How the FBI discovered China’s network of secret police stations in the US

How the FBI discovered China’s network of secret police stations in the US

The sober sixstory building on a busy street in Chinatown in new York It lists several common companies in its reception directory, including an engineering firm, an acupuncturist, and an accounting firm. But a more notable development on the third floor isn’t on the list: a Chinese government outpost suspected of conducting police operations without jurisdiction or diplomatic approval — one of more than 100 such offices around the world that worries diplomats and intelligence officials.

Counterintelligence agents FBI (Federal Police) searched the building last fall as part of a criminal investigation by the US Department of Justice office. United States of America in Brooklyn, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The search and seizure escalates a global dispute over the efforts of the China Monitoring members of the diaspora far beyond national borders. Irish, Canadian and Dutch officials have urged China to halt police activity in their countries. The FBI raid is the first known example of authorities seizing materials from one of these outposts.

The sources who reported on the FBI operation did so on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to provide information on the matter. The Chinese embassy in Washington on Wednesday downplayed the role of these outposts, saying staff at the offices are volunteers who help Chinese people with routine tasks like renewing their Chinese driver’s licenses.

FBI agents raided a suspected Chinese police outpost in this glass building on East Broadway in Chinatown, New YorkFBI agents raided a suspected Chinese police outpost in this glass building on East Broadway in Chinatown, New York Photo: Hilary Swift/The New York Times

But Chinese state media reports, analyzed by the New York Times, quote Chinese law enforcement agencies and local officials by name and describe their activities very differently. They publicize the effectiveness of these departments, which are often referred to as police departments abroad. Some reports claim that Chinese outposts are “collecting information” and solving crimes abroad without cooperating with local authorities. Public statements leave out exactly who holds the offices. These individuals are sometimes referred to as volunteers, sometimes as staff, and in at least one case as a director.

Some of these reports published online have recently been deleted as Western officials and human rights groups drew attention to the police posts.

Western officials see these offices as part of Beijing’s broader effort to keep tabs on Chinese nationals living abroad, including dissidents. The most notorious of these efforts is known as Operation Fox Hunt, in which Chinese authorities pursue fugitives abroad and pressure them to return home.

At least four Chinese locations — Fuzhou, Qingtian, Nantong and Wenzhou — set up dozens of police outposts, according to state media reports and public statements circulated in China. Offices are marked in the Japanat Italyat FranceIn the United Kingdomat Germanyat Hungaryat Czech Republic and in other countries.

“From a human rights perspective, this is extremely worrying. We essentially allow the Chinese diaspora to be controlled by the PRC without being subject to our national laws,” said Igor MerheimEyre, adviser to a Slovak MEP, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China. “This obviously has huge implications not only for our relations with the Chinese diaspora across Europe, but also with huge implications for national sovereignty.”

The New York outpost, set up by the city of Fuzhou, is on the premises of a Chinese community organization, America Change Association NY, according to the staterun China Youth Daily, which published a document last year listing several police outposts. Changle is a district of the city of Fuzhou. The article was later deleted. Other police outpost addresses correspond to the locations of businesses, including Chinese restaurants and trade associations. The Chinese embassy in Washington said the rooms were “provided by overseas Chinese communities who would like to be used.”

The suspected Chinese outpost in New York's Chinatown is one of more than 100 such sites around the world that have diplomats and Secret Service agents worried.The suspected Chinese outpost in New York’s Chinatown is one of more than 100 such sites around the world that have diplomats and Secret Service agents worried.

America Changle is directed by Lu Jianshun, known as Jimmy Lu, who donated to the New York Mayor’s campaign. Eric Adams. It is unclear whether he is the focus of the FBI investigation. A spokesman for Adams said the mayor does not know him.

Lu, questioned during a brief phone call about the FBI’s search and seizure operation, said he would call back later but didn’t. And he stopped taking calls or responding to text messages asking for his comments. FBI and Justice Department spokesmen in Brooklyn declined to comment on the matter, but FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers in November he was aware of the outposts and concerned about the issue of qualifying the locations as police stations.

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The Chinese Embassy in Washington said the sites are not police stations. “This is not China’s police equipment,” said representative spokesman Liu Pengyu. “There’s no reason to make people nervous about it.”

A foreign assignment is not automatically unsuitable for police officers. The FBI, for example, has agents stationed in other countries. But they typically perform for foreign governments and operate out of US embassies. And when they perform police duties, they do so with the permission of the local authorities. China has made similar arrangements for joint patrols in places like Italy, which is a popular destination for Chinese tourists.

That makes secret operations even weirder.

China’s foreign ministry has responded little to the criticism, but inside the country, police agencies have announced their reach and intelligencegathering power in both official statements and state media.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, in 2019The Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, in 2019 Photo: Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times

China News Service, a staterun news agency, said the Qingtian police overseas centers have collected information on public opinion and sentiment among overseas Chinese.

And an article published by a Communist Party organ in Jiangsu Province claimed that since February 2016, Nantong City’s overseas police liaison centers had helped arrest more than 80 criminal suspects and persuade them to return to China. Human rights group Safeguard Defenders said in a report released late last year that these police stations are conducting similar operations in Serbia, Spain and France.

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It’s unclear what the FBI was investigating during its search and seizure operation, but it came amid a broader effort by the Justice Department to curb foxhunting. In October, prosecutors based in Brooklyn — the same office that searched the Chinatown address — accused seven Chinese nationals of molesting a US citizen and his son, and pressured the man to return to China and face criminal charges .

“It is outrageous that China believes it can invade our country, conduct illegal operations and bend people in the US to its will,” Wray said in 2020 after authorities charged eight people with participating in fox hunting.

The Chinese government also scrutinized and pressured ethnic minorities abroad, including Uyghurs and Tibetans, and their relatives. Human rights groups and government officials suspect the outposts could be bases for these types of operations.

Officials and former law enforcement officials in New York say the Chinatown office like others across the US has been in business for the middle of the last decade. Law enforcement officials in at least one Chinese province at the time were trying to arrange training for their officers with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and other law enforcement agencies in cities with large Chinese communities, law enforcement officials said.

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 could legitimize the presence of Chinese officers and potentially make the NYPD an unwitting partner in a surveillance and harassment campaign, officials said.

“The Chinese government wants to gain more influence and expand its crossborder policing,” said Chen Yenting, a Taiwanbased researcher who worked on the Safeguard Defenders report. “It’s a wideranging jurisdiction to show Chinese citizens in China that their government is strong. We have the power to reach you anywhere in the world, and even if you leave, you are still under our control.” / TRANSLATION BY GUILHERME RUSSO

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