Western governments launch probes into China’s ‘overseas police’

The Yomiuri Shimbun

ROTTERDAM — Allegations are emerging that China has been exerting pressure on its citizens abroad through “overseas police.” On the one hand, Western governments are launching investigations. On the other hand, there are reports that some countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and other areas are cooperating with the Chinese police’s overseas activities.

Concerns are growing that Chinese authorities overseas are spreading their political repression.

In Rotterdam, just a five-minute walk from the city’s main railway station, is a room that Western media have concluded serves as a service station of China’s overseas police.

This service station is on the ground floor of a four-story apartment building in a residential area.

On Nov. 21, after ringing the room’s doorbell, a young Chinese woman wearing glasses answered.

She denied that the room is an overseas police service station. The woman even said I could enter the room to check.

A 26-year-old living nearby said, however, that people he thinks are Chinese had come and gone from the room, but this stopped three months earlier.

It was in September that Safeguard Defenders, a Spain-based nongovernmental organization, in cooperation with journalists around the world, released its first report on China’s overseas police.

The NGO believes that many of the addresses of facilities identified as overseas police service stations are only registered addresses. According to the report, public security authorities of Fuzhou, Fujian Province; Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province; and Nantong, Jiangsu Province — all cities where a large number of overseas Chinese nationals hail from — have notably established overseas police. Some of the service stations call themselves “110 Overseas,” named after China’s 110 emergency call number.

Operation Fox Hunt

Setting up of such overseas police service stations violates the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which bans administrative activities by an overseas government outside of its embassy and consulates.

Willemijn Aerdts, an expert on intelligence-gathering activities at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said China must be aware of this aspect. She said it is only natural to see that Beijing has other intentions by having overseas police.

The administration of China’s President Xi Jinping has been engaging in what is called Operation Fox Hunt to chase after corrupt bureaucrats and other nationals who flee overseas to bring them back to China and put on trial.

The U.S. government reportedly took issue after the Chinese public security authorities carried out investigations in the United States without permission from Washington.

According to Safeguard Defenders, about 11,000 overseas Chinese nationals, due to pressure or other factors from Beijing, had no choice but to return to China between 2014 and October 2022. The organization said only 20% of the returns went through proper procedures under international treaties. There are possibilities people regarded as pro-democracy activists and dissidents are included in these numbers.

“It is an indication of the Chinese authorities’ intentions that people and movements that threaten the existence of the state are not allowed even outside China,” said University of Tokyo Prof. Tomoko Ako, an expert on contemporary China.

Calling for unity

The majority of the 102 Chinese overseas police service stations are located in Europe, which places a heavy emphasis on human rights.

On Dec. 8, Laura Harth, campaign director of Safeguard Defenders, was invited to speak on this issue at the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union including Disinformation.

She called for unity among democratic countries to deal with China’s moves, adding that surveillance and intimidation of Chinese nationals abroad is expanding rapidly.

The Dutch government has already started investigations into the matter. Last month, a senior official of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation testified that the FBI has started surveillance, saying there are possibilities of violations of sovereignty. As of this month, 14 governments, mainly in Europe, have announced the launch of investigations.

Safeguard Defenders’ reports point out, however, that Beijing’s influence in Africa and other nations means that local authorities in Cambodia, Mozambique, Romania and Tanzania have cooperated with China’s police activities in their countries. When the Italian government was pro-China, Rome and Beijing concluded an agreement on police activities.

There have been reports that pro-democracy activists were placed in custody after being manipulated into entering such countries.

Safeguard Defenders says China has overseas police service stations in Japan as well.

“If there are activities that violate our sovereignty, they will be totally unacceptable,” Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said at a news conference in late November, adding that Tokyo had conveyed its concerns to Beijing through a diplomatic channel.