Why China’s police state has a precinct near you
Beijing has been operating an overseas police station in New York. And London. And Rome. And Tokyo. And Toronto.
The Department of Justice’s indictment of two Chinese citizens this week for using the unlawful Chinese police station in Manhattan to go after dissidents highlights the growing tentacles of Beijing’s overseas operations, which it uses to harass and silence critics around the world.
The network also shows the extent to which Beijing has managed to conduct influence campaigns inside Western countries and violate others’ sovereignty while mostly evading law enforcement.
Security agencies across Europe and the Americas are investigating more than 100 facilities that an advocacy organization exposed in September as overseas outposts of China’s security apparatus. In the U.S., that includes at least two others besides the one targeted this week.
“These secret police stations reveal the CCP’s blatant disregard and disrespect for the American rules and privacy,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of House Foreign Affairs Committee, using the abbreviation for the Chinese Communist Party. McCaul urged the Biden administration to “root out these encroachments on U.S. sovereignty.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chair of the House Select Committee on China, said in a statement Tuesday that the Chinese police outposts raise the risk of the U.S. becoming “a hunting ground for dictators.”
Here’s what we know about the network of Chinese police stations across the world:
It’s a sprawling network
The Spain-based nonprofit advocacy organization Safeguard Defenders published data from China’s Ministry of Public Security in September that revealed that Beijing had announced its “first batch” of “30 overseas police service stations in 25 cities in 21 countries.” By December, Safeguard Defender’s tally of such facilities had grown to more than 100 in countries including the U.S., Canada, Nigeria, Japan, Argentina and Spain.
The stations appear to provide civilian cover for Chinese government operations deemed too risky for official Chinese diplomats to pull off. They provide toeholds in neighborhoods with large ethnic Chinese and Asian communities — the Manhattan facility was in Chinatown — that allow those operatives to function with relative anonymity.
They’re a “perfect platform to advance operations that are favorable to Chinese government interests, including misinformation and disinformation,” said Heather McMahon, a former senior director at the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which monitors the intelligence community’s compliance with the Constitution and relevant laws. Safeguard Defenders has reported that one of the purposes of these stations has been to “persuade” Chinese citizens who are implicated in crimes to return to China.
Authorities in at least five countries have confirmed that at least some of these are indeed Chinese government operations that violate laws barring the activities of foreign police personnel inside their borders. Investigations into other outposts are ongoing in countries including the United Kingdom, Japan and the Netherlands, but there have been no arrests of individuals connected with those operations.
It’s unclear how extensive the network is and whether the Safeguard Defenders’ report — and follow-up by individual governments confirming the existence of such outposts — has prompted Beijing to scale back the program to avoid detection.
The European offensive is underway, and embattled
Revelations about dozens of unlawful Chinese police facilities in Europe prompted Italian EU Parliament member Alessandra Basso to ask the European Commission in December if there was an EU-wide strategy “to close down these police stations and put an end to their activities.” The response: EU member states are on their own in probing “any alleged violation of their laws or … internal security occurring on their territory,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement published last month.
EU governments are doing precisely that, with limited success. The German government revealed last month that Beijing was refusing to comply with Berlin’s demands for the shutdown of two unlawful Chinese police stations in the country. Greek police announced in December that they were investigating a similar operation in downtown Athens. Dutch media reported in October the existence of two unlawful Chinese police outposts, prompting denials from Beijing and a Dutch government pledge to probe those allegations. That same month the Irish government ordered the closure of a similar facility in Dublin.
But activists say that’s inadequate given the scale of the problem. Many European governments are clearly “not taking this issue seriously at all,” argued Safeguard Defenders Campaign Director Laura Harth.
Harth criticized the “absence of a strong and unified public message” from affected countries “on the illegality of these operations and the measures or investigations in place to counter these activities.”
Complicating the situation: Chinese law enforcement has legal footholds in Italy, Croatia and Serbia through deals that allow for “the stationing and deployment of Chinese police officers” in those countries. Those Chinese police deploy on joint patrols with local counterparts in areas that attract large numbers of Chinese tourists. But that declaration — signed by EU lawmakers from countries including Germany, France, Denmark and Estonia — urged EU countries to reconsider such agreements “with a country disrespecting human rights, the rule of law and democratic values.”
In the U.K., where at least three alleged Chinese police stations are reportedly operating, police investigations continue, Home Office Minister Chris Philp said Wednesday.
Alicia Kearns, a Conservative MP who chairs the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said she is “exasperated that six months since this issue was first raised in the House, that members are still needing to ask the government why Chinese police stations are operating in at least three locations on U.K. soil.”
“These stations are a very real example of transnational repression being conducted by an authoritarian state, and the government must take action to shut down these stations immediately,” she added.
U.S. officials and policymakers have been worried about American outposts for awhile
Gallagher, the House China committee chair, held a press conference outside the now-abandoned Chinese police outpost in New York in February and warned of “at least two more on United States’ soil.” Safeguard Defenders has reported the existence of a second such facility in an unidentified location in New York City and another in Los Angeles.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate hearing in November that he was aware of such an operation in New York City and was “very concerned” about it. That culminated with the arrest Monday of Chinese nationals Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping for conspiring to act as Chinese government agents.
That same day, the Department of Justice charged 44 individuals — including 40 members of China’s Ministry of Public Security and two officials from the Cyberspace Administration of China — with “transnational repression offenses targeting U.S. residents.” Those suspects “created and used fake social media accounts to harass and intimidate PRC dissidents residing abroad and sought to suppress the dissidents’ free speech,” said a DOJ statement published Monday.
It’s an issue north of the U.S. border, too
Safeguard Defenders has reported four such locations in the Toronto area, three in the Vancouver area and two more were found unlisted in the Montreal area. And allegations last month that Beijing meddled in Canada’s federal elections in 2019 and 2021 have made China’s potential malign activities in the country a hot-button issue.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have since begun a nationwide investigation into foreign interference following the report’s findings, including into the Wenzhou Friendship Society in British Columbia.
Canada, unlike the United States, doesn’t force foreign agents to register with the government. But amid growing calls for change following the recent bombshell reports of China’s alleged interference, Canada’s Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino announced that the Liberal government has started consultations running until early May to consider establishing its own registry system.
Beijing is in denial mode
Beijing denies that it operates unlawful overseas police outposts. Instead it insists it operates “service centers” where Chinese people residing abroad can “get their driver’s licenses renewed and receive physical check-ups,” the spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Washington, D.C., Liu Pengyu, said in November.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the U.S. allegations “slanders and smears … There are simply no so-called ‘overseas police stations.’”
The FBI is on the hunt for more such facilities
There are concerns on Capitol Hill that the existence of such outposts goes beyond just one location in Manhattan.
“Today’s arrests are only the tip of the iceberg,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) tweeted on Monday.
The FBI is clearly not stopping at the arrests of Chen and Lu in New York City’s Chinatown. The agency has a dedicated transnational repression website where the public can report such unlawful activities.
“We’re increasingly conducting outreach in order to raise awareness of how some countries harass and intimidate their own citizens living in the U.S.,” the FBI said in a statement.
And the New York City and DOJ indictments Monday suggest that the authorities are closing in on any remaining Chinese unlawful police outposts.
Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA, argued that the investigations simply need to be allowed to run their course.
The U.S. government should “not overly freak out about these police stations — where we discover them we should roll them up and prosecute,” said Johnson, now the head of the China Strategies Group political risk consultancy. “But there’s no need to paint [them] as an existential threat to U.S. freedom and democracy.”
Finding and shuttering these outposts is tricky
China’s unlawful police outposts aren’t easy to find.
Beijing positions them inside what appear to be legitimate businesses or organizations that provide them a front to conduct their operations. They operate discreetly and don’t advertise their actual purpose. Members of local communities who are aware of such facilities are hesitant to contact authorities for fear of possible Chinese government reprisals against them in the U.S. or against family members in China.
“I think there are definitely more, it’s just that they’re not listed on some public website,” said Human Rights Watch senior China researcher Yaqiu Wang.
Some in Europe hope the indictments in New York will help spur more action globally.
Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s China relations delegation, said Europe should “take advantage” of the opportunity that the U.S. action in New York offers to rally democracies together and “show China its limits.”
Erica Orden and Wilhelmine Preussen contributed to this report.