13 Oct 2022

China establishing overseas police presence in Australia and around the world

4:30 pm on 13 October 2022
A Chinese police officer stops a car during a drunk driving test in Huaibei city, east Chinas Anhui province, 1 May 2011.

Many drunk drivers across China have been charged with dangerous driving and will soon face criminal punishment under Chinas newly amended Road Traffic Safety Law, which took effect on Sunday (1 May 2011). The new amendment will revoke the licenses of those caught driving drunk and make such drivers wait five years before they may apply for a new license. Anyone whose drunk driving leads to a death or the injury of at least two persons will be banned from driving for life. Drivers found to have committed severe violations will go to prison. (Photo by Zhang hongxin / Imaginechina / Imaginechina via AFP)

Photo: Zhang Hongxin / AFP

Beijing has set up overseas police outreach operations in more than 80 cities across the world, including one in Australia, as part of a global security push under President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

A report from international human rights group Safeguard Defenders released earlier this month revealed that Chinese police had set up overseas police service stations in countries including the United States, Japan, Spain and France.

The police stations have in some instances been called "110 Overseas" after China's emergency hotline number.

The stations are affiliated with, and run by, local or municipal governments in China which have large numbers of Chinese nationals living abroad.

For example, the south-eastern city of Fuzhou, which has an estimated 3 million residents living overseas, has police overseas service stations in Prato, Italy and Barcelona, Spain.

Chinese authorities have said the stations, sometimes called "contact points", provide services to citizens, such as renewing national identification cards, passports and drivers licences, by using facial recognition technology.

But human rights groups fear overseas police offices could also be used to target dissidents abroad or compel people to return to China where they could face potentially politicised trials.

Policemen check the identification cards of bikers passing the Tiananmen area near the Great Hall of the People ahead of the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on March 5, 2022.

Policemen check the identification cards of bikers passing the Tiananmen area in Beijing on March 5, 2022. Photo: Noel Celis / AFP

'Contact point' in Sydney

Following the release of the report, the ABC discovered an official "contact point" had been established in Sydney by the Department of Public Security in the Chinese city of Wenzhou in 2018.

The Chinese authorities have not responded to questions about what activities take place at the Australian contact point.

The ABC is not aware of any evidence it has been utilised for any of the activities suggested by Safeguard Defenders about other overseas sites.

The Sydney operation was trumpeted in an official establishment ceremony in 2019 in Wenzhou, but flew under the radar in the Australian and international press.

At the ceremony, Wenzhou police chief Luo Jie said the contact points abroad connected to his city were a "positive response" to Xi's BRI framework and that they provided convenience for Wenzhou's diaspora. Australia does not have a BRI agreement with China.

The official Wenzhou police WeChat account refers people seeking the Sydney contact point to the Australia Wenzhou Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

A spokesperson for the Australia Wenzhou Chamber of Industry and Commerce told the ABC the police contact point had closed, and that it did not have links to the group.

"It's not operating for a long time," they said. "The organisation never had such service before."

The spokesperson said they could not comment on "political" and "sensitive" topics.

But when the ABC contacted Wenzhou police in China about the Sydney contact point, they said it should still be open and referred the ABC back to the Australia Wenzhou Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

The ABC contacted the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to ask about the legitimacy of the Chinese police operation in Australia.

"The AFP has no comment," a spokesperson told ABC News.

China's embassy in Canberra and the consulate-general in Sydney did not respond to the ABC's requests for comment about the nature of the contact point and its activities here.

Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge - Australia, New South Wales

The ABC discovered an official "contact point" had been established in Sydney by the Department of Public Security in the Chinese city of Wenzhou in 2018. (file photo) Photo: 123RF

Safeguard Defenders campaign director Laura Harth told the ABC that the Sydney "contact point" was similar to China's overseas police offices in other countries.

"Every country is using different names … it seems that they use an already existing framework of United Front Work organisations around the world to build this extra functionality," Harth said.

"For Australian people, I would say, especially for overseas Chinese people that have fled China - dissidents, ethnic and religious minorities - obviously these organisations can be used, potentially, to go after them or to go after their families."

Tens of thousands 'persuaded to return'

The report said the overseas offices had been developed alongside a "massive" international campaign that Beijing claims has seen more than 230,000 Chinese nationals "persuaded to return" to face criminal proceedings in China.

"Rapidly emerging evidence points to extensive online campaigns and the use of overseas police service stations being used in these operations on five continents," the report said.

The report said the operation used threats against family and relatives, including of depriving suspects' children of the right to education back in China, in a "guilty by association" approach.

For example, in February, the government of Laiyang city in the eastern province of Shandong issued a notice via their overseas police station in Myanmar, demanding Chinese nationals illegally staying in the South-East Asian nation return home, and warning there would be consequences for their loved ones if they didn't.

"If family members refused to cooperate with the authorities in persuading the suspects to return, they would see their policy benefits and subsidies suspended or cancelled," the Safeguard Defenders report said.

The first offices were set up in six countries in 2016, linked to the public security department of the eastern city of Nantong.

They reportedly solved more than 120 criminal cases involving Chinese nationals, and arrested at least 80 people in Myanmar, Cambodia and Zambia.

Participants march outside the premises for the opening ceremony of Cambodia's Morodok Techo National Stadium, funded by China's grant aid under its Belt and Road Initiative, in Phnom Penh on December 18, 2021.

Cambodia's Morodok Techo National Stadium is funded by China's grant aid under its Belt and Road Initiative. Photo: Miller / AFP

Chinese state media argues the 110 Overseas operation provides protection for millions of Chinese citizens living abroad.

The operation and the police stations that come with it aim to apprehend Chinese citizens and prevent them from committing offences in foreign countries, according to state media, such as fraud, telecommunication scams or big transnational crimes.

"The 'intelligent police' visualisation platform ... will realise active researching and targeting, early detection and deployment," state-owned media Nantong Daily said, referring to facial recognition.

"It is an important bridge and link to serve overseas enterprises and the majority of overseas Chinese business owners and compatriots … maintaining Beijing's overseas interests in security."

Calls for transparency to avoid 'secret investigations'

Harth said the Sydney-based contact point and overseas foreign police stations could be "illegal" if they fall outside local laws.

Security experts are also concerned similar police stations violate international law and potentially infringe on sovereignty.

Australian police in Victoria.

Australian Federal Police have signed several agreements with China's Ministry of Public Security to target transnational crime and maintain cooperation in a range of areas. Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky / 123RF

Chinese human rights lawyer Sam Huang told the ABC the operation could help some Chinese citizens facing challenges abroad, but it is "too early to say it would make positive impacts".

"It is a parallel police system on top of the bilateral police cooperation, and it may disrupt the police investigation or proceedings in those countries," Huang said.

"It may silence human rights activists living overseas and carry out persecution against them by using illegal methods."

Huang said the lack of clarity and transparency in the scope of the operations could stoke fears that the "Chinese diaspora in those countries could be the subject of surveillance or secret investigation".

"The countries where these centres are located must regulate the range of Chinese police operations and regulate them closely."

The overseas contact points and police stations have been set up despite existing agreements and frameworks to tackle international crime.

The AFP has signed several agreements with China's Ministry of Public Security - a state police agency - to target transnational crime and maintain cooperation in a range of areas.