The six-story office building, located on a busy street in New York’s Chinatown, features several mundane businesses in the lobby directory, including an engineering firm, an acupuncturist and an accounting firm.
A more notable business, located on the third floor, is not listed: a Chinese outpost suspected of carrying out police operations without jurisdiction or diplomatic approval – one of more than 100 such structures around the world that raise concern. diplomats and intelligence agents.
FBI counterintelligence agents searched the building last fall as part of a criminal investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.
The raid represents an escalation in a global dispute over China’s efforts to control its diaspora far beyond its borders.
Irish, Canadian and Dutch officials have called on China to halt police operations in their countries. The FBI raid is the first known instance of material being seized by authorities at one of the outposts.
People who discussed the FBI raid did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.
Operation Fox Hunt
On Wednesday, the Chinese Embassy in Washington downplayed the role of the outposts, saying they are manned by volunteers who help Chinese nationals with routine tasks, such as renewing their driver’s license in their country. .
But Chinese state media reports reviewed by the New York Times name local Chinese police and officials who describe these operations very differently. They tout the efficiency of the offices, which are often referred to as “overseas policing centres.”
Some reports describe Chinese outposts as “collecting intelligence” and solving crimes overseas without collaborating with local officials.
Public statements do not reveal exactly who runs these offices. They are sometimes referred to as volunteers, sometimes as staff members or, in at least one case, as directors.
Some of these online articles have been taken down recently as Western officials and human rights groups have drawn attention to the police offices.
Western officials see the outposts as part of Beijing’s efforts to keep tabs on Chinese nationals overseas, including dissidents. The best-known operation is referred to as Operation Fox Hunt, in which Chinese authorities track down fugitives overseas and pressure them to return home.
A sprawling network
At least four Chinese localities – Fuzhou, Qingtian, Nantong and Wenzhou – have set up dozens of police outposts, according to state media accounts and public statements released in China. They identify sites in Japan, Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other countries.
“This is extremely worrying from a human rights perspective. We are essentially allowing the Chinese diaspora to be controlled by the PRC rather than submit to our national laws,” said Igor Merheim-Eyre, adviser to a Slovak member of the European Parliament, using the acronym of the People’s Republic of China.
This obviously has a huge impact – not only for our relations with the Chinese diaspora in Europe, but also has huge implications for national sovereignty.
Igor Merheim-Eyre, adviser to a Slovak Member of the European Parliament
The New York outpost, which was set up by the City of Fuzhou, is housed in the offices of a Chinese community organization, the America Changle Association, according to the state daily. China Youth Daily, which published a document last year listing the various police outposts. Changle is a district of Fuzhou City. The article has since been deleted.
Other addresses of Chinese police outposts correspond to locations of private businesses, including Chinese restaurants and trade associations. The Chinese Embassy in Washington described these spaces as being “provided by local overseas Chinese communities who want to be helpful.”
The America Changle Association is headed by Lu Jianshun, known as Jimmy Lu, a donor to New York Mayor Eric Adams. It is unclear if he is the focus of the FBI investigation. A spokesperson for Adams claimed the mayor did not know him.
Asked in a brief phone conversation about the FBI’s search, Lu said he would call back, but didn’t. He did not respond to phone messages and text messages seeking comment.
In the sights of the FBI
Spokespeople for the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn declined to comment, but FBI Director Christopher Wray admitted to lawmakers in November that he was aware of the existence of these outposts, which he called police stations, and that he worried about them.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington maintained that these sites are not police stations. “These are not police personnel from China,” said embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu. “There’s no need to make people nervous about it. »
It is not automatically inappropriate for police officers to work abroad. The FBI, for example, sends agents overseas. But they usually register with the foreign government and work in US embassies.
If they exercise law enforcement functions, it is with the authorization of the local authorities. China has struck similar deals for joint patrols in countries like Italy, a popular destination for Chinese tourists.
This makes informal operations all the more curious.
China’s Foreign Ministry has been largely unresponsive to criticism, but in China police departments have touted their reach and information-gathering powers in official statements and in state media.
The state-run China News Service said overseas police centers in Qingtian collect information on public opinion and sentiment from overseas Chinese.
And an article published by a Communist Party organ in Jiangsu Province claimed that Nantong City’s overseas police liaison service centers had helped capture and persuade more than 80 criminal suspects to return. in China since February 2016.
Human rights group Safeguard Defenders said in a report late last year that these police stations had carried out similar operations in Serbia, Spain and France.
It’s unclear exactly what the FBI was investigating during its raid in New York, but it comes as part of a larger Justice Department effort to curb Operation Foxhunting.
In October, prosecutors in Brooklyn – the same office that searched the New York office – charged seven Chinese nationals with harassing an American resident and his son, pressuring the man to return to China to to face criminal charges.
“It is outrageous that China thinks it can come to our shores, carry out illegal operations and bend people here in the United States to their will,” Christopher Wray protested in 2020, after authorities accused eight other people to be part of Operation Fox Hunt.
The Chinese government has also monitored and pressured ethnic minorities overseas, including Uyghurs and Tibetans, and their families. Human rights groups and government officials fear the outposts could be used as bases for such operations.
Attempt to infiltrate the NYPD
According to former and current law enforcement officials in New York, the Chinatown outpost, like others elsewhere in the United States, dates from the middle of the last decade.
Police officials in at least one Chinese province then tried to get their officers to train with New York police and other departments in cities that are home to large Chinese communities, officials say. law enforcement.
Chinese officials wanted the NYPD to sign a memorandum of understanding to define the training program and make it official. But senior commanders and FBI officials in New York had serious concerns.
They feared the training program would legitimize the presence of Chinese officers and make New York City police an unwitting partner in a campaign of surveillance and harassment, officials said.
“The Chinese government wants to have more influence and expand its transnational policing,” said Chen Yen-ting, a Taiwan-based researcher who worked on the report. Safeguard Defenders.
“It’s a way to show its own citizens in China that its government is so strong. We have the power to reach the whole world, and even if you go out, you are still under our control. »
- Panels removed
- Márton Tompos, a Hungarian lawmaker, said he visited a Chinese police center in Budapest last year. “There were three signs reading ‘Qingtian Police Overseas Service Station,'” he revealed in an interview. After he spoke about his visit, the panels were removed.
SOURCE : The New York Times