Government repression inside China is leading to a crackdown on dissidents outside of the country, including increased surveillance, according to human rights experts.
Two New York residents, 61-year-old Lu Jianwang and 59-year-old Chen Jinping, were arrested last month on federal accusations of setting up and operating a “secret police station” on behalf of the Chinese government’s Ministry of Public Security. The arrests have drawn additional attention to the so-called stations operated internationally by the Chinese Communist Party on five continents including Europe, North America and Africa.
The police stations need to be understood in the context that the Chinese government has been pursuing Chinese dissidents living abroad for several years, Yaqui Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Newsweek in a phone conversation.
“There’s just so many people basically fleeing China because they criticized the government, or they run afoul with the government for other reasons,” she said.
The Madrid-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Safeguard Defenders documented the establishment of the stations in June 2022. The stations began as pilot programs run by the public security bureaus of Fuzhou and Qingtian counties and operated in 25 cities.
Updated data published by Safeguard Defenders in December detailed over 100 reported clandestine police stations across some 50 countries controlled by various entities of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, on behalf of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Laura Harth, the campaign director at Safeguard Defenders, told Newsweek that South Africa is the only country that they’ve seen that explicitly gave its consent.
Nations like Italy have engaged in what she termed “willful blindness” to such activities, though officials there have rejected the idea of consenting to the targeting of citizens. A 2015 bilateral agreement on joint police patrols to help Chinese-speaking tourists appears to have contributed to the establishment of a station. The program ended in 2022.
Italy’s interior ministry told the national newspaper Il Folgio last September that the Chinese stations were “of no particular concern,” according to The Guardian.
“Despite having the largest number of liaison outposts on its soil, the Italian government is among the very few European countries that has not yet publicly announced an investigation into the Chinese overseas police stations or declared their illegality,” Safeguard Defenders reported.
Safeguard Defenders focuses heavily on forced disappearances from the PRC and how their authorities discuss them, Harth said. Through the NGO’s work helping defendants stop extraditions to China, Harth said they saw increasingly more clandestine methods of returning people to China for prosecution.
“And once we saw those initial [police] stations, we knew that this was probably going to be something that caught the authorities in the democratic nations’ attention,” Harth said.
Repression in China
Wang told Newsweek that more attention has been drawn to human rights issues in China due to rising China-United States tensions.
“Whether the Chinese government is going to intensify its intimidation and harassment of the Chinese diaspora depends on how other governments address this issue,” Wang said.
A United Nations report published last August stated that the Chinese government committed abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity in their alleged targeting of Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in the Xinjiang region.
“This report must be understood in the context that China has a lot of influence in the U.N., and to have this report out in such strong language is already a huge achievement,” she said. “So, I would say this is progress. It shows that China’s influence in the U.N. and other international institutions are diminishing because of its gross violations and other countries pushing back.”
While it’s known that China’s cracking down on its citizens’ rights, Wang said it’s difficult to estimate how many individuals have been harassed or jailed by the PRC, saying there “are huge numbers of people.”
Hong Kong is a strong example of repression prompting Chinese residents to flee the country. People in the city have had their freedoms “decimated” and many of them have gone into exile and organized in countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Those individuals are “playing a huge role in pushing back and speaking up.”
It seems like sinicization, Wang said, referring to the acculturation or assimilation of Chinese norms on neighboring East Asian societies or minority ethnic groups within China.
“The Chinese government wants to make the minorities more look like Chinese,” she said. “That’s why they are cracking down on the religious cultural practices in Xinjiang; why they are banning men having a beard, woman having [a] veil because those are not Chinese practices.”
The “broader umbrella of the government’s sinicization” including political, cultural and religious repressions as it pertains to Uyghurs, Tibetans and others has caused minorities in China to flee, she added.
The Global Response
President Xi Jinping’s battle for supremacy on an international stage has “accelerated” the crackdown on criticism of China’s government both within its borders and around the world.
Harth referred to the secret stations as the “tip of the iceberg.” The consequences have spilled into the wider world, with a likelihood of increased similar operations.
“As we are seeing the repression inside grow, it was never good,” Harth said. “But it’s getting worse and worse exponentially since Xi Jinping came into power.”
The onus is on democratic nations to understand how the stations are put into place, such as abusing international mechanisms like Interpol, bilateral agreements like extraditions, and police cooperation agreements—as well as not registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
In April, the White House was asked about the stations—linked to potential Chinese surveillance following multiple spy balloon incidents—though neglected to comment.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the presence of these Chinese stations in his country “concerns us enormously.” Two stations in Quebec were specifically being investigated following Canadians of Chinese origin allegedly being victimized, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We’ve known about the [presence of] Chinese police stations across the country for many months, and we are making sure that the RCMP is following up on it and that our intelligence services take it seriously,” Trudeau said in March.
Following the arrests in New York City, Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesperson Robin Percival told Newsweek that the “RCMP is actively investigating reports nationally of criminal activity in relation to the so-called ‘police’ stations.”
The incident perked up the ears of officials in other countries as well.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said in comments shared with Newsweek that “under no circumstances will France tolerate attacks on its sovereignty.”
“It intends to vigorously combat foreign influences on its soil and will not allow international rules providing for the admission of these citizens to undermine our good relations with certain nations,” he added, “whether that be China or any other country.”
A spokesperson for the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community told Newsweek that no permanent offices have been established.
“The Chinese Embassy was requested to immediately terminate activities outside the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations and to close down existing ‘Chinese overseas police stations’ in Germany. There is an exchange with the Chinese Embassy on this matter,” the spokesperson said.
“This is about people being targeted and not able to enjoy their fundamental freedoms as they should because they are residents or citizens of our democratic nations,” Harth said. “They’re going to increase these kinds of things…We now really need to start increasing our countermeasures to make sure that people on our soil are protected and we speak with one united voice to Beijing when we say this is not acceptable.”