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China’s widening police net

Covert outposts may target dissidents abroad


The entrance to the Chinese embassy in The Hague Getty Images/Photo by Bart Maat/ANP/AFP

China’s widening police net

Wang Jingyu, a young Chinese dissident who was granted asylum in the Netherlands, received a suspicious phone call on Monday. The man on the other end, whose number included the Dutch country code, claimed to be a Chinese overseas police officer and told Wang to meet him at a Starbucks at a train station.

Since leaving China in 2019, Wang has faced continuous threats from people working for the Chinese government or those who claim they do. “When will the ‘China Overseas Police Station’ be shut down? When will I not be harassed by Chinese agents?” he tweeted.

The Netherlands is one of the countries where Chinese officials have operated police stations, according to Safeguard Defenders, a Spain-based human rights organization. The September report revealed at least 54 stations worldwide in countries such as the United States, Brazil, Japan, France, and Nigeria. The outposts allegedly operate without the approval of local authorities.

Connected to the police in the Chinese regions of Fuzhou and Qingtian, the overseas stations facilitate China’s expanding anti-fraud campaign, according to Safeguard Defenders. It cited reports in Chinese media and official government announcements about the overseas stations. The agents at the stations target not only overseas Chinese nationals suspected of fraud but also dissidents. Their tactics to pressure targets to return to China to face charges include threatening the well-being of family members who are still in China with retribution such as depriving their children of the right to an education.

From April 2021 until July of this year, Chinese authorities “persuaded” about 230,000 suspects to return, reported Chinese state media. But the operations to bring back Chinese nationals “eschew official bilateral police and judicial cooperation and violate the international rule of law,” Safeguard Defenders reported.

For Wang, the regime’s pressure extends to his parents. A phone call several months ago came from someone who said he was from the Chinese overseas police service, Wang told RTL Nieuws, a Dutch-language media outlet. The caller, using the Dutch country code, hinted that Wang’s parents in China would face danger unless he returned to “fix this problem.”

Following media reports about one outpost in Amsterdam and another in Rotterdam, the Netherlands ordered the Chinese Embassy to immediately close the “so-called police service stations,” Wopke Hoekstra, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs announced last week. China had not requested permission for them, Hoekstra said. The Netherlands is investigating those outposts.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has denied weaponizing the secret police stations against dissidents. At a briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the volunteer-run centers in the Netherlands simply assist Chinese citizens who need to renew their driver’s licenses online and undergo physical checkups.

Ireland also demanded the Chinese Embassy there shut down a center in Dublin that operated without permission. The venue had a sign that said, “Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station.” Fourteen countries—including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Chile—have launched investigations into these centers, Safeguard Defenders reported on Monday.

Exiled in the U.K., Carmen Lau, a former pro-democracy district councilor in Hong Kong, fears the three stations there are being used to detain Chinese nationals. Other Hong Kongers who have moved to the U.K. share that fear, Lau said. Many of them live in the London suburbs of Hendon and Croydon, where two of the stations are located. Some of her Hong Kong friends have already been harassed in the U.K. by Chinese nationals who threatened physical attacks, Lau added.

At The Hague Central Station, Wang stood outside Starbucks—accompanied by the Dutch police officers he had contacted—hoping to catch the person claiming to be a Chinese overseas policeman. He said he watched as two Dutch officers approached the man inside the cafe who picked up his phone just as Wang dialed the number he had for the person who’d called him earlier.

Wang is now waiting for the results from the Dutch police investigating his case.

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