For months, mainstream media across the Western world – in particular English-language outlets based in the constituent members of the ‘Five Eyes’ global spying network – have been rabidly awash with terrifying news of secret “Chinese police stations” operating the world over.
It is claimed these “stations” are unofficial, covert Chinese Communist Party (CPC) security and intelligence cells concealed in private businesses run by Chinese émigrés, such as restaurants. From behind benign facades, they surveil and harass pro-democracy ex-pats, among other nefarious activities.
By contrast, Beijing denies their existence, claiming purported examples to merely be anodyne initiatives constructed by regional public security bureaus during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are primarily said to offer Chinese citizens overseas administrative services, such as driving license renewal.
These denials have fallen on deaf ears, and the narrative of dastardly Communists operating cloak-and-dagger foreign spy bases in order to egregiously extend China’s authoritarian tendrils overseas has ever-gained in currency. In April, the FBI pounced upon a “Chinese police station” in Lower Manhattan, New York, based in the offices of a charitable organization established in 1998 to assist Chinese nationals from Changle, Fujian, a region of southeast China.
Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted two of the organization’s leading members for “conspiring to act as agents of the PRC” and “obstruction of justice” after allegedly deleting encrypted chat records from their smartphones that indicated they were in direct, regular contact with Chinese officials. They face up to 25 years in prison each if convicted of the offenses.
“The PRC, through its repressive security apparatus, established a secret physical presence in New York City to monitor and intimidate dissidents and those critical of its government,” the Justice Department’s National Security Division fulminated at the time. “The PRC’s actions go far beyond the bounds of acceptable nation-state conduct. We will resolutely defend the freedoms of all those living in our country from the threat of authoritarian repression.”
Shocking stuff, one might think. But while an official press release on the raid repeatedly referred to the “clandestine” nature of the “secret police station,” in reality, it was openly and widely advertised as somewhere Chinese citizens in New York City could conveniently access administrative services remotely. Meanwhile, the indictment’s details make clear the only state apparatchiks with which the pair were in contact belonged to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Traffic Management Center.
Similarly, underwhelming results have been produced by official investigations in other countries into the alleged plague. On June 6, U.K. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat announced the results of police probes into three separate alleged CPC security outposts in London and Scotland:
Police have visited each of the locations…and carefully looked into these allegations to consider whether any laws have been broken and whether any further action should be taken. I can confirm that [police] have not, to date, identified any evidence of illegal activity on behalf of the Chinese state across these sites.”
These findings were no doubt extremely disappointing for Safeguard Defenders, which alerted U.K. authorities to the “police stations”. Still, it is unlikely the organization will be deterred from its anti-China crusade or reconsider its position as a dependable false witness for Western governments. As we shall see, Safeguard Defenders – which is likely tied to a notorious CIA front – is the sole source of the “Chinese police station” hysteria that has engulfed Europe, North America and elsewhere.
Its founder has a highly dubious history of conducting U.S.-funded destabilization operations in China, and the organization is no stranger to slandering individuals and organizations as embroiled in sinister Communist plots to their immense personal, professional, and political detriment.
In the process, the lives of countless innocent Chinese citizens residing abroad have been made miserable, already surging levels of hatred for East Asians in the West gravely escalated, and further foundations for an all-out war between the U.S. Empire and Beijing dangerously laid.
“Battle for control”
The avowed origins of Safeguard Defenders date back to 2009 when self-styled Swedish “human rights activist” Peter Dahlin founded the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action) “to support China’s fledging lawyer community” conduct “legal interventions.” In service of these objectives, it established a nexus of pro bono legal aid centers in rural areas of China, serving the needs of local communities.
Because these cases “often concerned the rampant abuse and violation of laws by local police and government,” Safeguard Defenders assert, China Action was forcibly shuttered in 2016. Beijing “targeted it in a major crackdown,” which led to many of its staff being “detained, disappeared or imprisoned,” including Dahlin.
“The foundation” for Safeguard Defenders was laid that same year. It “inherited the mission of China Action, but with an expanded scope to support the survival and effectiveness of civil society and human rights defenders in some of Asia’s most hostile environments” and was publicly launched in 2017.
Absent from this romantic autobiography is any reference to the raid on China Action being precipitated by the organization receiving vast sums from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in secret over several years to promote and conduct destabilizing lawfare operations. In the process, limited local disputes over matters such as land rights were transformed into weapons against the CPC.
The NED’s own senior officials openly admit they do overtly what the CIA once did covertly, and their track record of financing lawfare in “enemy” countries is long and shameful.
For example, in September 2003, the Washington-based Center for Justice and International Law was granted over $80,000 by NED to encourage and train Venezuelans to launch legal actions against their government via the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an obscure but potent U.S. and Costa Rica-based legal nexus that claims jurisdiction over the entirety of the Americas.
This led to a dramatic increase in frivolous human rights claims brought against Caracas by right-wing opposition activists, all of which circumvented the country’s legal system and undermined its sovereignty, granting power of judgment to a hostile, foreign-run body.
In recent years, the NED has also bankrolled Ukrainian media, sponsored a coup attempt in Cuba, funneled money to the leaders of the Hong Kong protests and attempted to topple the Belarusian government.
Dahlin was temporarily transformed into an international human rights celebrity as a result of his 23-day-long incarceration, which culminated in him confessing on state TV – forcedly, he says – to having acted illegally and “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” before being deported back to Sweden, and banned from returning for 10 years. It is a story he has told many times since to Western media outlets.
In January 2017, The Guardian reported that the “trauma” Dahlin experienced “behind bars” in a “secret prison” gave him a “firsthand taste of the harshness with which [Chinese President Xi Jingping’s] battle for control is being waged.” It was, however, noted he had lived in China for seven years “with the daily stress of concealing his work.” The obvious question of why this would be necessary if China Action’s activities were legal and proper was not explored.
More curiously still, Dahlin’s testimony strongly suggests his treatment by Chinese authorities was far more cordial than he could expect to receive were he to run a confidential Beijing-funded operation Stateside training lawyers to level legal actions against U.S. government agencies.
Dahlin was apparently able to refuse their demand that he labels three associates “criminals” in his televised confession without consequence, police took care to kennel his various cats at some expense during his imprisonment, and all of his confiscated property was eventually returned to him, save for some money they used to book him a first-class, one-way plane ticket home to Stockholm. Once seated on that flight, he was given a free glass of champagne.
‘Behind the scenes’
In a lengthy January 2017 interview with the Western-backed, anti-Communist Hong Kong Free Press, Dahlin downplayed the significance of NED’s financing of China Action, claiming it was “limited to a few hundred thousand dollars through the five years the program ran.”
Such sums, in a still-developing and, in some areas, extremely poor country, with a low cost of living and an approximate minimum wage of just $360 per month today, would go a very, very long way indeed. This is without factoring in European Union backing for China Action’s activities, which Dahlin revealed was his organization’s “largest donor.” Notably, the EU has a NED of its own, the European Endowment for Democracy, which is explicitly “inspired” by its American counterpart.
The police swoop on China Action came at a time when governments the world over, particularly those for which Washington reserves a particular animus, were beginning to take action to limit or outright ban NED’s activities within their borders for the first time. This followed a decade-and-a-half of the Endowment often boastfully fomenting “color revolutions” with total impunity across the former Yugoslavia and Soviet sphere, culminating in the violent, armed Maidan Coup in Ukraine in March 2014.
As Dahlin repeatedly underlined to the Hong Kong Free Press, his interrogators were overwhelmingly concerned with comprehending precisely what his organization was up to and how it operated. While one may quite reasonably condemn the heavy-handedness with which he was apparently targeted, it is understandable that Chinese authorities were intensely curious, particularly given that, as the website of Safeguard Defenders openly acknowledges, China Action “worked quietly behind the scenes” and deliberately kept a “low profile” throughout its existence.
By contrast, Safeguard Defenders is an extremely public outfit by design, although its funding is much more opaque. Beyond indeterminate PayPal donations, its income consists of “grants retained through competition in open calls [emphasis in original], from international institutions, foundations and governments’ development assistance programs.” The figures involved and from where they flow are not stated. Moreover, “for safety reasons, most staff and partners are kept anonymous.”
Nonetheless, it may be notable that the organization has been promoted by NED’s “daily blog” DemDigest, as was well-remunerated Endowment grant recipient China Action previously. In a May 2022 post, the organ announced Safeguard Defenders had opened an office in Taiwan, “its first in Asia.” Taipei was said to be “an obvious choice because of its open society and geographic proximity.”
Taiwan may have also represented an ideal location for far darker reasons. Six months earlier, Bloomberg published a report in which nameless CIA officials bemoaned how surveillance measures and a crackdown on corruption by state officials in China had made it virtually impossible for the agency to meet with and/or bribe government informants. This very sadly produced “a lack of top-tier intelligence on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s inner circle.”
Consequently, the agency was “considering whether to deploy China specialists in locations outside China…in the hope that overseas destinations prove a more fertile recruitment environment than the closely surveilled streets of Beijing.” It is surely no coincidence that subsequently, several deep state-linked NGOs and ‘think tanks’ promptly set up shop in Taiwan, where NED-funded entities have for some time regularly convened events attended by Endowment-bankrolled, “pro-democracy” separatists from Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
In the years since its founding, Safeguard Defenders has issued a steady stream of reports on alleged human rights abuses in China. However, it was not until September 2022, with the release of “110 Overseas – China’s Transnational Policing Gone Wild” that it gained serious public prominence due to the international media frenzy over “Chinese police stations” that immediately erupted thereafter.
Two months later, the organization bragged this report had spurred 14 separate countries to investigate “stations” operating on their soil: Austria, Canada, Chile, Czechia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Nigeria, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, U.K., and the U.S. Buried at the bottom was the somewhat inconvenient fact 16 other governments were “yet to respond to the reports of PRC overseas police service centers on their territories.” In other words, they ignored the crazed pronouncements of Safeguard Defenders.
As we saw, the U.K. investigation came to absolutely nothing. Nonetheless, in the eight months between its instigation and lackluster conclusion, the life of at least one individual caught up in the imbroglio was made “hell.”
Ruiyou Lin is the founder of All Eat, a restaurant delivery app, one of the businesses tagged as a “police station” by Safeguard Defenders. Speaking to his local newspaper in May this year, he recounted how he feared for his family’s safety due to frequent accusations in the street of being “secret police,” constant stares from passersby, “maybe 20 – 30 people” per day endlessly ringing his office’s doorbell, and a journalist grilling his son en route to school about whether he was a spy.
The stress induced by his experiences has left Lin, who moved to the U.K. when aged 18 and professes to love his adopted homeland as much as his country of birth, unable to eat or sleep properly. He claims to have lost customers and an investor since the allegations against his enterprise emerged, and he was variously described by the newspaper as “visibly distressed” and “trembling at times with the effort required to keep his emotions in check.”
The impact on Chinese émigré communities of administrative centers upon which they frequently depend being stigmatized if not outright shut down due to the interventions of Safeguard Defenders is just as devastating, if not more so. In late April, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police claimed to have closed a network of “police stations” in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. One of the organizations affected, the Chinese Family Service, said the people they serve “have suffered enormously,” adding:
Community members have been unable to obtain life-saving services they need…This has placed vulnerable members of the Chinese community at risk, impacting our community’s livelihoods and quality of life. [Our] mandate is to help with the integration of new immigrants, to offer French courses, to get our seniors out of isolation, to help women victims violence and contribute to poverty reduction.”
It is a perverse, twisted irony that Dahlin has repeatedly claimed his objective in establishing China Action was to improve the “rule of law” in Beijing and enhance legal protections for average citizens. Presumption of innocence, due process, and the right to a fair trial are all inalienable legal principles in any democracy worthy of the name. Yet, Safeguard Defenders eagerly encourage the gross contravention of these fundamental tenets in pursuit of demonizing Beijing in the eyes of Western citizens.
Western authorities are only too happy to collude, it seems. Ominously, U.K. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat attributed the inability of detectives to uncover criminal conduct at the sites they investigated as an indication “police and public scrutiny has had a suppressive impact on any administrative functions these sites may have had.” Clearly, in the New Cold War, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence when China is, one way or another, involved.
Gravely, we can expect alarmism over any and all things Chinese in Europe and North America to intensify significantly moving forward. The obvious utility of the “police station” psyop is that it provides Western war hawks plausible grounds to accuse Beijing of hostile meddling abroad at a time the CPC remains so doggedly committed to non-interference in other nations’ affairs they refuse to intervene overseas, even when governments ask them to, and their own Silk Road infrastructure is under attack.
As MintPress News has previously revealed, British intelligence for many years prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine ceaselessly spread black propaganda falsely linking the Kremlin to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as President, and other adverse domestic political developments in the West. In the process, these events and phenomena were transformed into direct, deliberate attacks by Moscow, demanding a belligerent response from “target” governments.
Were it not for those machinations, that war might well have been avoided. With U.S. military chiefs now openly discussing all-out conflict against China with alarming regularity, the need to concoct a pretext for that horrific eventuality grows daily. “Chinese police stations” are just the latest salvo in an information war intended to place the U.S. empire and its international vassals on an inevitable, world-threatening trajectory.
Safeguard Defenders were approached for comment by MintPress News, but did not respond prior to publication.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and MintPresss News contributor exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, Declassified UK, and Grayzone. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg.