BUDAPEST -- Recent allegations of China operating 54 overseas "police stations" to pressure its citizens -- including dissidents -- to return home have sparked controversy and led to a number of investigations into their activities across Europe and North America.
But in Hungary and Serbia -- two countries where Beijing is said to operate such facilities and whose governments prize their warming political and economic ties with China -- the new findings are being met with swift denials by authorities despite a growing array of evidence and calls for probes.
"[These] Chinese overseas police [stations] usually just offer their help [to citizens], but they're also signaling that Chinese surveillance is present even here," Marton Tompos, a Hungarian lawmaker from the opposition Momentum party, told RFE/RL.
Tompos made headlines in October when he investigated the locations of two alleged Chinese police stations in Budapest following a September report by the Spain-based NGO Safeguard Defenders that detailed 21 overseas Chinese stations -- most of them in Europe.
According to the report, the stations are overseas operations of the public security bureaus from two Chinese provinces and are used to persuade citizens to return to China, including through pressure on family members at home. While most of those involved appear to be suspected of crimes such as telecommunications fraud or corruption, dissidents have also reported that the stations have been used to monitor and threaten them.
Fourteen governments have already launched investigations into the overseas police stations, and the Dutch and Irish governments have ordered China to shut down the facilities in their countries.
In Budapest, Tompos visited two stations in the Hungarian capital operating in areas home to the city's sizable Chinese diaspora.
In a video, he documented one building that had three large billboards that had the name and logo of the Qingtian Overseas Police Station, one of the Chinese regions mentioned in the Safeguard Defenders report. Tompos says he was unable to contact personnel at either station and when he visited again several days later that the sign had been removed.
"The fact that they have put three large billboards on one of their offices shows they were not afraid of being exposed," Tompos said.
‘Sweep It Under The Rug'
Hungary and Serbia have become China's closest partners in Europe in recent years, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic building stronger political relationships with Beijing and courting Chinese investment and business ties under the umbrella of its expansive infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
In response to Tompos's findings and the Safeguard Defenders report, the Hungarian Interior Ministry told RFE/RL in an e-mail that "there is no Chinese police station operating in Hungary."
Serbian officials have also been silent on the allegations.
The Serbian Interior Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment, and Serbian and Chinese officials refused to take questions from the media at a recent event in Belgrade.
"I believe that [the Serbian government] will look to sweep it under the rug," Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told RFE/RL, adding that Belgrade is careful not to jeopardize its relationship with Beijing.
In the Safeguard Defenders report, the Chinese station in Belgrade is also mentioned as the site of a documented case of forced return. Citing Chinese government documents, the NGO says that in 2018 a Chinese national who lived in Belgrade and is identified only as Xia was accused of theft in China and "persuaded to return."
According to the report, he was identified by the Belgrade station and contacted over the Chinese messaging platform WeChat, where he was eventually "convinced" to return to China after initially being reluctant to leave Serbia.
The case was not previously known in Serbia and authorities there have not published any details or answered questions about it since the report's release.
Pavle Grbovic, an opposition Serbian lawmaker who sits on parliament's Security Services Control Committee, told RFE/RL that he believes there are grounds to launch an investigation into the activities of Chinese police stations in Serbia and says he will raise the issue during the committee's next session.
Serbia and China signed a 2019 agreement that allowed for joint police patrols between the two countries, permitting Chinese officers to work alongside their Serbian counterparts to deal with an influx of tourists and workers from China in recent years. Grbovic says the recent allegations now warrant more scrutiny of this arrangement.
"Regardless of the fact that there is a position officially issued by the Serbian Interior Ministry that [Chinese officers] don't have full police powers [in Serbia], the question still remains as to what they're doing on the streets of Belgrade," he said.
Tompos said the Hungarian Interior Ministry's denials are dishonest, pointing to a wealth of articles in Chinese media -- and even statements from Chinese authorities -- describing the station's existence in Budapest and its engagement in various policing issues in Hungary. It even mentions some officers by name for solving robberies and resolving document issues.
In another instance, Chinese media referred to an officer named Wang Deging, who is mentioned as executive vice president of the Hungary-China Police Exchange Association and as the Hungarian-Chinese police liaison officer with Hungary's Interior Ministry.
Hiding In Plain Sight
Chinese officials have not denied the existence of such facilities, although Beijing says they were set up to provide essential services to Chinese citizens overseas.
Services such as passport renewals or visa requests are typically handled by an embassy or consulate, and diplomatic rules apply in these locations. Policing outposts like the ones China is accused of running could violate the territorial integrity of a host country by crossing national jurisdictions and the protections afforded under domestic law.
"The Chinese Communist Party wants to exert a comparable level of control over the Chinese people abroad as they do domestically," Martin Hala, a China expert at Charles University in Prague and the director of Sinopsis, a project that tracks Chinese influence across Europe, told RFE/RL. "Attempts to police and punish people of Chinese descent overseas are not new [and Beijing] has no qualms about extending their institutions to other, typically unsuspecting, jurisdictions."
Multiple governments and human rights groups have documented instances of China's transnational repression in recent years. Examples include campaigns to extradite Uyghurs back to China's western Xinjiang Province, where they have been interned in a vast camp system, efforts to repatriate citizens accused of crimes back home, and a campaign against pro-democracy activists from the mainland and Hong Kong.
Exact figures are unknown, but thousands of Chinese dissidents or those fleeing repression have been coerced into returning to China, while hundreds of thousands more are believed to have been pressured to go back in part due to the efforts of overseas police stations.
Du Hangwei, China's deputy public security minister, said in June that the government had "persuaded" 210,000 people to return in the past year alone to face charges for telecommunications fraud.
"For a lot of people, it stretches the imagination that a country -- any country -- might possibly attempt to run their own police stations in other states without the knowledge of local authorities," said Hala. "I think the biggest lesson from this whole affair is [that] the entire concept of [what is taking place] is so brazen and, frankly, incredible, that people [and governments] struggle to make total sense out of it."