On the evening of Feb. 7, a Chinese woman studying in Canada called a police hotline in a panic.
“Hello, is this the Fuzhou Public Security Bureau? I’ve been scammed,” the woman, surnamed Wang, told the operator. She described how she had been defrauded of about $400 by someone calling themselves a “love-life mentor.”
In Fuzhou, the capital of southeast China’s Fujian province, police tracked the fraudster to the city’s Taijiang district. The man, surnamed Lin, eventually confessed to scamming nine victims out of more than $3,700.
Ms. Wang’s story was recounted in glowing write-ups in Chinese media as the “first cross-border telecom network fraud case” solved since the opening in 2018 of the Overseas 110 hotline, a 911-style service. State news agency Xinhua said that, through the hotline, “overseas Chinese can still feel the warmth of their homeland.” (Chinese media typically identify people solely by their surnames in crime stories.)
In addition to the hotline, the reports said, the Fuzhou Public Security Bureau (PSB) has also established more than 50 police “service stations” across five continents, including at least three in the Greater Toronto Area, according to a list shared by Chinese media.
Such offices are ostensibly to assist Chinese nationals with matters such as filing local police reports or renewing driver’s licences. But reports in Chinese media and official government pronouncements suggest they often overstep that purview, even going so far as “persuading” alleged criminals to return to China to face justice, according to new research by Safeguard Defenders, a European NGO.
Safeguard Defenders said official documents show that from April, 2021, to July, 2022, more than 230,000 people were brought back to China in this fashion. Relatives back home are often enlisted in the process, with reports detailing the use of heavy-handed punishments if the accused don’t comply, such as denying children the right to go to school or demolishing houses built with allegedly dirty money.
In an interview with Xinhua in February, Wang Xizhang, the head of the Fuzhou PSB, said the city was committed to providing “efficient, high-quality and convenient services to overseas Chinese” like the Overseas 110 hotline, while also “cracking down on crimes and illegal activities involving this group.”
According to a recent account published in Chinese media, in April a businessman in Mozambique reported that one of his employees, surnamed Yang, had stolen a large amount of cash from the company and fled to China. The man was quickly detained, then told police he had an accomplice who was still in Mozambique, a Mr. Yu.
Police urged Mr. Yu’s relatives back in China “to persuade him to surrender as soon as possible,” the report said, citing the Fuzhou authorities. They also “directly got in touch with Yu and told him relevant laws and policies” and were successful in “persuading him to return.”
While it is unclear just how much of this persuasion is done remotely and how much involves the overseas police service stations, Safeguard Defenders warned that “these methods allow the Chinese Communist Party and their security organs to circumvent normal bilateral mechanisms of police and judicial cooperation, thereby severely undermining the international rule of law and territorial integrity of the third countries involved.”
“It leaves legal Chinese residents abroad fully exposed to extra-legal targeting by the Chinese police, with little to none of the protection theoretically ensured under both national and international law,” the group said.
Daria Impiombato, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who was not involved in the Safeguard Defenders research, has also tracked the “worrying” expansion of Chinese police presence overseas.
“Overseas Chinese citizens are already very much aware that information can be fed back home and there can be repercussions for their safety or their relatives” if they step out of line, Ms. Impiombato said.
In a report published last month, the United Nations human-rights office said it found “patterns of intimidations, threats and reprisals” against Uyghurs and other Chinese nationals living overseas who had spoken out against Beijing. Canadian officials have expressed similar alarm: In January, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said there was a “growing problem” of intimidation and harassment of Chinese people in Canada.
The Globe and Mail visited three addresses in the Greater Toronto Area on a list of overseas Chinese police service stations published by state media – two in Markham and one in Scarborough.
All were in areas with large Chinese populations, but no one The Globe spoke to was aware of a police service station or had heard of the Fuzhou Public Security Bureau. One address in Markham was a private home, while the other was a mall full of small Chinese businesses and restaurants. The third property, in a business park near a highway, is owned by the Canada Toronto FuQing Business Association, a federally incorporated non-profit.
Per its website, the CTFQBA was established “under the guidance” of a number of Chinese and Fujianese government organizations, including a municipal committee of the United Front Work Department, the body that projects the Chinese Communist Party’s influence overseas.
During a session of the Thirteenth People’s Congress of Fujian Province this March, CTFQBA honorary president Weng Guoning praised the Overseas 110 system, saying it helped him feel “the warmth” of the motherland, according to reports in state media.
The CTFQBA did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Weng could not be reached for comment. A representative of China’s consulate in Toronto also did not respond to a request for comment.
Much about the Chinese police service stations remains unclear. Even in the case of those that operate publicly, it can be difficult to ascertain whether they do so with the imprimatur or even knowledge of the host government.
Camille Boily-Lavoie, a spokesperson for the RCMP, said the force would not comment on “uncorroborated media reports or statements.”
Foreign police officers, including members of China’s Ministry of Public Security, “can be sent to Canada as part of diplomatic or consular missions, performing duties which are representational or in a liaison capacity,” she added.
She said the RCMP were aware that “foreign states may seek to intimidate or harm communities or individuals within Canada” and take such threats seriously. She encouraged anyone experiencing such harassment to report it to the police.
Italian newspaper Il Foglio reported last week on a news release sent out to Chinese residents in Tuscany, informing them of a new “Fuzhou Overseas Police Service Station” at an address in the city of Prato shared with the Cultural Association of the Fujian Chinese Community in Italy.
Italian police told the paper they had not been notified of the station’s opening in March but said it was not a reason for concern because it “only deals with administrative practices and not public security.”
Il Foglio nonetheless reported there was evidence the station was engaged in “intelligence-gathering operations.”
Duties of Chinese police
There are more than two million police officers in China. They are overseen by the Ministry of Public Security (MSP) – part of the State Council, China’s top administrative body – and various provincial and county level public-security bureaus. The MSP, along with the Ministry of State Security, which handles intelligence and covert policing, are two of the most powerful bodies in the country, tasked with both maintaining law and order and public safety and protecting the ruling Communist Party.
That second implicit duty means Chinese police are highly politicized and are often tasked with controlling dissent. The police have broad powers to detain and punish people who step out of line, often imposing fines or house arrest arbitrarily. They work hand in hand with the country’s prosecutors, which means oversight is often lacking; allegations of abuse by police are common, particularly in rural areas.
In recent years, Chinese police have become far more professionalized, taking advantage of new surveillance and crime-solving technologies to crack even decades-old cold cases. The country’s law enforcement agencies have also increased international co-operation, including with Interpol, whose president from 2016 to 2018 was a former Chinese police officer. Beijing has been accused of abusing Interpol’s “red notice” warrants to go after critics overseas, including members of the Uyghur ethnic minority.
With reports from Alexandra Li and Stephanie Chambers