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Recruit, Persecute, Prosecute: The Network Surrounding Chinese Overseas ‘Police Service’ Stations
Governments are starting to take a harsher stance on illegal Chinese ‘police service’ stations, many of which have been forced to shut down since September 2022. These stations highlight China’s broader global network aimed at repatriating dissidents - that is, anyone critical of the CCP’s ambitions.
21 February, 2023

A modest realty office in north London, a Glasgow-based dim sum restaurant, and an unassuming convenience store in Toronto – what do they have in common? According to human rights group Safeguard Defenders, they are all purported Chinese overseas ‘police service’ stations.

Having investigated open-source accounts and official documents, the Madrid-based NGO found evidence of at least 102 ‘police service’ stations in 53 countries spanning 6 continents. These stations, it claims, use ‘persuasion to return’ tactics to encourage fugitives and dissidents to return to China and face prosecution. Official statements note the targets’ families being harassed, detained, imprisoned, or denied education as means of facilitating a voluntary return. At least 230,000 suspects were successfully repatriated between April 2001 and July 2022, bypassing legal methods of bilateral cooperation and the international rule of law.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not deny the existence of these stations, but insists that their purpose is purely administrative – assisting Chinese nationals abroad with services typically offered by embassies or consulates, like passport or driving licence renewals. Furthermore, it claims that any personnel consists of volunteers and ‘warm-hearted local Chinese compatriots’. Officials also claim that the stations were set up to help alleviate some of the troubles facing the diaspora during the Covid-19 pandemic. Contrary to this, Safeguard Defenders found evidence of at least 80 instances of the stations directly supporting ‘persuasion to return’ operations, and hiring contractors for that purpose. Moreover, the opening of the first European station can be traced back to 2016, when the Wenzhou Public Security Bureau established the first ‘Overseas Police contact point’ in Milan.

One of the targeted dissidents is Wang Jingyu, who has been on the run from Chinese police since 2019. Charged with ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’ (an ambiguous charge often used against activists and protesters) after posting online comments in support of Hong Kong independence, he fled to the Netherlands – a country which does not have an extradition treaty with China. Speaking with Dutch media, he revealed threatening messages and calls from the police service station in Rotterdam urging him to surrender and consider the wellbeing of his family in China.

A recent documentary detailing Jingyu’s struggle showcased more tangible threats. One man, claiming connection to the police service station in Germany, threatened to kill him in an ominous voice message: ‘I have a severe antisocial personality. Crimes are a part of my daily life. Just you wait, (…) tomorrow you’re done’. After reporting the message to German police, Jingyu received notice of a booking in his name at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Berlin – a frequent occurrence, he says, often followed by fake bomb threats under his name.

These police service stations are just a part of China’s larger global repatriation network. Operation Fox Hunt and Sky Net were launched in 2014 and 2015 respectively as part of Xi Jinping’s clamp down on corruption, with the aim of arresting former officials and other political dissidents who managed to flee China. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the Chinese Communist Party remarks that as part of these efforts, officials may use ‘irregular methods’ of repatriation, such as kidnapping, entrapment, or luring the suspect to a country with an extradition treaty. According to official CCDI figures, at least 10,105 suspects from over 120 countries have forcefully returned as of February 2022 – primarily through these ‘irregular methods’.

Governments have begun to take action. Ireland, one of the first countries to tangibly respond to Safeguard Defenders’ report, ordered a station in Dublin to cease operations. In the US, the FBI raided a Manhattan-based station, leading to its closure a few days later this January. Italy—with a total of eleven stationsrecently announced an investigation, despite initial hesitation. These efforts coincide with an October 2022 European Court of Human Rights ruling coming into force, effectively making future extraditions to China difficult to authorise on the basis of violating Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights (regarding ill-treatment and torture).

In spite of continuing crackdowns, forced repatriation efforts will continue. The network runs deep, and closing down stations will do little to disturb it besides encouraging the CCP to use more creative measures. Police service stations represent the tip of the metaphorical iceberg – what lies below the surface is much more concerning.

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