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230,000 Chinese "persuaded to return" from abroad, China to establish Extraterritoriality

This latest installment in Safeguard Defenders’ Investigations series takes a deep dive into the Chinese police’s expanding global policing toolkit by examining a seemingly recent campaign to counter transnational telecom and online fraud (according to the official provincial statements) by several provinces in the People’s Republic of China.

This investigation, although short at merely 20 pagesis packed with five major revelations:

 

 

  • Between April 2021 and July 2022, Chinese police “persuaded” 230,000 claimed fugitives to return to China “voluntarily” (while admitting not all the targets have committed any crimes);
  • Established Nine forbidden countries, where Chinese nationals are no longer allowed to live unless they have “good reason”;
  • New tools for “persuasion” operations laid down on paper, including denying the target’s children in China the right to education, and other limitations on family members, punishing those without suspicion of any wrongdoing by “guilt by association” (similar to the North Korean practice), and
    • It also includes government documents stating relatives in China that do not help police "persuade" targets should be investigated and punished by either police or the internal Party police the CCDI;
  • The establishment of at least 54 police-run “overseas police service centers” across five continents, some of which are implicated in collaborating with Chinese police in carrying out policing operations on foreign soil (including in Spain).
  • A new law adopted 2 September, going into effect 1 December, establishes full extraterritoriality over Chinese and foreigners globally for certain crimes (fraud, telecom fraud, online scams, etc.);

Download the full investigation (PDF) for further information, data, maps, tables, and sources.

For this overseas operation, rather than using international police or judicial cooperation mechanisms – which provide for control mechanisms to protect the rights of the target, including the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence prior to judgment – official provincial statements and guidelines from the local Ministries of Public Security or Procuratorates highlight the mass use of *persuasion to return* methods.

According to such statements, in the mere fifteen months between April 2021 and July 2022 alone – and pandemic restrictions notwithstanding -, a staggering number of 230,000 Chinese nationals were returned to face potential criminal charges in China through these methods, which often include threats and harassment to family members back home or directly to the target abroad either through online or physical means.

110 Overseas - Chinese Transnational Policing Gone Wild traces the origins of the campaign conducted by ten “pilot provinces” back to 2018. Official guidelines explicitly outline the different tools made available to "persuade" the targets to voluntarily return to China to face charges. These include targeting the purported suspects' children in China, denying them the right to education, as well as targeting family members and relatives in a similar fashion. In short, a full-on "guilt by association" punishment to "encourage" suspects to return from abroad.

The tools and aims of these methods were amply described in Safeguard Defenders’ January 2022 report Involuntary Returns, which examined higher-value target operations Sky Net (and Fox Hunt).

The very recent documentation presented in this investigation indicates their increased use in operations abroad also by local Chinese police and judicial authorities, confirming a very dangerous trend.

The combination of an absolute absence of minimal judicial safeguards for the target and the association by guilt methods employed on their families, as well as the illegal methods adopted to circumvent official international cooperation mechanisms and the use of United Front Work-related organizations abroad to aid in such efforts, pose a most grave risk to the international rule of law and territorial sovereignty.

Download the full investigation (PDF) for further information, data, maps, tables and sources.

Learn more about "persuasion to return" methods in Safeguard Defenders' report Involuntary Returns, where “persuasion” operations are classified as IR Type 1 (and occasionally Type 2) operations. 

On 2 September 2022, a national Anti-Telecom and Online Fraud Law was adopted, establishing a claim of extraterritorial jurisdiction over all Chinese nationals worldwide when pursuing fraud, telecom- and online fraud. 

 

Nine forbidden countries

The designation of “nine forbidden countries” for Chinese citizens to travel to or reside in under a local emergency notice within the campaign, show the extreme lengths the authorities will go to in their crackdown and the ease by which a citizen might find him- or herself a suspect. The regulation treats everyone as a suspect until proven innocent.

One police officer publicly stated that even though not all Chinese living in northern Myanmar are criminals, they would still be subject to "persuasion to return" operations. Police further admitted they did not actually have evidence that all those targeted had committed any crimes. 

While there is no official breakdown of where the 230,000 individuals were returned form, a majority appear to hail from the nine “forbidden” countries, with Myanmar standing out at 54,000 returned between January and September 2021.

In more recent months, evidence suggests the “success” of the pilot campaign is rapidly leading to its expansion on a truly global scale.

110 Overseas

Over the course of the past year further evidence emerged indicating at least two of the county police jurisdictions as active in this long-arm policing operation through the establishment of “overseas police service stations” in cooperation with local Hometown Associations linked to United Front Work.

The United Front system (United Front Work) is the work of Chinese Communist Party agencies seeking to co-opt and influence ‘representative figures’ and groups inside and outside China, with a particular focus on religious, ethnic minority and diaspora communities. - Alex Joske

The overseas service stations are primarily set up to conduct a series of seemingly administrative tasks to aid overseas Chinese in their community of residence abroad, but they also serve a far more sinister and wholly illegal purpose. While the evidence available so far suggests most transnational policing operations are carried out through the online tools of the domestically operated “overseas station”, some official anecdotes of official operations explicitly cite the active involvement of the Hometown Associations on the ground in tracking and pursuing targets indicated by the local Public Security Bureau or Procuratorate in China. 

On 23 May 2019, People's Public Security News published the article《探索爱侨护侨助侨机制,设立警侨驿站海外服务中心  青田警方积极打造枫桥经验海外版》on the Qingtian County Public Security Bureau’s “innovative set up of Overseas Police Service Centers” providing “convenient services for the vast number of overseas Chinese” in a cited 21 cities in 15 countries, including Rome, Milan, Paris, Vienna, Austria, etc., “hiring 135 Qingtian-born overseas Chinese leaders and leaders of overseas Chinese groups” and “establishing a team of more than 1,000 overseas grid service information personnel”, coordinated by a “domestic liaison center”.

"Through the establishment of overseas service centers, Qingtian County Police has made breakthroughs in its overseas pursuit of fugitives. Since 2018, the Qingtian police have detected and solved six criminal cases related to overseas Chinese, successfully arrested a red notice fugitive, and persuaded two suspects to surrender under the assistance from the Overseas centers.”

At least two such cases took place on European soil: according to Chinese State media accounts, overseas police service stations actively assisted the Chinese police in “persuasion to return” activities in Spain and Serbia.

Based on open-source information collected so far, 54 physical “overseas service stations" have been identified in 30 countries across five continents. As these only represent the stations set up by Fuzhou and Qingtian Counties, the total number is most likely higher.

The Overseas Police Service Stations run by the Fuzhou County (Fujian Province) Public Security Bureau call themselves “110 Overseas service stations”, referring to the Chinese police emergency number and inspiring the title of this investigation.

 

Download the full investigation (PDF) for further information, data, maps, tables, and sources.

Learn more about "persuasion to return" from Safeguard Defenders' report Involuntary Returns, where "persuasion" operations are classified as IR type 1 operations. 

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