Report: China’s Overseas Police Stations Silence Dissent, Threaten Host Nations
The Chinese government has established a network of overseas police stations that, observers say, are used to crack down on dissent and could pose a threat to host countries.
A 2022 report by Safeguard Defenders, a nonprofit human rights organization, says China has opened more than 50 such stations on five continents through operations known as Sky Net and Fox Hunt. In Africa, China operates stations in Lesotho, Nigeria and Tanzania.
The stations purportedly are to combat telecommunications fraud and internet crimes by Chinese citizens living abroad. But the Safeguard Defenders report showed that methods used by the Chinese police routinely violate international human rights law.
According to the International Forum for Right and Security, the police stations actually are meant to threaten dissidents living abroad and force some people to return to China, where they might face punishment.
“What we see coming from China is increasing attempts to crack down on dissent everywhere in the world, to threaten people, harass people, make sure that they are fearful enough so that they remain silent or else face being returned to China against their will,” Safeguard Defenders campaign director Laura Harth told CNN.
Harth’s team documented a variety of coercive tactics used to intimidate Chinese people living abroad.
“It will start with phone calls. They might start to intimidate your relatives back in China, to threaten you, do everything really to coax the targets abroad to come back,” she said. “If that doesn’t work, they will use covert agents abroad. They will send them from Beijing and use methods such as luring and entrapment.”
More than 200,000 Chinese workers have migrated to Africa to work on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2012, and more than 1 million Chinese migrants live on the continent, according to the Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust.
Workers on BRI projects have complained of dangerous working conditions, sexual abuse and cover-ups. BRI deals often lack transparency and are difficult to repay or renegotiate, leaving host nations mired in debt.
The Chinese government claimed that 230,000 nationals were “persuaded to return” to face criminal proceedings in China between April 2021 and July 2022. However, the report showed that most Chinese citizens who returned were dissidents, including those who fled the country over religious or ethnic persecution.
In many cases, those who were persuaded to return were not formally accused of a crime, due process was ignored, and their families were harassed or threatened. According to Safeguard Defenders, the disregard for the use of proper channels and processes in international relations is “blatant.”
Critics also are warning of the spying and surveillance threat posed by these stations.
“China has a history of carrying out surveillance in Africa, and now it has expanded to other countries as well,” the news service Asian News International reported. “The nations that are having such Chinese establishments functioning need to act soon, and demand closure as well as a detailed explanation from their Chinese counterparts for breach of trust and infringement of sovereign rights.”
The police stations were established in cooperation with local associations linked to United Front Work, a department of the Chinese Communist Party that tries to silence dissent.
“The United Front system [United Front Work] is the work of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agencies seeking to co-opt and influence ‘representative figures’ and groups inside and outside China, with a particular focus on religious, ethnic minority and diaspora communities,” author Alex Joske, a former analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Safeguard Defenders.
Leaders of local associations often are rewarded with meetings with CCP officials, participation in party-organized events and other activities. In return, they are expected to help the party with its propaganda and political influence efforts, the Safeguard Defenders report said.
In 2022, China announced plans to expand the Sky Net and Fox Hunt operations.