Chinese refugees in Italy, some of whom are dissidents, are increasingly wary of the presence of what appear to be four outposts of Beijing's security apparatus operating without official diplomatic trappings, according to experts.
Beijing acknowledges the presence of the so-called "police stations" in Rome, Milan, Florence and Prato, which were first revealed by Safeguard Defenders, a human rights organization based in Spain, in September.
The 110 overseas offices, named after China's emergency telephone line similar to 911 in the U.S., operate in cities with significant Chinese populations and are affiliated with civic associations in Chinese cities or provinces.
The Chinese government has denied the outposts are police stations, describing them more as service centers for Chinese citizens living overseas.
Italian police have conducted investigations into the offices but found no illegal activities, according to La Nazione, which reported on November 8 that the outposts in Italy were managed by civilians who provided Chinese expatriates with services such as drivers licenses or passport renewals.
The Italian government has not commented on the existence of the 110 offices overseas. In 2019, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with China as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, a package of deals worth $2.8 billion at the time.
But for Chinese refugees carving out new lives in a country where they often don't speak the language, the Chinese outposts are reminders of Beijing's global reach.
"I know for sure that they are very scared about this," said Marco Respinti, an Italian journalist who has written extensively on China's human rights record. "There are two main reasons. One is some of them have families in China" who can be pressured by authorities there, so the outposts in Italy are "a very sensitive and dangerous development. Another thing is that technically they are illegal immigrants … so they are even more scared to speak out. They fled China for humanitarian reasons and don't have all the documents. Many times (the refugees) don't speak the language."
The 110 overseas offices in Italy are among more than 50 such operations that China has established overseas in countries, including the U.S., according to Safeguard Defenders. On November 2, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian denied the outposts were "police stations" or "police service centers." During a daily press briefing, he said the offices are to "assist overseas Chinese nationals who need help in accessing the online service platform to get their driver's licenses renewed and receive physical check-ups for that purpose."
Staff in the offices "are not police personnel from China. There is no need to make people nervous about this," he added.
The 110 overseas offices represent "the latest iteration in [China's] growing transnational repression, where it seeks to police and limit political expression far beyond its own borders," said the Safeguard Defenders report.
Since the report's release, at least 14 governments, including those of the U.S., Britain, Canada and Germany, have opened investigations into the operations, Safeguard Defenders research shows.
On October 26, Ireland ordered the closure of the 110 overseas office doing business in Dublin as the Fuzhou Police Service Overseas Station that opened earlier this year in an office building that had other Chinese organizations as tenants, according to the BBC. The Chinese embassy denied any wrongdoing in Dublin and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said no Chinese authority had sought its permission to set up the "police station," according to the BBC report.
On November 1, the Dutch government ordered the 110 overseas offices in the Netherlands to be closed immediately. The outposts purported to offer diplomatic assistance, but they had not been declared to the Netherlands government, Dutch media reported last month.
On November 17, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing that the FBI was investigating an unauthorized "police station" that China is running out of New York. The Chinese operation "violates sovereignty and circumvents standard judicial and law enforcement cooperation processes," Wray said.
Jing-Jie Chen, a researcher at Safeguard Defenders, told VOA Mandarin that European countries have no clear concept of cross-border law enforcement by Chinese police.
Chen said, "Many countries in Europe have signed agreements on mutual criminal assistance or extradition with China, so they may begin to think that there is no big problem in this matter. Only after the report is published and the media follows up, do they feel that this matter involves the internal affairs" of any country with 110 overseas offices.
Daniele Brigadoi Cologna, associate professor of Chinese language and culture at the University of Insubria in Como, Italy, told VOA Mandarin these outposts have been helping Chinese expatriates maintain their Chinese residency renewals during the pandemic when people could not return home. The Chinese government issues to each citizen a permit that details their identity and address. It governs where they can live, attend school and work.
Cologna said, "I am confident that in the coming months, we will get to learn more about the outcome of such investigations, but I doubt that anything of interest will come of it, given that right now the media and the politicians are chasing nonexistent policemen and Chinese migrant spies that are unlikely to exist."
Chen questioned why the ID renewal services are carried out by operations inside restaurants or grocery stores when the Chinese consulates should provide the same services.
"You don't know whether the address (for the 110 office) is real, which is the weirdest thing. If you want to serve overseas expats, you should have an organization to run these businesses in an open and honest way. Why hide like this?" he said during a phone interview on November 16.
Respinti, the Italian journalist, said, "We know that bureaucracy and documents are one of the most important tools for controlling people and repressing people, because they have a partial recognition to prosecute people, to recognize them where they, when they move from one place to another."
Members of the Italian Parliament have raised questions about the so-called police stations to the government.
La Nazione reported on October 29 that Italian Senator Mara Bizzotto wrote Matteo Piantedosi, Italy's minister of the interior, to say, "Full light should be shed on the case of the Chinese police station in Prato known as Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station, which turns out to be a real body of agents on duty for Beijing but hidden behind a façade of cultural association."
According Bizzotto, "The affair presents dangerous profiles of a serious violation of our national sovereignty. And these overseas stations could hide a broader architecture of espionage and control located on Italian territory."
According to Jiemian News, Chinese news media affiliated with the Chinese-government-owned Shanghai United Media Group, since 2016, China has sent several groups of police to Italy to conduct joint patrols with Italian police in major tourist cities.
A reciprocal arrangement had Italian police officers patrolling in four cities -- Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou — to help local officers address safety concerns of Italian tourists.
The project was suspended after the outbreak of COVID-19.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.