Safeguard Defenders, a non-governmental organisation headquartered in Spain, has published a report stating that public security bureaus in two Chinese provinces have established a global network of outposts that carry out “persuasion operations” to coerce dissidents into returning to China.
The report claims there are 54 “overseas police service centres” located in twenty-one countries over five continents, including two in London and another in Glasgow. According to Safeguard Defenders, these overseas stations are frequently embedded in Chinese community associations in their respective countries.
What are the police centres for?
Safeguard Defenders state that the centres are a part of a massive international campaign intended to combat the growing problem of fraud and law breaking committed by Chinese nationals living outside of China.
The Chinese authorities assert that between April 2021 and July 2022, approximately 230,000 Chinese nationals were “persuaded to return” to China to face criminal charges there. The group adds that this campaign, which started on a small scale in 2018, has developed alongside the establishment of overseas Chinese police “service stations”.
Document suggests that a popular Glasgow restaurant is a centre
A document showing the locations of a number of these centres, initially published by Chinese authorities and which I reviewed this morning, suggests that the Glasgow-based unit is located on Sauchiehall Street at the same address as a well-known Chinese restaurant.
Safeguard Defenders say there is no complete list of these “110 Overseas” – named for the Chinese emergency phone number – police service stations available. The list of “the first batch of overseas service stations for Fuzhou police and overseas Chinese affairs“, along with additional stations identified by Safeguard Defenders, provides a clue to how widespread these stations may be.
The service stations that are presented on this list are those operated by the police departments of Fuzhou and Qingtian. However, an announcement made by the government earlier stated that similar work had begun in ten provinces; consequently, it is safe to assume that the list of such stations is much longer than what can be presented here.
Today I visited the alleged location of the Glasgow centre. I went to their door and, despite what appeared to be staff members inside, no one answered my knocking or called-out question as to whether the allegations were true.
I called the number emblazoned on their front door. After almost ringing out, to my surprise, a man answered the phone. I asked if he or the business had any comment to make about whether the allegations were true. He told me he couldn’t hear me, and I repeated myself, twice, then he hung up.
Others had better luck, “There’s no secret police here”, a spokesperson told the Times.
What have the centres been used for?
The report cites an incident that took place in July 2022 in which the government of Wenchang City, Hainan province, issued a notice to disclose the names and pictures of those from Wenchang “illegally staying in northern Myanmar” and warned them to return.
If they did not contact their local police stations by 10 August 2022:
“(1) Their spouses, parents and children would all be suspended from getting subsidies such as severe illness insurance and medical insurance subsidies;
(2) Their children would be disqualified to enter urban schools once the parents failed to show up together in the interviews for registrations or to apply for the admission jointly;
(3) Their immediate family would be blocked in principle from joining the Party and the military, and from taking the exams for becoming public servants or employees of state-owned companies;
(4) Real estate purchased with their illicit money would be vacated and auctioned, any personnel settled in the property would be forcibly driven out, and houses built with stolen money would be demolished.”
The report adds that this was done despite no crimes being committed.
“Even though none of those targeted had been convicted of any crime and, notwithstanding Xinhua’s prior warnings that such actions would paint relatives, children and family members as guilty by association, collateral punishment continued to remain a key part of the ‘persuasion to return’ operation.”
No due process as a means to dodge international treaties
The report concludes by explaining that whether the targets are dissidents, corrupt officials or low-level criminals, “the problem remains the same, the use of irregular methods” that are “often combining carrots with sticks – against the targeted individual or their family members in China undermines any due process and the most basic rights of suspects. The described treatment of targets, their families and even wider community as suspected criminals – in some cases even in the absence of any factual accusation”.
Furthermore, the disregard of the use of proper channels and processes in international relations is despite China’s insistence on the establishment of bilateral extradition treaties, or other mechanisms of judicial cooperation.
“This methodology further allows them to circumvent firmly-set international principles such as the non-derogatory principle of non-refoulement under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Protection of Refugees, or the guarantees established under international mechanisms such as the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto.”
The first minister has spoken to Police Scotland about the matter
Greens MSP Ross Greer asked the first minister about the allegations today on Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon replied:
“I agree that these reports are deeply concerning and I want to be very clear that we take them extremely seriously. Any foreign country operating in Scotland must abide by Scottish law. The Scottish Government fully supports individuals’ rights to free speech, freedom of expression and that is also an extremely important principle.
“Obviously, these matters require to be fully and properly investigated and it would not be appropriate for me to go into too much detail, but I do know – and I know this as a result of a conversation I had just yesterday with the Chief Constable – that the police are aware of these reports. Of course, the police are operationally independent and it will be up to them to determine what investigations would be appropriate, but they are aware of this, and I would repeat that these reports do require to be treated extremely seriously.”
Investigation must be launched to protect people in the UK
The China Research Group of MPs at Westminster urged the UK Government to investigate these claims.
“The Home Office must launch an investigation to shed more light on the activities of these police stations and whether they are illegally operating in the UK. A Chinese government official reportedly admitted the role of these stations in ‘pressuring criminals’ to return to China. These ‘criminals’ could be Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, dissidents – or indeed anyone else who has dared to criticise the Chinese Communist Party. Formal investigations are now under way by governments in the US, Canada, Spain, Ireland, Germany, and now the Netherlands. It’s important that we don’t become an international laggard in dealing with this sort of malign interference.”
A Home Office spokesperson told me:
“Reports of undeclared ‘police stations’ operating in the UK are of course very concerning and will be taken extremely seriously. Any foreign country operating on UK soil must abide by UK law. The protection of individuals in the UK is of the utmost importance and any attempt to illegally repatriate individuals will not be tolerated.”
Action is already being taken in some countries. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs today ordered one of the centres operating in Dublin city centre to close, following scrutiny over the activities of the overseas offices. In the Netherlands, Dutch foreign ministry spokeswoman Maxime Hovenkamp told the BBC that “The Dutch government wasn’t made aware of these operations through the diplomatic channels with the Chinese government. That is illegal”.
It’s not clear what, if anything, will be done in the UK. But at least, for now, the wheels appear to be turning on this affront to Scotland’s values and ideals of respect, freedom, equality, dignity and fairness.