China’s Global Reach: Overseas Police Stations

China’s implementation of “overseas service stations” is part of an extensive campaign aimed at combating fraud and dissent. The campaign, which started at a relatively small scale in 2018, now exists in five continents and 40 countries. However, the campaign could directly threaten the rights of Chinese nationals and breaches the territorial sovereignty of host countries.

1.0 Chinese Involuntary Return Campaign (IR)

Involuntary returns refers to the use of non-traditional methods, outside of bilateral agreements, to forcibly return Chinese nationals abroad. The campaign was initially used to target Chinese fugitives involved in fraudulent activities abroad, but over time it has expanded to combatting dissent on the pretense of fraud. There is even a term to describe the act of coming back to China – quanfan (劝返).

1.1. Telecommunications Fraud

China is facing a growing challenge of fraud by Chinese nationals living abroad. Chinese authorities consider online fraud an endemic problem [source]. Chinese authorities claim that from April 2021 to July 2022, 230,000 nationals have been “persuaded to return” to mainland China to face criminal proceedings under the guise of fraud charges.

The Ministry of Public Security has reportedly solved 594,000 cases of telecom and internet fraud in 15 months through July 2022. The scammers usually work in groups, following pre-designed scripts through online chats. Common scams lure people into investing in seemingly legitimate products and cryptocurrencies. Fraud has caused hundreds of billions of dollars in losses [source]. Poor regulation of business practices allowed telecom operators to sell subscriptions without checking identification, creating a safe haven for scammers.

In September 2022, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) passed a law to combat online fraud. Taking effect on December 1st, 2021, it gives agencies the power to pursue suspects abroad via service stations [source].

2.0. Fox Hunt Operation and Sky Net Campaign

Operation Fox Hunt (猎狐专项行动) was launched in 2014. The Operation began under Xi Jinping and is a covert worldwide effort to counter corruption. Along with the Operation Sky Net program, it has reportedly caught more than 8,000 international fugitives. The targets are mainly Chinese public officials and businesspeople accused of financial crimes. As part of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption program, the PRC released a list of its 100 most wanted fugitives for economic crimes to Interpol. The names on the list were targets of Operation Fox Hunt [source].

Despite extradition treaties and bilateral agreements with some countries, most Chinese involuntary returns take place through non-legal channels.

Three main methods are employed to persuade individuals to return:

2.1. Method 1: Threats to the Family

The first step in Chinese involuntary returns is threats of retaliation against family members or loved ones. Chinese authorities commonly track down the target’s family in China to pressure them the target through intimidation, harassment or detention [source].

For instance, Xie Weidong, a former judge on China’s Supreme Court moved to Canada. After publicly criticising China’s criminal justice system, he was accused of corruption by Chinese authorities, and asked to return to China. When he refused, the police detained his sister and his son. They also contacted his ex-wife to persuade him to return [source].

2.2. Method 2: Targeting Victims in a Foreign Country via Service Stations.

The second method is using undercover agents to directly approach the target abroad. The first known case of Chinese service stations operating undercover in Australia to forcibly return someone was in 2014. The operation targeted Dong Feng, who had obtained Australian citizenship. Undercover Chinese police officers approached him in Melbourne to “persuade” him to return to China [source]. Feng was wanted for allegedly taking bribes as a mid-level manager at a Chinese company and practicing Falun Gong (a banned and persecuted religious movement in China).

2.3. Method 3: Kidnappings Abroad

In extreme cases, Chinese authorities kidnap targets overseas and smuggle them back to China. The legal interpretation of Article 52 of China’s Supervision Law lists “kidnapping” and “trapping and capturing” as “irregular measures” to repatriate refugees overseas. In that interpretation, it gives Chinese officials the right to kidnap suspects on foreign soil.

As an example, Chinese authorities kidnapped human rights activist Dong Guangping in Bangkok, Thailand. As a human rights defender, he escaped to Thailand in 2015 to avoid any further persecution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees granted Dong official refugee status. But as he awaited a resettlement to Canada in a Bangkok immigration center, he was handcuffed and led out by Chinese police officials. The Chinese police station in Thailand allowed officers to operate covertly. He resurfaced later in a Chinese prison, where he was sentenced to three years of detention. There are no official records of him leaving Thailand, nor re-entering China [source].

3.0. Guilt by Association

Under Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, Chinese authorities have implemented a “guilt by association” policy. Although not legally implemented by Chinese law, the principle of “guilt by association” is long rooted in Chinese culture. The tradition of zhulian (珠链) is dating back to imperial times. For instance in July 2022, the government of Wenchang City, Hainan province, disclosed the names and pictures of those from Wenchang “illegally staying in Myanmar” and warned them to return. In case of refusal, their family would be subject to punishments.

  • The Chinese authorities would suspend medical support for their relatives [source].
  • Their children would be banned from public school.
  • Their immediate family would be unable to join the Party or the military, nor to be a public servant or be employed by a state-owned company.
  • The real-estate purchased with illicit money would be vacated, seized, and auctioned, and the people living in the property expelled.
  • Any property built out of illicit money would be destroyed.
  • Confiscate passports.
  • Ban “dishonest persons” from using high-speed rail and planes or being accommodated in hotels.

4.0. Chinese Police Stations Going Global

Beijing has set up more than a hundred police stations around the world to monitor and repatriate Chinese nationals living abroad. While China claims that those police stations are administrative hubs staffed by volunteers, several abuses have been reported by human rights organizations and government officials from countries in which China operates.

Although China has bilateral security agreements in Europe and Africa, most of these activities take place through unofficial channels. 

4.1. Cooperation or Opposition

European countries have had different responses to the discovery of Chinese overseas illegal police stations on their territory. Some countries have cooperated with the Chinese on their operation while others have criticized China’s police stations.

4.1.1. Italy

Italy signed a series of bilateral arrangements with China to render Chinese nationals. The Italian police conducted multiple joint patrols with Chinese police on Italian soil between 2016 and 2018 – first in Rome and Milan, and later in other cities such as Naples [source]. Italy has reportedly hosted eleven Chinese police stations, including in Venice and Prato.

4.1.2. Croatia and Serbia

China struck similar deals with Croatia and Serbia between 2018 and 2019, as part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese officers were seen patrolling with their Croatian and Serbian counterparts in Zagreb and Belgrade. While they do not have the power of arrest, Chinese police officers monitor the influx of Chinese tourists in European countries [source].

4.1.3. Netherlands

On the other side of the spectrum, other European countries denounce illegal police stations. In the Netherlands, authorities discovered and shut down two illegal facilities in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Similarly, Ireland demanded the closure of an office in Dublin and the UK government shut down a Chinese facility in a seafood restaurant in Glasgow [source].

4.1.4. United States

In April of 2023, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested two New York City residents for illegally operating an overseas police station. The two individuals are accused of opening and operating the police station in lower Manhattan on behalf of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) of China [source].

5.0. The 9 Forbidden Countries

Since November 2021, several notices have been issued by the CCP to warn Chinese nationals not to travel to nine specific countries with serious telecom and web crime rates. Those countries are:

  • Cambodia
  • The UAE
  • The Philippines
  • Thailand
  • Myanmar
  • Laos
  • Malaysia
  • Turkey
  • Indonesia

People need a valid “emergency reason” or “strict necessity” to travel and stay in those countries. They need to return to China as soon as possible, or potentially face criminal charges [source].

6.0. Violation of Human of International Law and Human Rights

6.1. Territorial Sovereignty in the Global South

Undeclared consular activities outside of a nation’s diplomatic mission are highly unusual and illegal. Hence, operating secret police stations outside of bilateral agreements violate international law and may violate the territorial integrity of third countries [source]. Rather than cooperating with local policing and judicial authorities, China prefers to operate in a grey area with a business cover to protect their operation it seems.

An employee of one of the overseas police centers set up by the Fuzhou police admitted on the phone that they:

“carried out online intelligence gathering [and taking] police reports … from overseas Chinese”.

He also said that they:

“definitely detained some people, although [he cannot] guarantee that [they] always manage to catch them” [source].

6.2. Denying the Rights of Innocence Until Proven Guilty and Fair Trial

China also avoids due process and consideration of the suspect’s innocence. Many of the targets (and their families) often face punishment before any guilt has been established.

On 11 March 2022, a woman from Yuanzhuang township, Fujian province, was asked to return to China. At the time, she was running a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and argued that she wasn’t a suspect of any crime. However, as Cambodia appears on the list of the nine forbidden countries, the police demanded she return anyway.

On 5 May 2022, a police officer informed her she had been added to the telecom suspect list, with minimal evidence. He also warned her that her mother’s house would be cut off from power and water supplies if she refused to return. Her mother’s house was later spray painted with the words “House of Telecom Fraud” [source].

7.0. Summary

It seems that China uses the pretext of telecom fraud and “anti-corruption” policies to surveil and extrajudicially render Chinese nationals on a global scale using illegal police stations. The use of irregular methods against both the target and his/her family and relatives avoids due process and and often, human rights. The frequent absence of definitive evidence deprives the suspects from their right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and the right to a fair trial. Similarly, the prevalence of non-traditional illegal channels highlights China’s inconsistent adherence to international law, bilateral agreements, and the territorial integrity of some countries.

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