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“He rang the doorbell and started threatening me with murder in Chinese.” How Chinese authorities go after dissidents abroad

Following the release of a report by the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders in September 2022, probes were launched by several countries into the activities of the “overseas police stations” established by China worldwide. These investigations uncovered that the Chinese government had been utilizing these stations to conduct surveillance on its citizens residing in foreign countries, including Europe and the US. Additionally, dissidents were subjected to threats, intimidation, and coercion to force their return to China. The Insider interviewed both victims of such persecution and activists who are helping them fight against the all-powerful Chinese government.

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Content
  • Wang Jinyu's Odyssey

  • Where did China's “overseas police stations” come from?

  • Forced repatriation

  • How “overseas police stations” and their networks are structured

After the publication of Safeguard Defenders' report on the existence of overseas police stations, or so-called “service centers,” investigations were initiated in 14 countries, including Europe, the US, Canada, Chile, and Nigeria. The main reason for these investigations was not only the violations of the rights of Chinese citizens forcibly repatriated to their homeland, but also the fact of the presence of these “police stations” on the territories of other sovereign states, through which the Chinese authorities extend their executive power beyond their own borders. Most victims avoid contact with the press, but The Insider managed to interview one of the affected individuals—opposition figure Wang Jinyu—who faced persecution by the Chinese government while abroad.

Wang Jinyu's Odyssey

Wang's story began back in 2019. He grew up in a politically active and deeply oppositional family. Despite his father being a military pilot, their home never had national television, and his parents preferred to watch CNN or BBC. As a result, Wang started facing problems with the police while still in high school. He was summoned to the police station several times due to his anti-government remarks or posts on Weibo, China's major social media platform.

“I had a Weibo account with three thousand followers, which wasn't a lot. In 2019, I read a propaganda article stating that if you come from China to Hong Kong and speak Mandarin, Hong Kongers will attack you for no reason. It's a total fabrication, of course. Nobody in Hong Kong would attack someone without cause. I simply stated that it was untrue and expressed my support for Hong Kong democracy. Soon after, the police came to my school, arrested me on the spot, and detained me for two days. I was only 17 years old at the time.”

Wang managed to secure his release with the help of his father and decided that he needed to leave the country. In 2019, Wang Jinyu relocated to Istanbul, hoping to find safety there, but he was mistaken.

Wang Jinyu
Wang Jinyu
“I thought that if I wasn't in China, the Chinese police wouldn't be able to do anything to me. Unfortunately, I was wrong. In 2021, I faced threats again. I posted something about the China-India war and how the Chinese government always spreads fake news, stating that we, as Chinese people, don't want to live in such a deceitful country.”

Wang's post went viral and caught the attention of the Chinese government. He and his family were publicly condemned on television, and threats started pouring in.

“I don't know why it angered them so much. My face was constantly shown on television. It seems like almost all Chinese people know me now. On February 22, 2021, an official representative from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the police would arrest me, even if I were in America or Europe. At that time, I didn't believe it. I thought that if I made it to Europe or the US, any democratic country, the Chinese government wouldn't be able to reach me. I decided to leave Turkey, and on April 5, I purchased a ticket to New York on an Emirates Airlines flight.”

Before reaching New York, Wang was supposed to have a three-hour layover in Dubai. However, he was not destined to board the second flight. In Dubai airport, Wang was detained by local police without any explanation and placed in a temporary isolation facility.

“It was madness. They kept me there for almost two months. Lawyers didn't come to see me, only representatives from China—the ambassador to the UAE and the consul general in Dubai. Every time they brought some documents in Arabic, claiming that if I signed them, they would release me and provide me with first-class tickets back to Guangzhou. They wanted me to publicly apologize to my fellow citizens there and said everything would be fine afterwards.”

Wang was threatened that if he refused to sign the documents, he could face up to 10 years of imprisonment, as he was accused of spreading hatred towards Islam (the UAE has a law prohibiting blasphemy, punishable by up to five years in prison). Wang himself is still unaware of what exactly was used as a formal reason for the accusations.

“I've never spoken against Muslims... The only thing I've ever spoken about is the support for the Uyghur rights in China, so these accusations are completely absurd.”

Despite the prolonged detention pending a court hearing and the serious charges against him, the UAE court sided with Wang. The case was closed due to the lack of evidence of any crime, and he was released in the courtroom. However, upon his release, he was arrested again, this time for “illegal border crossing.”

“I indeed had no visa because I didn't plan to leave the airport—I was taken out by the police. It was utter madness—I was just planning to have a layover, but I was arrested, taken out of the airport, and then charged for it. Absurd!”

Wang and the human rights defenders working with him are convinced that both the first and second arrests were carried out by local police at the behest or under pressure from Chinese diplomats. The same opinion, it seems, was held by the guards in the detention facility. They handed Wang his phone and allowed him to use it, giving him a chance to contact his girlfriend and regularly post updates about his situation on Twitter.

  • Official registrations of Weng Jinyu's testimony: two reports on opening the case and letters from the police.

Wang managed to attract the attention of journalists, major media outlets, and human rights defenders, such as AP, Deutsche Welle, and Safeguard Defenders. After a few weeks, the U.S. Department of State demanded that the UAE release Wang, and on May 27, 2021, he was released without any explanation. However, he was unable to reach the United States as the police insisted on deporting him back to Istanbul. From there, Wang planned to relocate to a safer country, but he encountered another obstacle.

“After returning to Turkey, I stayed at the Hyatt. On May 28, the second day of my stay in Istanbul, I went to the hotel's restaurant to eat, and after that, I couldn't find my passport. I called the Turkish police; they responded quickly, came, and checked the cameras. According to the footage, as soon as I left my room, the housekeeping staff entered—it was claimed by the hotel that they brought me water. But I still don't believe it—I never left the hotel, so how could my passport have disappeared?”

The police couldn't help any further, as Wang supposedly had no evidence that his passport was indeed stolen. The search reached a dead end until the press intervened once again.

“I was fortunate that WSJ, an American media outlet, helped me. They sent an email to the Hyatt Group—since it's an American chain with American management. They inquired about the situation, and the hotel responded promising to contact me to resolve the issue. True to their word, a few hours later, the general manager of my hotel called me and said that he could return my passport. However, he specified that my passport was 'very far away' and not present at the hotel. He didn't disclose where exactly or why, but I presume it was at the Chinese Embassy in Ankara. So, I just waited for nearly two weeks until my passport was returned to me.”
The hotel manager told me that my passport was 'very far away'

In the end, the hotel management did return his passport, and immediately after that, he hastily left Turkey. Despite COVID restrictions, the first country he managed to reach was Ukraine. However, he couldn't stay there for long. Soon, he received a letter from the Chongqing police, warning him about the extradition process. Panicked, Wang had to seek asylum, and he was able to find it in the Netherlands.

“I thought that in the Netherlands, I would be completely safe. But once again, I was mistaken. The Chinese police kept calling me incessantly—it felt like over a thousand times. And they called me from the official number 110, which they use in China. They said they wanted to talk to me and urged me to think about my parents, about the family over which they had power. When I initially reported this to the Dutch police, they told me that it was indeed illegal, but they couldn't do anything because it wasn't the Dutch police threatening me.”

Wang mentioned the specific phone number for a reason—besides being used by the police within China, it is also associated with the “overseas police stations,” openly so—we will delve into this in more detail later. Thus, the call from 110 became the first instance where the “overseas police station” of China directly made its presence known in Wang's case. However, there is no evidence linking them to his detention in Dubai or the passport theft in Istanbul.

The Chinese authorities did not limit themselves to the threats to Wang's family and the calls for him to “reconsider”.

“On June 9, 2022, I received a message from an unknown number stating that a Chinese special agent, allegedly located in Germany, was supposed to come to the Netherlands to kill me. Of course, I didn't believe it, but just in case, I called the Dutch police and informed them that I was being threatened with murder.”

A few days later, an unfamiliar person rang the doorbell and started threatening Wang in Chinese, stating that he wanted to kill him.

“I asked him why he wanted to kill me. He said it was because of my protests near the Chinese embassy. I immediately called the police, and he fled. Later, it was discovered that he had flown to Germany. A few days later, while I was at the police station, I received another threatening phone call. I immediately informed the caller that I was at the police station. Surprisingly, the man on the phone said he wanted to speak with law enforcement. The police officer demanded that he identify himself. Within minutes, the man sent me a video with his passport and a ticket from Germany to the Netherlands. As a result, the police placed me in a hotel for three months under a witness protection program until he was arrested.”
“I asked him why he wanted to kill me. He said it was because of my protests near the Chinese embassy”

The person who had threatened Wang was eventually arrested in The Hague. It was later discovered that he was an employee of the “overseas police station” and claimed that there was “nothing illegal” about his actions. He had planned to “arrest” Wang. The suspect was apprehended with the assistance of Wang himself, who agreed to meet the “overseas police station” employee at a café, where the Dutch police apprehended him.

“After that, the Chinese authorities changed their plan. They started sending anonymous tips to the police, claiming that I had a bomb, a gun, drugs—anything they could think of. They would simply call or write to the Dutch police, saying that I wanted to kill someone. The police would often come to my home—they even detained me for a few hours on several occasions. It wasn't too serious because by then they already knew me, and they always released me with apologies.”

Following these incidents, the Dutch police ignored calls from “volunteers” at the “overseas police stations” accusing Wang of crimes for a while. However, this changed when employees of the Chinese embassy officially summoned the police and accused Wang of attempted murder and plotting to bomb the Chinese embassy in The Hague.

“I was detained by the Dutch police once again. But they treated me very well—they knew I hadn't done anything, but they had to make sure.”

Since then, the persecution has taken a different form and escalated significantly. Hotels across European Union countries started receiving mass bookings in Wang's name, and bomb threats and ransom demands were sent on his behalf. Wang believes that the hotel bookings were made in order for the threats to appear more “realistic”—that way it was hotel staff, rather than the Chinese “police officers,” who reported the incidents to the police. In some cases, this led to temporary arrests of Wang.

Furthermore, threats against his family intensified. Wang's parents were arrested as early as September 2021, and the Chinese government used them as leverage to pressure him.

“I received an email from an official address of the Chinese police. They said that if I wanted to help my friends and family, I should return to China. They claimed that my parents were waiting for me. In response, both I and human rights defenders demanded to be allowed to speak with them—but instead, they sent me a voice recording of my father. He called me a traitor and said that the Dutch government was unjust and deceitful.”

All this time, Wang also continues to face smaller forms of pressure. Numerous couriers arrive at his address daily with unpaid orders (presumably arranged by employees of the “stations”). Bomb threat phone calls persist. Wang himself receives calls as well, saying, “Honestly, I don't know how one can live like this. Recently, they told the Dutch police that ISIS militants were hiding in my apartment. It's impossible to study or work.”

Every day, dozens of couriers with unpaid orders are sent to Wang's address

Wang's story is part of a larger tapestry, yet it stands out as distinctive. Typically, when Chinese citizens evade deportation, they opt to maintain anonymity for various reasons, such as evading the attention of the “police stations.” However, Wang courageously exposes the misconduct of the Chinese authorities, fully aware of the risks he and his family face.

Where did China's “overseas police stations” come from?

The emergence of China's “overseas police stations” is part of a broader and long-standing trend in Chinese foreign policy, which involves the development and expansion of extraterritoriality. The legislative framework for exercising authority beyond borders has been under development in China since the early 2000s. This was primarily in response to similar concepts in Western countries, particularly the United States, and as a means of reinforcing or justifying its status as a global power.

Active measures in this direction began in 2021 with the adoption of the anti-sanctions legislation package. Pro-government Chinese sources presented it as a “precautionary” project aimed at protecting China's “rights and dignity.” The Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law (AFSL) serves a defensive function and is comparable to similar anti-sanctions legislation in Russia. It prohibits both Chinese and international actors from facilitating the implementation of international sanctions against China. Additionally, the law empowers Chinese authorities to impose “countermeasures” against companies involved in sanctions, as well as against individuals and their families.

The next significant step in this direction occurred on September 2, 2022, with the adoption of a law in China that will lead to the repatriation of 210,000 Chinese citizens. This law, titled the Anti-Telecom and Online Fraud Law (ATOFL), has a seemingly harmless name but conceals a sinister subtext. The law states that it “applies to combating telecom and online fraud both within China and beyond its borders if committed by Chinese citizens.” Thus, any Chinese citizen, regardless of their place of residence, can be held accountable by Chinese authorities based on allegations of “online fraud.”

Any Chinese citizen, regardless of their place of residence, can be held accountable by Chinese authorities

By the time the law came into effect on December 1, 2022, a suitable system was already in place in the form of “overseas service centers.” It appears that they began to be established or at least prepared for opening some time before the adoption of the ATOFL. In January 2022, Chinese media actively circulated information about the use of the “110” number, the police emergency hotline in China, for Chinese citizens residing abroad. For example, on January 10, 2022, the online publication America Chinese Life published an article stating that the police in Fujian province (one of the largest sources of emigration, especially to the United States) had established a call center for Chinese citizens living overseas (huaqiao), accessible via the 110 number. The center promised to provide services 24/7, but the nature of the services and the reasons why Chinese immigrants were urged to contact the Chinese police were not specified.

In February, the government portal China Peace published a more extensive article on the international 110 number. The headline read, “Use the huaqiao status correctly!” The article featured several stories of Chinese immigrants who contacted “110” and how the Chinese overseas police assisted them. In one case, a Chinese student in Canada allegedly sought help after falling victim to fraud. The Chinese police, of course, assisted in recovering the money and arresting the criminal, who was in China at the time. In another case, police officers allegedly helped an elderly immigrant in the United States resolve an issue with her bank card by accompanying her to a local bank and assisting her in communicating with the staff. The Australian branch of the overseas police also assisted a citizen in obtaining a certificate confirming the absence of criminal record.

Apparently, the functions of these “overseas stations” also included relatively harmless activities such as assisting with documents, resolving banking issues, and renewing driver's licenses. However, the same article mentions the unequivocal words of Li Lianghuan, the head of the Security Bureau: “Our duty and mission are to pursue criminals.” It is evident that despite the friendly tone of the promotional articles about the “overseas police stations,” they are not limited to social work and support but also carry out traditional police functions such as tracking down and arresting citizens, ensuring compliance with domestic Chinese laws, and occasionally investigating minor crimes.

Forced repatriation

Even before the expansion of the executive authority of China abroad, there were reports of some, albeit rare, cases of “encouragement to return.” One such story, told by the Chinese police themselves, is mentioned by Safeguard Defenders in their report. In April 2011, a police station in Yangxia, located near Fuzhou in Fujian, received a call from a businessman in Mozambique who complained that one of his employees had stolen a large sum of money and fled back to China. The suspect was soon apprehended and informed the police about his accomplice who remained in Mozambique. According to the report, the “local” police, the officers at the police station in Mozambique, quickly identified the suspect, contacted his family in China, and persuaded him to return home and surrender.

Even before the expansion of the executive authority of China abroad, there were reports of cases of “encouragement to return”

Another sudden surge in mentions of “overseas police stations” and the number 110 in Chinese media appears to be related to the enactment of the law on internet fraud. The timing and subject matter of these mentions coincide with the law's implementation. For instance, on September 20, 2022, 18 days after the adoption of the law, the website chinanews.se, which caters to Chinese citizens in Sweden and Norway, published an article warning about the increasing cases of fraud and recommending that citizens contact the Chinese police at the number 110 either directly or through their relatives and friends in China.

It is evident that the Chinese authorities made little effort to conceal information about the actions of their own police abroad and openly disseminated such information, albeit exclusively in Chinese. However, the methods by which these “police stations” managed to go unnoticed by local authorities for a considerable period of time remain unclear.

How “overseas police stations” and their networks are structured

To learn more about it, The Insider spoke with Simona Fantova, a Czech sinologist, court interpreter for the Chinese community in Prague, and a writer for the popular science publication about China, Sinopsis. Simona was the first person to discover the existence of a Chinese “police station” in Prague, and her research was published almost simultaneously with the Safeguard Defenders report.

Simona explains that she learned about the existence of such a station almost by accident. After coming across a small publication in a British tabloid speculating about Chinese police presence in the UK, she decided to investigate whether something similar could be true in the Czech Republic. The first few search queries in Chinese yielded several articles that seemed to describe the phenomenon.

“They were quite open about it. The only thing that helps them remain unnoticed is that they publish news in Chinese”

Simona particularly highlights the publication Prague Times, which, however, deleted all articles about the “police stations” and stopped updating shortly after the publication of the Safeguard Defenders report.

The “overseas police stations” in different cities, it seems, had connections with various departments in China, depending on the origin of the diaspora. In the case of the Czech Republic, as noted by Simona, most Chinese immigrants come from Qingtian in Zhejiang province. Zhejiang, along with Fujian, was one of the first provinces involved in the establishment of “overseas police stations.” The majority of Chinese-language publications in the Czech media were specifically about the Qingtian police department, which apparently supervised the operations of the station in Prague. The center's work was supported by “volunteers” known within the immigrant community. Simona says she was able to identify the head of the station in Prague as Ms. Chen Jingmei, an activist from Qingtian with ties to the United Front, a major political organization affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. The United Front is essentially a large PR project of the Chinese Communist Party that disseminates Party ideals to the masses, with a particular focus on marginalized groups, minorities, and emigrants. The United Front has been in existence for over a decade but gained significantly more influence under Xi Jinping, especially overseas. According to an interview with Chen Jingmei cited by Simona, the “police station” in Prague has been in operation since 2018, and it may have been involved in surveillance of “criminals” within the diaspora.

Simona believes that the “volunteers” and personnel at the police station could not work “full-time” since there are not many Chinese immigrants in the Czech Republic to provide the station with a substantial workload. They had to find other employment, which helped provide cover. The police officers opened a small Chinese restaurant that also functioned as the police station. As Simona discovered, the restaurant's number, along with 110, was mentioned in almost every article about the “police centers.” A restaurant is a convenient place for such activities. It is easily accessible, serves as a hub for the immigrant community, and acts as a front. Apparently, police officers in other countries share this approach. For example, the Chinese “police station” in Seoul was also hidden inside a large Chinese restaurant called Dongbang Myungjoo. Both restaurants in Prague and Seoul had almost no customers, were reluctant to accept reservations, and apparently served subpar food.

Unfortunately, although it is possible to discover the “police stations” themselves, it is much more challenging to track their activities and, most importantly, their victims. Simona notes that in her work as a court interpreter for Chinese immigrants in Prague, she observed a general distrust of the police and the state apparatus as a whole.

“For them, any attention from the state clearly brings discomfort,” Simona explains. “Even if they needed help, and we were ready to provide it, they preferred to deny everything.”

Therefore, it is almost impossible to learn about the persecution of dissidents, espionage, blackmail, and the forced repatriation of citizens to China firsthand.

However, the police themselves and official Chinese sources sometimes boast about such “achievements.” For example, in 2022, the Chinese police arrested 634,000 suspects under the new fraud law, and 210,000 of them were “persuaded to return” to China, where they faced criminal punishment. Safeguard Defenders speculate that persuasion methods typically involve blackmail, threats, and pressure on family members in China, including their arrest or imprisonment.

In 2022, the Chinese police arrested 634,000 suspects under the new fraud law, and 210,000 of them were “persuaded to return” to China

Currently, investigations in countries where Chinese “police stations” have been discovered are ongoing, and their personnel are successfully covering their tracks by removing publications, discussions, and chats where the issue of “police stations” could be raised, according to Simona.

“Somebody is actively involved in cleaning up the information. If I hadn't saved the articles in the Internet Archive, I wouldn't have any evidence left.”

The outcome of the government investigations and who will be held responsible remains unknown. However, it is clear that in the pursuit of strengthening authority and the status of a global power unbound by national borders, Xi Jinping is unlikely to be willing to accept the loss of “police stations abroad.” We may encounter them or their alternatives again in the future.

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