China has opened dozens of what it calls "110 Overseas Police Service Centers" in cities around the world, some of which are being used to blackmail suspects into returning home to face criminal charges in breach of global extradition laws, according to a new report. There are fears the networks could be used to target political dissidents, as well as criminal suspects.
The investigation by the human rights group Safeguard Defenders says that while the overseas police service centers may help Chinese diaspora and tourists with everyday problems, they also are part of a complex global web of surveillance and control, allowing the Communist Party to reach far beyond China's borders.
The report claims Chinese regional police forces have set up at least 54 offices on five continents, according to freely available official data. The centers are named after the police emergency telephone number in China, 110. The police service stations connect with local Chinese Overseas Home Associations in foreign countries, which in turn are linked to the ruling Chinese Communist party.
The authors say a key method used to track down and return suspects to China involves so-called "persuasion to return" operations. This can include tracking down the target's family in China in order to pressure them through means of intimidation, harassment, detention or imprisonment into persuading their family members to return "voluntarily." It also involves approaching the target online or through undercover agents abroad to threaten and harass the suspect into returning "voluntarily."
"These operations eschew official bilateral police and judicial cooperation and violate the international rule of law and may violate the territorial integrity of third countries involved in setting up a parallel policing mechanism using illegal methods," the report says.
In an email to VOA, the Chinese embassy in London said the Safeguard Defenders report "is rife with speculation and lies," adding that "China's judicial and law-enforcement authorities strictly abide by international rules and fully respect the judicial sovereignty of other countries."
But China appears to be doing little to conceal the operations. A video produced in 2020 by the prosecutor's office in the western city of Lishui shows police conducting a remote video call with a suspect in Madrid, Spain, who was accused of criminal environmental pollution in his home city. A representative of the suspect's family in Lishui sat alongside the police and prosecutors.
The video says the suspect was "persuaded" to return home to face charges, and subsequent photographs show the target in handcuffs at an airport in China. Since the publication of the Safeguard Defenders report last month, Spain confirmed it is investigating the incident.
Laura Harth, a co-author of the report, says the Chinese Communist party has long tried to control and monitor overseas Chinese through what it calls "United Front Work" organizations.
"A lot of the overseas Chinese hometown associations, United Front Work organizations, we've known they've been involved in, let's say, controlling — patrolling in a way — the overseas community. But what we're now seeing, and what came out of this report, what I think also in staggering numbers from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, is how all these systems are increasingly being integrated. …
"They want to instil that fear — that you are not safe anywhere," she said.
Chinese authorities boast that between April 2021 and July 2022, they "persuaded" more than 230,000 Chinese nationals to return home to face criminal proceedings. Many are accused of committing fraud through online and telephone scams.
However, Harth says China also is targeting other individuals. "Overseas Chinese dissidents, critics of the regime, religious and ethnic minorities anywhere in the world. … The Chinese regime is becoming increasingly brazen, its institutions increasingly brazen in pursuing these illegal means across the globe and not even hiding it very well."
"Equally worrying is the fact that democratic governments are apparently not very aware or even concerned about this happening on their soil in violation of their territorial sovereignty, really undermining basic freedoms, human rights of individuals that are residing within their territories," Harth told VOA.
The report lists three 110 Overseas Police Service Centers in Britain, taken from official documents. At one premises in north London visited by VOA, three businesses appeared to operate from the address: a real estate agency, a language college, and a law firm specializing in China. They denied any links to the Chinese government, but they declined an interview.
Most of the local Chinese community told VOA they did not know about the overseas police centers and did not want to be interviewed on camera. The British government told VOA that "any foreign country operating on British soil must abide by British law" — but it did not confirm whether it was investigating.
Hong Kong dissident
Finn Lau knows well the long reach of the Chinese Communist Party. As a leader of the 2019 Hong Kong protests against Beijing, he was sought by Chinese police and fled to Britain. But he wasn't safe in London.
In 2020, on a street close to his south London home, he was attacked by three masked men who he is convinced were working for the Chinese government.
"Because they didn't say anything racist, they didn't take any of my personal belongings," Lau told VOA. "I don't really feel safe in London, especially after the physical or near-death assault in London. Because, well, for years we have many Chinese and Hong Kong dissidents being followed or assaulted by the Chinese Communist Party by different means," he underscored.
Lau said that Britain, and other governments, must take the threat more seriously.
"I would say there is a growing awareness coming from maybe MI5 [British intelligence services] or other agencies. However, in terms of local authorities' level, say the Metropolitan London police, their awareness of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] threat is quite low," Lau said.