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How much attention has China’s overseas dispatched offices received?

A man sitting Behind a desk in an estate agent’s office on a busy street in the north-west London suburb of Hendon. He seemed annoyed by the presence of another reporter, wondering if the small, unassuming space — typical of a high street real estate firm — had links to the Chinese police. It didn’t, he insisted. He said he first heard such allegations late last year, when a Spain-based human rights group claimed that local Chinese police had set up dozens of “service stations” abroad, including in the United States, Britain, Canada and China. France. Hendon’s address is listed. So did a food delivery company in south London and a restaurant in Glasgow.

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Human rights group Safeguard Defenders says there are at least 102 such centers in 53 countries. Like several Western governments, the British government has expressed caution. In late December, British police visited his office to inquire about the matter, the estate agent said.in New York FBI Offices used by Chinese community organizations were searched. Several other countries said they were also investigating.

Safeguard Defenders’ message draws on numerous reports circulating in China, including in state-owned media and on local government websites. They described how, since 2016, the public security organs in the three cities of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai and one county have opened service stations abroad.

According to reports, these centers are run by Chinese residents of the relevant countries and aim to help overseas Chinese with paperwork such as registering marriages with Chinese authorities and renewing Chinese driver’s licenses. The bureaucracy was carried out by Chinese police via video link, the report said.The Hendon address was one of 30 listed in a report China Youth Daily, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper in Beijing. The address covers 21 countries and is identified as the address of the police service station. The list was released by police in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province, which announced the overseas services at a news conference last January, the newspaper said.

Western governments raise two main questions. First, would the work of these stations, even if limited as China claims, violate diplomatic practice? Another is whether the stations might violate other laws, such as harassing or threatening people wanted or disliked by Chinese authorities. (In the UK, there have been no public allegations of such activity involving Chinese locations: those at the three addresses listed deny providing services to the Chinese police.) A spokesman for the Dutch foreign ministry said China had not yet informed the Dutch government of the centers, “in order to making them illegal from the start”.

Safeguard Defenders found reports in Chinese media about three European sites (Belgrade, Madrid, and Paris) that were working to persuade suspects to return to China. Police in Nantong, Jiangsu province, said last year that stations they set up abroad had helped 80 suspects return. They did not say where the fugitives lived.

Even if these sites are generally expected to provide such assistance, their business may be primarily focused on the Chinese diaspora in the Chinese jurisdictions with which they have ties. They are unlikely to have the kind of social or business connections that would allow them to keep tabs on people from other parts of China, especially ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs or Tibetans. But of the 1.7 million Chinese-born migrants in Europe, Wenzhou and Qingtian, two jurisdictions with a presence abroad, make up the majority.

Now that the focus is on the stations, Chinese officials may become more cautious about using them, especially in the West. But even if Chinese police hope the centers will play an important role in hunting down fugitives or monitoring dissent, closing them may do little. Chinese officials have developed close ties with leaders of overseas Chinese communities — and they have many contacts to turn to for help.

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