched by the Fuzhou Public Security Bureau, was officially inaugurated in Argentina,” it reported on February 16 this year.
The note includes a photo of the inauguration, showing a group of men standing in front of a sign reading “Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station” and below it “Buenos Aires, Argentina.”
The opening ceremony was held at the Chinese Science and Technology Entrepreneurs Association Chamber of Commerce headquarters, and at the end of the article it is reported that “Fuzhou people who need to apply for replacement driver’s license and card of identification” can schedule an appointment by going or calling that same Chamber, given the problems caused by the pandemic.
The report led several countries to open investigations and different media outlets to carry out their investigations as well.
For its part, the AP agency visited several of the locations identified by Safeguard Defenders in Rome, Madrid and Barcelona and found, respectively, a massage parlor, the Spanish headquarters of an association of Chinese citizens and a legal translation company.
According to AP, “there were no indications of police stations or other activity directly related to the Chinese government.”
Most of the people interviewed in those places said they did not know anything about a police station or police activities.
The one exception was a translation company employee who said a Fuzhou police base operated from there on a trial basis for a few weeks this year.
The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said document renewal services were offered to Fuzhou citizens living in the Barcelona region who were unable to return to China due to pandemic restrictions, the agency reported.
“Not all are spies”
Although he welcomed the dozen investigations opened in response to the Safeguard Defenders investigation, Jing-Jie Chen clarified that the complaint does not seek to generate a “witch hunt” within Chinese associations abroad.
“We do not encourage any kind of intimidation of the Chinese community because they believe that everyone is a spy,” he said.
“We are not blaming all the members of the associations involved. And it is quite possible that the employees in many of these places do not really know what they are being used for,” he added, urging governments to only investigate leaders for their possible ties to the Communist Party of China.
However, Chinese dissidents abroad remain on alert.
The human rights activist Zhou Fengsuo, one of the student leaders of the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and exiled in the US, considers that these associations represent a danger and must be closed.
Zhou Fengsuo went into exile in the US in 1995 and now lives in New York.
“Most Chinese organizations, whether city or student, even personal organizations, all report to the local government and boast of their connections to the Chinese government,” he told.
According to Zhou, the authorities control these groups in two ways: first, fear.
“The fear is because they know that their relatives in China are constantly being watched. This discourages overseas Chinese from reporting abuse or participating in protests, and leads them to spy on and censor each other,” he said.
“On the other hand, if you curry favor with the Chinese government, they reward you with things like free trips to visit China, where they take you out to eat in luxury, or, in the case of students, offer you attractive jobs in the government or some university”.
Zhou calls on governments to “dismantle all these organizations” and says that to avoid suspicion, the groups should disavow any ties to the Chinese authorities.
However, he does not believe that the possible closure of these bases will make much difference.
“As long as (overseas) student associations and groups are allowed to continue to function, there will continue to be an atmosphere of fear among the Chinese community, where you feel like you can’t trust anyone.”