On September 12, the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders released a report on the existence of overseas Chinese police stations, established by the public security of Fuzhou Province 福建 and Qingtian County 青田, the areas from which the largest number of Chinese living in Europe come from. These police stations are intended, for example, to provide consular services or to enable Chinese citizens to report crimes. However, they also allow the government in Beijing to keep an eye on the Chinese community abroad and, if necessary, force its members to return to their homeland, where they can face criminal prosecution. Project Sinopsis drew attention to the phenomenon of so-called Chinese Aid Centers (Huazhu Zhongxin 华助中心) operating under the banner of the United Front as early as 2019. Since then, the number of such offices has grown considerably, and they are now also openly declaring their ties to the Chinese police. Two such police stations are located in Prague.
Overseas Chinese police stations according to Chinese media
Over the past few months, offices called overseas Chinese police stations have started to appear around the world. According to the Chinese press, there are several dozens of them on five continents. Chinese media praise their activities and describe them as institutions that greatly simplify the lives of Chinese expatriates in dealing with complicated administrative matters previously requiring travel to China. Many articles about their activities can be found in the media, including stories of people who have been helped by friendly police officers to solve previously intractable problems. For example, an article from the news section on sohu.com states:
“I’m old and forgetful now”, says Ms. Wang. “I didn’t realize my granddaughters’ passports had expired. (…) What should I do?” The police authorities have considered Ms Wang’s difficult situation and reassured her that there was nothing to worry about. (…) Under their guidance, she contacted the children’s mother, who was in Portugal, by telephone. A police official then used the global communication platform of the Qinghai District Public Security Bureau’s Wechat account to remotely contact the mother who had applied for a passport [for her daughters], verified her identity and documents, and resolved the application for the two young compatriots on the spot, in a flash.
If Chinese citizens living overseas wish to report a crime, they can also do so through these police stations. According to the Chinese media, these institutions will help the government crack down on criminal activities by Chinese expatriates abroad, especially telephone and online fraud.
Many Chinese citizens living abroad have reported that they have encountered telephone scams in the past, including cryptocurrency and money exchange scams, job-related scams, and so on. If we did not have overseas police stations, aggrieved Chinese living in Canada who filed a telephone report with the police in their home country would face jurisdictional or proof-of-identity problems. If they dialed 911 [the phone number for the Canadian police], we could imagine the efficiency with which Canadian law enforcement would deal with this. But foreign police stations are great at dealing with Chinese abroad who are victims of fraud and want to report it. The relevant Chinese police authorities will protect their health, property and safety regardless of distance.
What the Chinese media don’t say about overseas police stations
Critics, however, point out that these police stations help the government keep an eye on the Chinese community abroad and enforce Chinese government regulations beyond its borders. Ms. Chen Jinmei 陈金妹, chief of the Prague police station and a member of many Chinese organizations in the Czech Republic with links to the United Front, had this to say about their activities to the Prague Chinese Times:
Since its formal opening on September 28, 2018, the Qingtian Public Security Service Center for Overseas Chinese has achieved many working successes (…). The main one is the strict adherence to the Communist Party’s policy directives on laws, regulations and policies related to foreign Chinese citizens.
According to the Safeguard Defenders report, if some members of the community do not act in accordance with what the government in Beijing would like them to do, they are blackmailed and their families are persecuted in China – for example, they may be cut off from electricity and water or their children denied access to state schools. Many Chinese citizens living abroad are thus pressured to return to their homeland, where they may face prosecution for either real or perceived violations of Chinese law.
Nothing new under the sun
The phenomenon of foreign Chinese associations with ties to the government is nothing new. As part of the so-called United Front, the Chinese government seeks to keep tabs on as many Chinese citizens in the PRC and abroad as possible, to unite them, and to mobilize them to advance its interests. In the Czech Republic, we were able to get a closer look at the work of the United Front, for example, during the visit of General Secretary Xi Jinping 习近平, when the local Chinese associations, led by the Chinese embassy, organised a massive welcome for him and the silencing of protesters, with the Czech police looking on.
These “countrymen associations” had previously established so-called Chinese Aid Centres, whose sometimes problematic activities were highlighted by Project Sinopsis in 2019, but have now become more institutionalized and directly linked to the police forces in China. Under the direction of Chinese police authorities, these “stations” are set up by individuals known for their work in the United Front of their respective countries, and operate in accordance with instructions from the police authorities in the PRC, thus providing a direct link between them and the Chinese community abroad. The links to the Chinese police structures are no secret, and the police themselves promote and explain them in a series of articles in the Chinese media. The articles also include the addresses and telephone numbers of police stations in each country, including the Czech Republic.
What are the actual tasks of the police stations?
The activities of foreign police stations are clearly problematic, contravening not only the laws of the countries in which they operate, but also the norms of international law, which regulate the activities of state authorities beyond their borders, as well as, for example, the conditions for extradition in the event of someone breaking the laws of a foreign country. According to an article on Zhongguo Qiao Wang (a website for Chinese citizens living abroad), their activities have five main objectives:
The first is to make it easier for Overseas Chinese to deal with administrative matters. (…) The second is to resolve conflicts in which Chinese abroad may find themselves, so that Overseas Chinese do not have to travel to China specifically for administrative matters and Chinese administrative workers do not have to travel to distant regions. The third is the communication of policies concerning Overseas Chinese. Overseas Chinese can learn about policies directly through video chat as needed and also express their opinions. The fourth is to facilitate the work of police abroad. With the help of overseas assistance centers, Qingtian District police authorities can collect intelligence, consult and provide rescue or assistance in real time. The fifth objective is to monitor the opinions of Chinese citizens abroad and convey their views.
The same article also informs us that there are two Chinese police stations located in Prague. The first one is linked to the police of Fuzhou Province, and the second is run by the police of Qingtian County, where around four out of five Chinese citizens living in the Czech Republic hail from. Both police stations advertise their services in Chinese-language media published in China and the Czech Republic. The most widely read Chinese-language website for the Chinese community in the Czech Republic, Prague Chinese Times, features not only articles presenting the activities of these stations, but also the names and photographs of the people heading them.
Sinologists, human rights activists and the Czech Security Information Service regularly draw attention in their reports to the problematic activities of Chinese associations operating under the banner of the United Front. Nevertheless, such activities on Czech territory, within the local Chinese community continue unabated, without significant changes or regulation. Given the actual nature and stated objectives of Chinese police stations abroad however, it would seem appropriate to assess their compatibility with the Czech legal order and national sovereignty.