Update 11/19/2022: Following my critique of their report, Safeguard Defenders seems to have corrected some of the more serious mistakes indicated in the article below. Unfortunately, because they changed the content of their report without giving any indication of having done so, the timing and extent of the revisions are unclear. Here is a link to the earlier version of their report which I was working from. Update 11/26/2022: Safeguard defenders acknowledged changes to their report on their website but not in the report on 11/22/2022. The note suggests that the report was changed on October 29th, 2022, after I sent them initial comments and told them I was preparing an article. The scope of changes is unclear.
A recent, widely-cited report by Safeguard Defenders has created a wave of attention on “overseas Chinese police stations”.
The report raises two important and related areas that should be of concern to world governments:
- The activities of Chinese law enforcement, and their proxies, outside of China.
- Harsh actions taken by Chinese authorities domestically to encourage the return of suspects and fugitives abroad.
Unfortunately, the author’s recklessness with quotations and citations undermines the report’s credibility. While it should not be ignored, it would be equally negligent to rely on it without also fully reading the sources it cites- ideally with someone well-versed in Chinese law and policy.
Consider for example one of the report’s most shocking claims, that a local police bureau sent 70 people “directly overseas to conduct “foreign strike operations.”” [i] The cited source simply doesn’t support this assertion. Instead, it discusses a special team of county police, prosecutors, propagandists, and township officials sent to China’s Yunnan Province to discourage and prevent those considering exiting China to commit crimes.[ii] The authors seem to have been misled by the team’s name, which refers to the targeted offenders who are “heading abroad”, although it is clear that the team itself is based in China.
In another example, the report suggests that police targeted all Chinese nationals in Myanmar, punishing them for “smuggling” even where there was no evidence of any crimes.[iii] The article actually says that while not all Chinese fraud suspects returning from Myanmar ultimately turned out to be engaged in illegal activity, most had exited China illegally and could still be charged with that. [iv]
While serious translation or reading comprehension errors like those above are plentiful, and should already justify caution in citing the report, there are other problems as well.
The actions of even small local governments are routinely attributed to higher authorities- once even saying that a county government’s policy would be binding on higher-level provincial officials.[v] This not only conflates national policy with local measures – in the same way that attributing a Texas school district’s ban on LGBTQ library books to the federal government might- but can also foster the impression that the similar acts of small neighboring counties represent a growing national trend.
While the report flatly states that “local governments are not left to their own devices in setting out these [repatriation] operations”, this is actually how things frequently happen in China. Local governments are given space to experiment radically in implementing mandates from above, either by design or as a result of higher authorities’ inability to fully govern all the way down the hierarchy. One source relied on heavily by the report itself directly contradicts the authors’ understanding, saying “these measures aren’t at all required by the central authorities, and aren’t even the province’s ideas, but are just ‘measures thought up’ at the basic level to move work forward.” [vi]
Are there even “Overseas Police Stations?”
Returning to the report’s core issues, there is no question that China is acting more aggressively to persuade fugitives and criminal suspects to return to China from abroad. This is official policy, and most of the articles cited in the report are from mainstream sources, proudly reflecting the accomplishments of this effort, which is usually carried out through incentives like lighter sentences for returning, or consequences like the seizure of property for failure to return. The alleged ‘overseas police stations’ have at most tenuous contribution to this.
The stations, established by the police of a provincial-level government[vii], are not staffed by police officers and are not built on embassy or consular grounds with any intent of insulating them from local laws. They are not secret, but actively advertise. Based on the reports’ sources and other media, they are essentially video-conferencing rooms established in chambers of commerce and other community areas, advertising the facilitation of activities such as formal mediation with parties in China, license applications, and even remote physicals required for various bureaucratic and employment purposes. They are heavily represented in developed nations and areas with larger numbers of long-term resident Chinese nationals and tourists.
Even in the “smoking gun” cases, where these “stations” seem connected to actual criminal investigations, the police work is happening in China, after a call is transferred. The report notes the typical case of a Chinese citizen in Mozambique, for example, who called an overseas hotline that connected him with police in his home province concerning an employee who had returned home from Africa after stealing money. The police in China were able to capture the suspect in China.[viii] When they learned of an accomplice still in Mozambique, police approached this new suspect’s family in China and asked them to encourage him to return.
More troubling situations occur where Chinese citizens are approached overseas by other Chinese citizens who encourage them to return. Each nation should absolutely consider its own laws to determine when such contact (whether online or off) amounts to intimidation, harassment, or improper action within their borders by a foreign government; and I have confidence that these cases can be addressed through normal law enforcement, legislative, and diplomatic methods. [ix] The role of the “overseas stations” in these cases, however, seems limited to their having been used to contact authorities in China- something that could just as easily be accomplished using a smartphone.
The authors themselves seem to have trouble articulating the threat to other nations, let alone how it might best be addressed. There is the suggestion of covert operations abroad undermining normal channels for international cooperation, but this same complaint is raised about China’s official law enforcement cooperation with other nations in the pursuit of overseas suspects. [x]
The real concern, of course, is: China. And this returns to the second major focus of the report- the domestic actions of Chinese law enforcement, which despite the report’s title, makes up the bulk of the findings. The report raises several valid examples of unjust coercive tactics being taken against the property and even families of overseas criminal suspects who will not return or cannot be located. While these measures are usually the work of smaller counties, and aim at low-level telecom fraud and gambling crimes committed in China from abroad, they are troubling just the same, and likely violate China’s domestic law as well.
To me, this says that the ultimate concern is less about Chinese law-enforcement actions overseas -which domestic law is well-poised to address – than about the underlying (and not unfounded) sense that there is no chance of due process or fair trial for those who do return to China.
These problems, however, are best addressed through diplomacy, criticism, and our own use of international legal mechanisms, rather than by fear-mongering about secret bases with “sinister goals”[xi] to create an environment where every Chinese person is viewed as a potential agent of the state. That is a path backwards that we must not follow.
In our efforts to address China’s domestic situation, it is essential to have an accurate understanding, not only of the actions by China’s various levels of government, but also of what makes them unique and problematic as compared to our own practice.[xii] If we are not clear ourselves, appropriate vigilance can quickly give way to paranoia and we too can jump at shadows, viewing the world through our own ‘national security perspective’. I fear this is already happening now with the focus on “overseas police stations” rather than the larger concerns. The media, public, and officials need to be accurately informed about the problem, if they are to address it correctly.
I have chosen to focus here on bigger issues, rather than going through the entire report, highlighting each error or example of gross hyperbole. I have shared more in-depth notes on many matters with the authors, but do not think it is productive to dissect the report further. If someone, however, would like to see my notes, I am happy to share.
[i] Report page 6, “As language from the Anxi county “thousand person conference” demonstrates however, the battle did not stop at home but needed to be taken overseas. According to cited reports of the meeting, it was all hands on deck: a “commando team” composed by the Public Security Bureau and assisted by propaganda, procuratorial and local cadres, public security bodies were tasked with taking the lead in setting up “anti-fraud” assaults abroad. An overseas “strike headquarters” was set up in Yunnan to carry out “crackdown, persuasion, dispersion, control and publicity work”, and a reported number of 70 people were sent directly overseas to conduct “foreign strike operations”.”
“会议要求，公安机关要牵头成立赴外打击突击队。成立一支以公安局各警种为主，宣传、检察和乡镇、村居干部参与，人数达70人的赴外打击突击队，由一名公安局领导带队，立即开拔前往云南前线，在云南设立赴外打击指挥部，专门开展打击、劝返、驱散、管控和宣传工作。” [the meeting required that public security organs take the lead in establishing a border-crossing strike team. Establishing a 70-person strike team consisting primarily of various types of police from the public security bureau, and participated in by publicists, prosecutors and township and village cadres, with a leader from the security bureau in charge, to immediately go to the front in Yunnan, to set up a border crossing command center there dedicated to carrying out efforts on cracking down, urging return, dispersal, management control, and publicity. ]
[iii] “some suspects persuaded to return would only be imposed a fine for smuggling as the police held no evidence of crimes” (emphasis in original), report page 8.
[Although not all those “remaining in northern Myanmar” engaged in illegal or criminal activities, they has essentially all snuck across the border in leaving regardless of what they did in northern Myanmar, and as sneaking across the border is itself illegal activity, so they were combatted as a single group. Wang Bo admitted however, that for a few telecom fraudsters who were persuaded to return, the police didn’t have evidence of any violations or crimes by them, so could only punish them for their sneaking across the border. Usually this was addressed by a fine.]
[v] Report p. 5, “the government of Anxi County, Fujian, held a “thousand person” conference and launched operation “Fighting Gangsters and Scammers Going Overseas from the Area Where They Come From” (扫黑除恶专项斗争暨赴境外诈骗流出地专项整治) to combat transnational telecom fraud. Under the campaign, Fujian province departments at all levels were instructed to carry out five” [emphasis added] [Anxi is a single county outside of Xiamen in Fujian, consisting of 13 towns and 11 townships, with a total population of around one million] (report links to this article 徐玉玉案后福建安溪:电诈人员子女不得读公办学校 from 09-21-2018.
不过，王波也承认，对于一些“劝返”回来的电诈人员而言，警方并没有掌握他们违法犯罪的证据，因此也只能就其偷渡行为进行处罚。一般是做罚款处理。”] [this article is cited by the report as endnotes 13 and 14]
[vii] On page 11 of the report it is asserted that pilot projects on the overseas stations have begun in 10 provinces, but while the cited source refers to a pilot project involving China’s campaign against organized crime, no reference to ‘overseas stations’ could be found.
[viii] Report p 12.
[ix] A recent, high-profile case from the Eastern District of New York shows one example of such an incident (not involving “overseas police stations”) being investigated by local authorities. https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/six-individuals-charged-conspiring-act-illegal-agents-peoples-republic-china-0
[x] Page 9 of the report complains that China’s official cooperation with Cambodia, including central government working groups being sent there undermines the value of the extradition treaty the government also has with Cambodia, although the argument isn’t developed.
[xi] Report p 12.
[xii] Chinese law professors, for example, have raised the US case of Alvarez-Machain with me in conversations about the case of the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, seemingly forcibly returned to China from abroad. Understanding our own laws at least as well as Chinese academics do, as well as why we feel that due process can be guaranteed in our system, helps frame debate and create acceptable norms.