The story so far: China is once again in the crosshairs of the West over its ‘secret police stations’, this time ruffling Germany’s feathers. On May 15, Berlin stated that Beijing was still operating two so-called ‘overseas’ police stations in Germany.
In November 2022, Berlin called upon Beijing to shut down extraterritorial police stations in the country. Beijing, in February 2023, responded that what it called its ‘service stations’ were closed.
However, a German interior ministry spokesperson stated that the police stations were “not fixed-location offices, but mobile facilities” from which official duties were being conducted on behalf of Beijing. Berlin said it is reassessing bilateral relations with Beijing, even though China remains Germany’s largest trading partner.
Canada, Netherlands, United Kingdom, and the United States have also confronted China about its ‘secret police stations’ on their soil.
How did China’s secret police stations begin?
China claimed that the rise of ‘online fraud’ by Chinese nationals around the world was why it set up these ‘service stations’, as per an investigation done by Spain-based group Safeguard Defenders.
In 2018, the Chinese district of Fujian launched an operation to stop scammers from going overseas. The operation took stringent steps against suspected scammers, like demolishing their properties, banning them from trains, suspending medical and other government subsidies, and banning their children from schools.
The operation was applauded by the Chinese Communist party (CPC) and expanded in 2021, with a task force of 70 to target people overseas involved in fraud and illegal cross-border travel. The Public Security Bureau (PSB), assisted by local cadres and police authorities, was tasked with taking ‘anti-fraud’ measures abroad. The headquarters of the operation was in China’s Yunnan province and other centres were set up in south-eastern Chinese provinces Nantong, Wenzhou, and Qingtian, apart from Fuzhou.
As of July 2022, 230,000 Chinese ‘suspects’ were ‘educated and persuaded to return to China’ from overseas to ‘confess crimes related to telecom fraud’, stated the Ministry of Public Security. To further crack down on fraud, China passed the ‘Anti-Telecom and Online Fraud Law (ATOFL) in September 2022, holding overseas Chinese citizens accountable for such crimes.
Nine ‘forbidden’ countries were listed as the main regions for fraudulent transactions by Chinese nationals and the public was warned from travelling to these nations. These include Turkey, UAE, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines and Indonesia. Moreover, Chinese nationals were advised to return immediately if they had no ‘emergency reason’ to be in those nations.
These stringent crackdowns resulted in several innocent Chinese nationals being put on the suspect list, leading to mass deportation to China to face stringent action under ATOFL. Reports state that the ‘suspects’ were often lured into fraud through threats, smuggling and intimidation and faced severe measures like loss of power and water supply at their homes or the homes of their relatives.
Expansion of ‘secret police’ globally
In January 2022, reportedly to target ‘Chinese overseas suspects’, China widened its net setting up the first batch of 30 overseas police service stations in 25 cities across 21 countries . This included Canada, US, Italy, France, Spain, Ireland, UK, Suriname, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Argentina, Venezuela, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Japan, Laos, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Korea, Sri Lanka, Ulaanbaatar, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.
These were set up to do administrative work for Chinese citizens abroad like renewing Chinese driver licences, passport renewal and aid the diaspora with consular needs. However, extending the police stations’ jurisdiction, these centres also cracked down on all kinds of illegal and criminal activities involving overseas Chinese persons. Reports state that these centres have made arrests of Chinese suspects based on complaints and ‘persuaded’ such suspects to return to China to face legal action.
Moreover, reports state that these stations have become overseas contact points in Italy and Germany to carry out prosecution work such as transoceanic mediation, cross-border inquiries, video reports and complaints. With these expanded powers, these service stations are being to used to target Chinese nationals abroad, particularly dissidents opposed to the CPC and President Xi Jinping.
Global concern about China’s secret police
China’s tough crackdown on its overseas citizens via these service stations has raised concerns among several nations. They believe that Beijing is using these centres to circumvent bilateral extradition treaties, local authorities’ jurisdiction and United Nations Conventions to set up an alternative policing and judicial system in other countries. As of date, there are 102 overseas police stations in 53 countries, another investigation by Safeguard Defenders revealed.
In November 2022, twelve countries including the US, UK, Canada, Netherlands and Germany launched investigations to ascertain if Beijing established such centres in their territory. However, certain governments in Africa and Asia have entered into an explicit agreement with China to set up joint patrol stations, similar to an agreement signed by Italy signed with China in 2016.
Three such stations were exposed in Toronto, with the Canadian government issuing a ‘cease and desist’ order to them. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised concerns about these stations with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022.
In December 2022, two overseas Chinese service stations in Prague were closed by the Czech Republic authorities. When the Chinese staff were questioned, they refused to divulge any information. Similarly in the UK, four Chinese service stations were found in London, Glasgow and Belfast. While a probe was launched, no action has been taken.
Meanwhile, in the US, two New York residents were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for allegedly operating a Chinese “secret police station” in the Chinatown district of Manhattan. The two accused have now been released on bond following an initial appearance in a Brooklyn federal court.
In the wake of the accusations, Chinese embassy spokespersons have maintained that the ‘secret police stations’ were ‘overseas service stations’ opened during the pandemic to assist nationals abroad with driver’s licence renewal and similar bureaucratic matters.
- China is once again in the crosshairs of the West over its ‘secret police stations’, this time ruffling Germany’s feathers. On May 15, Berlin stated that Beijing was still operating two so-called ‘overseas’ police stations in Germany.
- China claimed that the rise of ‘online fraud’ by Chinese nationals around the world was why it set up these ‘service stations’, as per an investigation done by Spain-based group Safeguard Defenders.
- China’s tough crackdown on its overseas citizens via these service stations has raised concerns among several nations. They believe that Beijing is using these centres to circumvent bilateral extradition treaties, local authorities’ jurisdiction and United Nations Conventions to set up an alternative policing and judicial system in other countries.