Italy hosts the highest number of unofficial Chinese “police stations” out of a network of more than 100 around the world, a report by a Spanish civil rights group has claimed.
The northern Italian city of Milan was allegedly used by two local Chinese public security authorities as a European testing ground for a policing strategy to monitor the Chinese population abroad and force dissidents to return home.
The Madrid-based Safeguard Defenders reported in September that 54 such stations allegedly existed around the world, prompting police investigations in at least 12 countries including Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.
In a report published on Monday, the civil rights group said it had identified 48 additional stations, 11 of which are in Italy. Other newly identified stations were in Croatia, Serbia and Romania, it said.
The Italian stations are in Rome, Milan, Bolzano, Venice, Florence, Prato – a town near Florence that hosts the largest Chinese community in Italy – and Sicily.
China has said the offices are merely “service stations” set up to assist Chinese citizens with bureaucratic procedures such as renewing a passport or driving license.
The investigation carried out by Safeguard Defenders was based on publicly available Chinese statements and data, and was limited to stations established by local Chinese public security authorities in countries where there is a large Chinese community.
Safeguard Defenders claimed that while the stations were not directly run by Beijing, “some statements and policies are starting to show a clearer guidance from the central government in encouraging their establishment and policies”.
The civil rights group alleges that the unofficial police stations are used by China to “harass, threaten, intimidate and force targets to return to China for persecution”.
The group says it has evidence of intimidation – as opposed to the official channel of extradition – being used to force people home from Italy, including against a factory worker accused of misappropriation who returned to China after 13 years in Italy and disappeared without a trace.
“We monitor Chinese data and in April came across information from the ministry of public information which showed that 210,000 people were persuaded to return in just one year,” said Laura Harth, a campaign director for Safeguard Defenders.
Some of those forced home included targets in Operation Fox Hunt, a campaign set up by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, seemingly to pursue corrupt officials who had fled abroad.
Italy, which is home to 330,000 Chinese citizens, according to 2021 figures from Istat, the national statistics agency, is fertile ground for potential Beijing influence owing to myriad agreements between the two countries. Among these is a joint police patrol scheme, first signed off in 2015, under which Chinese police patrol Italian cities for temporary periods, ostensibly to assist Chinese tourists.
According to the report, Italy’s first unofficial Chinese police station was set up as a “pilot” in Milan by Wenzhou public security agency in May 2016, when the tourist-assisting squad made its debut in Italy. Wenzhou went on to set up premises in Prato and Paris. In 2018, shortly after the police patrol deal was reinforced, Qingtian public security also set up a “pilot” office in Milan.
“The fact that Chinese local authorities have been able to use these stations as pilots in Italy is pretty damning,” said Harth.
In a statement to Il Foglio newspaper in September, Italy’s interior ministry, which at the time was under Mario Draghi’s government, said the alleged unofficial Chinese police stations were “of no particular concern”.
Before taking power in October, Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s current prime minister, was vehemently anti-China.
The report notes that “despite having the largest number of liaison outposts on its soil, the Italian government is among the very few European countries that has not yet publicly announced an investigation into the Chinese overseas police stations or declared their illegality”.