China has allegedly established dozens of police stations abroad, including many in Europe. Beijing has sought to play down the reports, but one dissident in Europe recounts how he has been constantly harassed by staff members of one such office.
The man who has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government for the past several weeks quickly makes another coffee and lights a cigarette. Peter Dahlin is sitting in his loft apartment in Lisbon – in the calm eye of the storm that he has triggered himself.
Originally from Sweden, Dahlin is head of the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders, and together with his colleagues, he has managed to uncover a global network of Chinese police stations that has been built up more or less in secrecy: with locations in Britain, Spain, Italy, Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands, but also in Canada and the United States. The organization lists more than 30 presumed offices in its report, complete with telephone numbers and addresses. "We expected that agencies and secret services would be interested in our findings," Dahlin says. But he wasn’t expecting a public debate in so many countries at the same time.
Last week, the Irish government ordered the closure of an office in Dublin which, according to a sign at the entrance, is called the Fuzhou Police Overseas Service Station. In London, the House of Commons has even discussed Dahlin’s report. And an investigation is underway in the Netherlands, in part because of statements made by Wang Jingyu, a 21-year-old dissident that the Chinese government has followed all the way to Europe.
Officials in Beijing, for their part, insist that the whole thing is just a big misunderstanding. The offices, they say, are merely there to provide services to Chinese citizens abroad, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed. They were established during the pandemic, he said, to simplify bureaucratic procedures, such as renewing Chinese driver’s licenses.
But wouldn’t Chinese consulates and embassies be responsible for such details? How could it be possible for a country to establish police structures in other countries without approval from their governments? And how dangerous are the stations for dissidents?
Dahlin knows from personal experience how brutal Chinese officials can be. He lived in Beijing for almost 10 years, where he ran an organization that supported and trained lawyers in rural areas of China. In 2016, Dahlin was arrested and locked away in a secret prison. The guards would hardly allow him to sleep at night, and during the day, they would interrogate him for hours at a time. He was released after just over three weeks, but first he was required to confess on Chinese state television. The statement was prepared for him by state officials.
"It isn’t a centralized operation from Beijing," Dahlin says of the police stations abroad. Most of the offices have been set up in the apartments, offices or restaurants of expat Chinese citizens, who are often grouped together in cultural associations. Everything on a volunteer basis. "We don't want a witch hunt. There are also cultural associations that do really good things," Dahlin says. "Each case has to be reviewed individually."
China sees itself as a major global power, and its laws and regulations are meant to apply to anyone no matter where they live in the world. In legalese, that claim of universality is known as extraterritoriality. It began with the National Security Law enacted in 2015, which explicitly applies in cyberspace just as it does in outer space, in the ocean depths and at the poles. All of it is considered to be part of China’s security sphere. "Since 2019, pretty much all important Chinese laws are being augmented with such paragraphs," says Moritz Rudolf, who researches the international application of Chinese law at Yale University. Are the police stations abroad a consequence of China’s new understanding of its laws? "It’s not that simple," says Rudolf. "It looks to me like some prefectures and cities are trying to take the initiative and show at the provincial level that they are ardently implementing the decrees of the central government. The result is chaos."
Evidence suggests that he may be correct. The police stations that Dahlin has discovered are linked either to the prefecture-level city of Lishui and the county of Qingtian or to officials in Fuzhou, capital of the coastal province of Fujian. The Lishui metropolitan area is home to 2.5 million people, while 8.3 million live in Fuzhou and its surroundings.
The choice of people assigned to the offices is also rather baffling in some instances. For a time, the representative from the Qingtian prosecutor’s office in Italy was a man who had been sentenced in Tuscany to three years in prison in 2015 for attempted blackmail and assault.
What other legal violations Chinese representatives may have committed in connection with the police stations must now be investigated. "I suspect that many aren’t even aware that they have violated the law," says Rudolf.
Dahlin’s list contains no precise information regarding potential Chinese police stations in Germany. DER SPIEGEL has found, however, that there are at least half a dozen Chinese citizens in the country who, in violation of all diplomatic conventions, have worked as liaisons for Chinese agencies completely independent of the Chinese Embassy in Berlin and its consulates in other German cities. Most of them were listed, along with their mobile numbers, in an article in a Chinese trade newspaper in February of last year as contacts for Chinese citizens living abroad. They are apparently well-connected personalities, including restaurant owners, vendors and businesspeople.
When reached by phone, one of them, who works in gastronomy, says he is unable to talk at the moment. During a break, he then calls back. An assistant to the police? "I have nothing to do with that," he bristles. He says that he does, however, assist fellow citizens in Germany who need to contact a motor vehicles office back home. He says that a Chinese cultural association approached him during the pandemic, asking him if he would be willing to assist others with things like renewing their Chinese driver’s licenses. "The flights to China were so expensive, thousands of euros, nobody could afford them anymore," he says. So, he said he would be willing to assist Chinese people in his area with setting up online appointments with the relevant agencies. "It’s a good thing. I’m like the volunteer fire department."
Berlin takes a different view. "The German government does not tolerate the exercise of foreign state power, and accordingly, Chinese agencies do not have any executive authority on the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany," the German Interior Ministry said in a statement.
It is also incorrect to say that the police stations were only first established during the pandemic, as the Foreign Ministry in Beijing suggests. In 2019, a Chinese news website announced the inauguration of the Frankfurt "foreign liaison office" of the Qingtian law enforcement agency. "For expat Chinese, who aren’t home often, it is particularly unpleasant when they are confronted with legal questions in an emergency," the article notes. Which is why, it continues, there is the possibility of providing testimony to Chinese courts from the other end of the world via video-chat – "to warm the hearts of travelers."
Those more familiar with the scene, though, warn that such warm words can be misleading. German security officials have been keeping an eye on the police stations in the country for quite some time. In addition to offering helpful services, the representations may also be used for the surveillance of Chinese expats. That's apparently what happened in the Netherlands. If you call the number in Dahlin’s list for the Chinese police station in Rotterdam, a man answers the phone. But as soon as he learns that journalists are interested in speaking to him, he stops answering.
Wang Jingyu knows the telephone number well. On a single day this year, February 5, he received fully 14 phone calls from that number. Initially, Wang would answer. First, a man offered him financial support, according to Wang’s account, saying that all Wang had to do was meet with him in person. When he didn’t accept the proposal, the man changed his strategy, says Wang. He called and said that Wang should return to China to "settle his problems."
For Wang, that was a further indication that intimidation from Chinese officials doesn’t stop once you leave the country. Since July 2021, the 21-year-old has lived with his fiancée Wu Huan in the Netherlands, where he received asylum. But he doesn’t feel safe, Wang says. During a meeting at the train station in The Hague, he briefly considers changing cafés because a man sitting at the neighboring table looks Chinese. But then, the man gets up and leaves and Wang begins telling his story.
It starts with the fact that when he was growing up, his parents would watch foreign broadcasters like CNN and BBC. "My parents aren’t against the Communist Party, they’re just open," Wang says. At school, he told others about what he had seen on television – that it is a basic human right, for example, to demonstrate in public for one’s convictions. He says he was 16 years old when his teacher called the police for the first time. "The officers told me that if I didn’t stop, I would be sent to prison."
In July 2019, the situation escalated. Hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets of Hong Kong to demonstrate against the leadership in Beijing and Wang, then 17, expressed solidarity with the Hong Kong protests on Douyin, the carefully monitored Chinese counterpart to TikTok. A short time later, Wang says, his parents learned from friends that their son was facing arrest. Instead of completing school, he and his fiancée traveled to Hong Kong. "We thought it was just vacation. It was only when we arrived that my parents told me that I couldn’t return." And suddenly, he was a dissident. But for quite some time, he didn’t really feel like an activist, more like someone being financed by his parents as he traveled around a bit, thinking that he might perhaps like to go to college in the United States one day.
Everything changed in February 2021. Wang Jingyu posted something about the India-Chinese border skirmishes and expressed doubt as to whether the Chinese government had been honest about the number of casualties. A short time later, Chinese officials issued a warrant for his arrest, which state television also broadcast. Wang, they said, had "insulted heroes and martyrs," adding: "Security agencies will crack down on such behavior."
Wang Jingyu brought along a stack of documents to the meeting in The Hague, including papers from the asylum agency, interrogation logs from the Dutch police and records of his trips in and out of the country. Together, they underpin all that has happened to Wang in the last three years. In April 2021, he wanted to travel to the U.S., but was arrested while changing planes in Dubai. Initially, he thought it was a misunderstanding, until staffers from the Chinese Embassy showed up in his prison cell. Wang says they tried to force him to return to China. He obtained legal representation and ultimately ended up in Ukraine with the support of a human rights organization.
There, he received an email in July 2021 from police officials in Chongqing, his hometown. "Have no illusions, Chinese agencies have the ability and the confidence to have you extradited to China at any time," the email read. It further stated that Chinese officials knew "precisely" where he was staying. Wang and his fiancée then fled to the Netherlands – and received the calls from the man in Rotterdam a few months later.
Wang Jingyu met his fiancée Wun Huan when he was trying to take back a defective computer part at home in Chongqing. Wang was angry and a woman in customer service calmed him down. They began writing each other text messages, and at some point, they went out for a meal before ultimately starting a relationship.
"I had no idea about his political views," Wu Huan says, sitting next to him in the train station café in The Hague. "I had never thought about politics." Her parents are farmers, "very simple people." When they learned from the police that their daughter was now in the Netherlands, she says they asked: "Where in China is that?" Today, she no longer has any contact with her parents because she doesn’t want to put them in danger. She says that the threats against Wang have made her "sad and disappointed." In school, she says, she learned that "China is the greatest country in the world, and I still believe that. I couldn’t imagine the government wanting to do us harm," she says.
The attempts by China’s overseas police force to get in touch with him are not, for the moment, Wang’s most pressing problem. In September, a heavily armed Dutch police commando suddenly turned up outside his apartment door in The Hague. Someone had called in a tip to the authorities that Wang was building a bomb. Similar incidents have followed: Hotel rooms have been booked under Wang’s name and passport number in the Netherlands and Belgium, before these hotels then receive bomb threats, allegedly from Wang.
One interrogation log from October 7 reads: "In the name of Mr. Wang, a number of bomb threats have been made across the country. We were allowed to look through Wang’s mobile phone, and there is nothing to indicate that he is actually the one responsible for the bomb threats." Wang Jingyu also made a visit to the police on September 17 in an attempt to convince officers that he was not planning on planting any bombs. "Why do you think that the Chinese government is behind the threats?" the officers asked him. "Because I have no trouble with anyone else," Wang replied. In addition, Wang explained, shortly before the bomb threats began, he had received a telephone call in which he had been given a choice: Either he returns to China. Or he will be arrested in the Netherlands. A short time later, the Dutch police commando was banging on his door searching for a Chinese terrorist.
"The case of Wang Jingyu shows that the Chinese authorities do not stop at the national border," says Peter Dahlin. "It is important that we finally have a debate in Europe on Chinese influence. Out of hiding, into the spotlight."