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China’s Illegal Policing Beyond Its Borders

China’s illegal network of transcontinental police stations is a blatant violation of international laws. The covert police operation is flouting human rights in its efforts to “persuade” Chinese nationals to return home.

Two paramilitary police officers secure an area along a street during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on April 25, 2019. Photo ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

It is well known that China does not tolerate criticism – especially from its citizens. Freedom on the mainland is limited, and scrutiny is rampant. Activists and dissents have often left the country to avoid incarceration, fines, and other punishments. But, the Chinese administration is unwilling to forgive or forget those who oppose their dogma and voice their protests, even if they have left the country.

Beijing's law enforcement hands now stretch far beyond its borders. And those familiar with Chinese modus operandi would undoubtedly not assume that the Chinese are working with Interpol and other international governmental law enforcement agencies to bring back the critics and detractors.

To bring those who dared to speak up or act against the regime to the book and deter others from following such paths, Beijing is setting up its own network of police centers – in other countries. These transnational policing centers are spread across five continents. The "overseas police service centers" currently function in at least 54 countries outside China. Such centers are active in the U.S. and UK. In Europe, there are 36 such outposts.

The recently published Safeguard Defenders report brought the alarming news of the clandestine operation, presumably being run under the auspices of the Communist Party of China (CCP). Under the guise of "assisting" Chinese travelers with paperwork or "extending their Chinese driver's licenses" and arranging "required health checks," these stations harass ex-pat Chinese for alleged crimes committed against the regime or in China.

Not surprising that these "overseas police service centers" operate without the local government's knowledge or consent on whose soil the "policing" activities are carried out. According to the report, the stations use Chinese-run restaurants and shops to cover their illegal operations on foreign soil.

It is understood that the first such "police stations" were set up by the Qingtian county police, of the Zhejiang province, in 2019. These stations are used to coerce Chinese citizens to return to the mainland in what is termed the "persuasion to return." In 2018, the "persuasion to return" campaign was rolled out initially in 10 provinces. Official guidelines to achieve the desired results included retaliatory methods such as barring children from attending school to harassing families left behind on the Chinese mainland.

Beijing is rarely shackled or deterred by human rights and humanitarian concerns. The report states that families of those unwilling to return are often threatened. Some have had their electricity and access to drinking water cut off. The Safeguard Defenders report reads, "In the mere fifteen months between April 2021 and July 2022 alone ... a staggering number of 230,000 Chinese nationals were returned to face potential criminal charges in China through these methods, which often include threats and harassment to family members back home or directly to the target abroad either through online or physical means." The Chinese state media have reported that such overseas police stations successfully brought back Chinese citizens from Spain and Serbia.

The illegal international police are active in the nine "forbidden countries for the Chinese," namely Cambodia, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia. Most of those forced to return to China are from these countries.

"The combination of an absolute absence of minimal judicial safeguards for the target and the association by guilt methods employed on their families, as well as the illegal methods adopted to circumvent official international cooperation mechanisms and the use of United Front Work-related organizations abroad to aid in such efforts, pose a grave risk to the international rule of law and territorial sovereignty," the report found.

The Chinese administration will stop at nothing to thwart political dissent. But, setting up policing centers on foreign soil violates the law. Just as the regime is determined to bring its detractors to book, the administration should be held accountable for its illegal activities on foreign lands.

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