China accused of using overseas bases to target dissidents

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Laura Hart, campaign director of Safeguard Defenders is interviewed by the Associated Press in Rome, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. China has reportedly established dozens of “overseas police stations” in nations around the world that activists fear could be used to track and harass dissidents as part of Beijing’s crackdown on corruption. Spanish-based non-government group Safeguard Defenders published a report last month called “110 Overseas. Chinese Transnational Policing Gone Wild” that focused on the foreign stations. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — China has reportedly established dozens of “overseas police stations” in nations around the world that activists fear could be used to track and harass dissidents as part of Beijing’s crackdown on corruption.

Information about the outposts underscored concerns about the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s influence over its citizens abroad, sometimes in ways deemed illegal by other countries, as well as the undermining of democratic institutions and the the theft of economic and political secrets by bodies affiliated with the one-party state.

Spanish-based non-government group Safeguard Defenders published a report last month, called “110 Overseas. Chinese Transnational Policing Gone Wild,” that focused on the foreign stations.

Laura Harth, a campaign director with the group, told The Associated Press that China has set up at least 54 overseas police service stations.

“One of the aims of these campaigns, obviously, as it is to crack down on dissent, is to silence people,” Harth said. “So people are afraid. People that are being targeted, that have family members back in China, are afraid to speak out.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Thursday that Beijing wasn’t doing anything wrong. “Chinese public security authorities strictly observe the international law and fully respect the judicial sovereignty of other countries,” Mao said.

Many of the facilities appeared to have links to the Fuzhou and Qingtian areas, where many overseas Chinese originate.

The Irish government said it told China to close a Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station operating in Dublin. The Department of Foreign Affairs said Chinese authorities did not make an advance request to set up the office.

“Actions of all foreign states on Irish territory must be in compliance with international law and domestic law requirements,” the Irish government said, noting why it had told the Chinese Embassy that the office “should close and cease operations.”

“The Chinese Embassy has now stated that the activities of the office have ceased,” it said.

The Dutch government said this week it was looking into whether two such police stations — one a virtual office in Amsterdam and the other at a physical address in Rotterdam — were established in the Netherlands.

“We are investigating the activities of these so-called police centers. Once there is more clarity on the matter, we will decide on appropriate action,” the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement sent to the AP. “We have not been informed about these centers via diplomatic channels.”

Another Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, described the foreign outposts identified by Safeguard Defenders as service stations for Chinese people who are abroad and in need of help with, for instance, renewing their driver’s licenses.

Wang added that China also has cracked down on what he called transnational crimes but said the operation was conducted in line with international law.

In its report, Safeguard Defenders reproduced Chinese media accounts about people suspected of alleged crimes in China being interrogated by video link from some of the locations in other countries that Beijing allegedly did not declare to other governments.

In one instance, according to the group, a Chinese man accused of environmental crimes was persuaded in 2020 to return from Madrid to Qingtian, in Zhejiang province, where he turned himself in to authorities.

Visits by The Associated Press to some of the locations identified by Safeguard Defenders in Rome, Madrid and Barcelona found, respectively, a massage parlor, the Spanish headquarters of an association of citizens from Qingtian and a firm providing legal translation services. There was no indication of police stations or other activity directly related to the Chinese government.

A worker at the Barcelona translation company confirmed to the AP that a Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station operated on the premises for a few weeks this year in a test-drive capacity.

The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists, the press, said the police service center offered document renewal services to Fuzhou citizens living in the Barcelona region who could not return to China due to pandemic travel restrictions and the high cost of flights.

According to Safeguard Defenders, China claims 230,000 suspects of fraud were “persuaded to return” to China from April 2021 to July 2022.

“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,” its report said.

The European Union’s executive arm said Thursday it was up to member countries to investigate such allegations since it would be a matter of national sovereignty.

A Hungarian opposition lawmaker claimed this month to have discovered two sites in Budapest where Chinese overseas police stations operated without the knowledge of the country’s Interior Ministry.

The lawmaker, Marton Tompos, said one of the two locations in Hungary’s capital had a sign that said Qingtian Overseas Police Station. Tompos said he was unable to contact anyone affiliated with the sites and that when he visited again days later, the sign had been removed.

The Hungarian Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to AP questions on the matter.

Three informal Chinese police stations are operating in Portugal, Safeguard Defenders reported. Portuguese authorities did not immediately reply to AP questions about the claim.

A Portuguese TV report said one of the venues, located in an industrial complex in northern Portugal, appeared to be a car shop operated by a Chinese man. The man denied any connection with the Chinese government, though broadcaster S.I.C. Noticias showed him in a video promoting the Beijing Winter Olympics and said he heads a local association that helps Chinese immigrants.

In Tanzania, both police and the Chinese Embassy have denied the presence of a Chinese-run police station in the country’s commercial hub and former capital, Dar es Salaam, after the BBC reported on it last week.

“You are fabricating stories,” the embassy tweeted, calling the report an example of disinformation aimed at dividing China-Africa relations. A police spokesman sent the AP a copy of China’s denial in response to questions Thursday.

In Lesotho, a kingdom in southern Africa, national police Senior Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli also denied the existence of any Chinese law enforcement activities. He said such operations would be illegal as any form of policing in Lesotho is conducted by local authorities.

Over his decade in power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pushed a relentless anti-corruption drive that has seen tens of millions of Communist Party cadres investigated and expanded overseas via a pair of campaigns known as Sky Net and Fox Hunt. Both are tasked with locating allegedly corrupt officials who have fled abroad and convincing them to return to China with their stolen state assets.

Since China began opening up in the 1980s, corruption has been a major problem among those enjoying access to state funds and resources with few safeguards in place, and cash was often squirreled away abroad, particularly in the U.S. and other countries without extradition treaties with China.

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Herbert Moyo in Maseru, Lesotho, Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, Francesco Sportelli and Maria Grazia Murru in Rome, Justin Spike in Budapest, Renata Brito in Barcelona, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Samuel Petrequin in Brussels, Jill Lawless in London and AP reporters in China contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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