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Netherlands tells China to shut down overseas offices accused of targeting activists

The Dutch government says it has ordered China to shut down its overseas “service centers” that have reportedly been used to target and harass dissidents overseas.

“Because no permission has been requested from the Netherlands for this, the ministry has informed the ambassador that the stations must close immediately,” Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said via his Twitter account.

“In addition, the Netherlands is also conducting research into the stations in order to find out their precise activities.”

Hoekstra’s tweet came after reports by RTL Nieuws and website “Follow The Money” alleged that two Chinese “service centers” had carried out official functions, including remotely renewing Chinese citizens drivers’ licenses without official diplomatic status.

Spanish-based rights group Safeguard Defenders reported in September that Chinese police are operating from “service centers” across Europe, targeting exiled dissidents for harassment and putting pressure on them to go back to China. 

Chinese police are currently running at least 54 “overseas police service centers” in foreign countries, some of which work with law enforcement back home to run operations on foreign soil, the Sept. 13 report found.

A growing number of governments including Canada, the United Kingdom and Spain, have said they are investigating the reports, while the Netherlands, Portugal and Ireland have ordered Chinese “service centers” in their respective territory to close. 

Overseas 110

Safeguard Defenders researcher Chen Yen-ting said the service centers are linked to an overseas police website called Overseas 110, which enables people to report crimes to Chinese law enforcement while located overseas.

“Overseas 110 is an online platform set up by the Fuzhou police department that allows people to report crimes from overseas,” Chen said. “They have set up many such service stations overseas, basically combining online and physical sites. These are all in the public domain, and have contact numbers and addresses in the cities listed by [police in] Fuzhou.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied that the centers had any law enforcement functions.

“The organizations you mentioned are not police stations or police service centers,” Zhao told a regular briefing in Beijing on Wednesday. “Their activities are to assist local Chinese citizens who need to apply for expired driver’s license renewal online, and activities related to physical examination services by providing the venue.”

A number of reports on official news websites in China have also reported on the service centers, with a June 6, 2022, report listing service centers run by police in the southeastern city of Fuzhou as having “police work” within their remit.

Chinese national Wang Jingyu, who is seeking asylum in the Netherlands after a harrowing escape from Chinese agents last year that spanned the Middle East and eastern Europe, said he was targeted by calls he believes came from the “service center” in Rotterdam earlier this year. 

“I hope the Dutch government will sanction, arrest or expel these so-called overseas Chinese police,” Wang told RFA on Wednesday. “The Dutch foreign ministry has also previously said that Dutch police are making plans to protect us.”

Wang told RFA last week that he received a call from someone in the Rotterdam service center claiming to be a wealthy overseas Chinese businessman looking to support dissidents.

“The Chinese police and overseas Chinese service station in Rotterdam tried to meet with me in February, pretending to be this rich man saying he supports dissidents,” Wang told RFA shortly after the RTL report was published.

“He wanted me to meet with him somewhere in Rotterdam, so I ignored him,” he said. “He was so angry that he started repeatedly calling me to harass and abuse me. This harassment continued until March.

Tracking “suspects”

Chen Yan-ting said Wang’s experience is by no means unique.

“These overseas service stations are used to track people designated ‘suspects’ by the Chinese Communist Party, to put pressure on them and to force them to return to China,” Chen said. 

“We also suspect they may have an intelligence-gathering function, as a way to show Chinese people overseas how powerful their government is, and that they will be forced to return to China to face judicial proceedings and punishment, no matter where in the world they escape to,” Chen said.

Netherlands-based China commentator Lin Shengliang said Beijing has been extending unofficial law enforcement activities around the world for some time now.

“Regardless of where in the world they seek refuge, Chinese dissidents and rights activists may not be safe,” Lin told RFA. “The Chinese government will do whatever it takes to extend its suppression to every country in the world.”

“This is a multi-pronged operation that can be packaged as contact with overseas Chinese associations linked to a person’s hometown, overseas student associations and even some churches, so it’s hard to escape,” Lin said.

The Chinese Communist Party’s law enforcement agencies routinely track, harass, threaten and repatriate people who flee the country, many of them Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, under its SkyNet surveillance program that reaches far beyond China’s borders, according to a report from Safeguard Defenders in May 2022.

Between the launch of the SkyNet program in 2014 and June 2021, China repatriated nearly 10,000 people from 120 countries and regions, according to Safeguard Defenders. Just 1% of them were brought back to China using judicial procedures; more than 60% were just put on a plane against their will, the group reported in May 2022. 

Experts said last month that authoritarian regimes including China and Russia are also increasingly making use of regional cooperation organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to bolster each others’ regime security in the name of counter-terrorism. 

Chinese embassies and consulates have also been implicated in Beijing’s attempts to wield law enforcement power far beyond its borders.

Pulling hair

China’s Consul General in the northern British city of Manchester admitted on Oct. 20 to assaulting a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester inside the grounds of the diplomatic mission as a peaceful protest gave way to attacks at the weekend. 

Consul General Zheng Xiyuan told Sky News that he was the gray-haired man in a hat seen on social media footage pulling the hair of protester Bob Chan, adding that he and several other consular staff members filmed beating Chan were “trying to control the situation.” 

Asked again if he pulled Chan’s hair, Zheng responded: “Yes … because he abused my country, my leader. I think it’s my duty.” 

Another of Chan’s attackers was named by Australia’s ABC News as Gao Lianjia, who the report said was also one of two Chinese diplomats who made global headlines in 2020 when they allegedly assaulted a representative of the democratic island of Taiwan outside the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, capital of Fiji.

The Chinese foreign ministry claimed at the time that Taiwan’s diplomats had “provoked” the conflict by displaying the flag of Taiwan on a cake. Taiwan later lodged a diplomatic protest with Fiji over the incident. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/asault-10192020142123.html 

Taiwan’s foreign ministry then issued a warning to all of its missions abroad to take precautions against similar incidents in future.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.