Located between two Asian restaurants on Dublin’s increasingly trendy Capel Street is an office door marked by a curious new sign: Fuzhou Overseas Police Service Station.
The Fuzhou part refers to the city of 8 million people which is the capital of Fujian province on China’s southeast coast. The police service station refers to a new initiative by the city’s Public Security Bureau to open dozens of virtual police outposts around the world.
On the face of it the initiative, called Overseas 110 in reference to the Chinese emergency services phone number, sounds benign enough. Overseas police service stations assist Chinese living aboard with routine administration matters, such as renewing drivers’ licences or obtaining employment document showing they have no previous convictions.
The Fuzhou police says it has already opened 30 such stations in 21 countries. Other Chinese cities and provinces also operate their own stations.
Ireland is an unsurprising location for such a station as it hosts a large number of people from Fujian, a province with historically high levels of emigration.
“During the past two years, the pandemic made international travels not easy and quite a few Chinese nationals found their Chinese ID cards and/or driver licenses expired or about to expire, and yet they could not get the ID renewed back in China in time,” a spokeswoman for the Chinese Embassy in Dublin said via email.
“Fuzhou city’s police authority, its civil affairs department to be exact, therefore gave those folks an opportunity to renew their ID documents online free of charge by asking some volunteers, using their own offices as ‘station’, to help with the online ID renew process. This is the ambit of the ‘station’.”
But globally, the emergence of these stations have caused serious concern among human rights campaigners who fear Chinese security services are using them as a way of monitoring and controlling China’s large diaspora.
These concerns centre on the practice employed by Chinese police forces of “persuading” criminal suspects who have fled abroad to return home to face punishment. This persuasion involves police talking to them over the phone or via video-link at these police outposts. But it can also include denying education to suspects’ children and refusing family members the right to open a business, campaigners say.
Family members can also be punished if they refuse to take part in efforts to persuade suspects to return, government documents show.
According to Chinese authorities, around 230,000 people have been “persuaded” to return to China from other countries since April 2021. Many are accused of engaging in telephone scams targeting Chinese people at home and abroad.
In 2018, a Chinese national accused of theft was identified by a Chinese police service station in Belgrade, Serbia as living in the country. According to Chinese government documents, the man was brought to the service station where he communicated with police back home over video-link. He initially did not want to return but after a week of talking to police, he agreed to come back to China. The Chinese police pointed to the operation as an example of the system’s success.
In 2020, an overseas police service station in Madrid, Spain was used to persuade a Chinese man accused of environmental pollution to return home. Photos of the persuasion sessions appears to show police in China sitting beside a member of the suspect’s family as they try to convince him to return.
In official communications, Chinese authorities routinely promote the effectiveness of these stations as both assisting China’s diaspora with routine matters and with tracking down criminals.
“Overseas 110 helped us solve the difficulties and made us feel the warmth of our hometown. I didn’t expect that a long-standing problem was solved with just one phone call,” one satisfied Fuzhou expat was quoted as saying in Chinese media.
Another account boasts of the authorities’ ability to carry out “systematic inspections” abroad and ensure the “smooth surrender” of Chinese criminals using the stations.
Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist, who was previous detained by Chinese police on subversion charges and forced to make a confession on state TV, has been monitoring these overseas stations with his colleagues in the Safeguard Defenders group.
He said the stations are typically operated by local Chinese community groups which often provide valuable services to the diaspora but that their use as an extension of Chinese “long arm policing operations” is troubling.
“Many of these overseas associations have existed for a long time. It’s only recently police forces in China have been establishing a new relationship with them and that they have being given an added task.”
In a new report on the stations, Safeguard Defenders said “persuasion” tactics used by Chinese police on overseas residents “eschew official bilateral police and judicial co-operation and violate the international rule of law”.
China prefers not to use extradition process to return wanted criminals, Dahlin said, “because it’s a judicial process which requires due process and scrutiny.
“So instead the most common thing is to get in contact with a person, or force a family to get in contact with a person and force a persuasion.”
The Chinese embassy spokeswoman said Irish authorities have been informed of the establishment of the Dublin police service station. She said the allegations detailed in the Safeguard Defenders report are not true.
Security officials in Ireland are aware of the presence of the station although it is unclear if Chinese authorities had an obligation to register its presence. “It’s a bit of a new one to be honest,” one security source said. After all, no Chinese police officers are physically in the station, just volunteers. The Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond to queries.
Dahlin says given the numbers of criminal suspects China claims to have persuaded to return home in recent years, he would be “very surprised” if some did not come from Ireland. But there is no evidence the Dublin station has engaged in any of the activities raised by Safeguard Defenders or that its operators have pressurised Chinese citizens living here.
Speaking anonymously, several members of the Chinese and Taiwanese communities in Ireland told The Irish Times they have not heard anything troubling so far about the Capel Street station but expressed concern Chinese security authorities are spreading their reach.
“It’s very important for the Chinese government to keep control on Chinese diaspora,” said Dahlin. “Traditionally when Chinese governments have fallen, it’s come from the outside. So there’s a historical paranoia there.”