Has a Chinese police network taken hold in Britain's High Streets?

Has a Chinese police network taken hold in Britain’s High Streets? Disturbing investigation looks at three UK premises listed as ‘service stations’ by Beijing which are similar to sites in Europe that track dissidents and coerce them to go home

  • Dancers descended on Glasgow last month to mark the ancient ‘Moon Festival’
  • The festivities culminated in a feast of Peking duck at the Loon Fung restaurant
  • The address shares a distinction with two ordinary properties 400 miles away
  • They appear on a list of overseas ‘service stations’ connected to police in China 

Weaving through crowds to the hypnotic timbre of ceremonial drumming, brightly-coloured Chinese lion dancers descended on Glasgow last month to mark the ancient Chinese ‘Moon Festival’.

Celebrating the autumn harvest, when the full moon is brightest, Glasgow’s Lord Provost Jacqueline McLaren welcomed guest of honour Hou Danna, China’s Acting Consul General in Edinburgh, who gave a speech urging ‘unity’ between the ‘Chinese community and . . . Scottish community’.

The festivities, hosted by local businessman Jimmy Lin, culminated in a feast of Peking duck and honey-roast pork at the Loon Fung restaurant. Loon Fung is a Glaswegian institution which has served dumplings for decades.

But next door to shuttered shops and the Nice N Sleazy bar, the restaurant’s less-than-salubrious location of Sauchiehall Street has been marred for years by ructions between rival Chinese Triad gangs.

The address shares a peculiar distinction with two seemingly ordinary properties 400 miles away: the business premises of a food delivery app in Croydon, South London, and an estate agent on a High Street in Hendon, North London — both of which I visited this week.

Because what belies their everyday exteriors is that their addresses and telephone numbers appear on a list of overseas ‘service stations’ connected to police in China. So says a report by Madrid-based human rights NGO (non-governmental organisation) Safeguard Defenders, published last month.

Weaving through crowds to the hypnotic timbre of ceremonial drumming, brightly-coloured Chinese lion dancers descended on Glasgow last month to mark the ancient Chinese ‘Moon Festival’

The report highlighted 54 such illegal ‘police stations’ that have quietly flooded the world over five continents in a flagrant breach of international laws on extradition and cross-border arrests. The NGO described the situation as ‘Chinese transnational policing gone wild’.

Named after the Chinese emergency number, the ‘110 Overseas’ centres sell themselves as one-stop-shops for Chinese people abroad, offering legal advice, document processing and ‘hotlines’ to police back in China. Their true purpose, however, is a means for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to take the law into its own hands — no matter the jurisdiction — and to, in its own words ‘resolutely crack down on various illegal and criminal activities involving overseas Chinese’.

They can and do catch genuine Chinese ‘gangsters and scammers’, and state officials boasted some 230,000 ‘fugitives’ had been ‘persuaded to return’ between April 2021 and July this year.

But it begs the question: are all of these ‘fugitives’ common criminals? It is feared that many are political dissidents who fled China for daring to speak out against the communist regime. Some could be Hong Kong expatriates, Uighur refugees or legal citizens of another country.

Just last Sunday a Chinese government official — speaking on condition of anonymity — admitted the existence of the ‘stations’ and their role in ‘pressuring criminals’ to return to China.

An official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Shanghai told the Spanish newspaper El Correo that: ‘Bilateral treaties are very cumbersome and Europe is reluctant to extradite to China.’

Celebrating the autumn harvest, when the full moon is brightest, Glasgow’s Lord Provost Jacqueline McLaren welcomed guest of honour Hou Danna, China’s Acting Consul General in Edinburgh, who gave a speech urging ‘unity’ between the ‘Chinese community and . . . Scottish community’

She added: ‘I do not see what is wrong in pressuring criminals to face justice with all the guarantees contained in Chinese law’, adding that ‘only legal means are used.’

It seems astonishing that organs of the Chinese totalitarian state can operate under the noses of Western governments with impunity. But in 2020, a Madrid branch was able to apprehend Liu, a Chinese resident in Spain, who was wanted by prosecutors in China for ‘environmental pollution’.

Using its network of people on the ground in the Spanish capital, Liu was taken to the 110 ‘station’ where he was put on a video call with police from his home province. They were seated with a member of Liu’s family — placed there as a thinly-veiled threat — and Liu was ‘persuaded’ to return to the mainland where he was then prosecuted. Last month, the Chinese embassy in Ireland denied the existence of a secret ‘police station’ when newspaper reporters visited the address of a supposed 110 centre, at a grocery shop in Dublin.

A spokesman at the embassy explained that ‘quite a few Chinese nationals’ in Ireland could not renew their expired driving licences and that the ‘station’ was only used to help them.

‘This is the ambit of the station,’ the spokesman told the Irish Times. ‘We have shared the above information with the Irish authority as well.’

So what do we make of the three UK addresses appearing on the list of overseas ‘service stations’? It is not suggested, yet, that any of the addresses and phone numbers have been used for anything other than as a contact point in a Chinese government directory.

Loon Fung restaurant has been going for 50 years, and its manager’s eyes were on stalks when asked about links to a secret Chinese police bureau.

The festivities, hosted by local businessman Jimmy Lin, culminated in a feast of Peking duck and honey-roast pork at the Loon Fung restaurant. Loon Fung is a Glaswegian institution which has served dumplings for decades

‘This is one of the top Cantonese restaurants,’ he said, astonished. ‘There’s no secret police here.’

Through the intercom of the All Eat app office in Croydon, a Chinese woman named Jessica said: ‘I am really, really confused. I am an employee here. You’ll have to speak to my manager.’

In Hendon, workers at the Hunter Realty estate agent were similarly baffled. So what’s the explanation? ‘Individuals or associations abroad linked to the 110 Overseas network are deployed to track the target [person] or ‘bring them in’ to talk to the authorities back in China’, said Laura Harth, campaign director of Safeguard Defenders.

‘In that sense, the physical addresses listed are of secondary importance, other than serving as a possible point of reference or contact for the transnational policing efforts.’

The premises are less of a literal ‘police station’, and more of a phone number that Chinese police can call to coordinate their efforts abroad. So the bewilderment of the business operators I met is likely genuine. But Loon Fung’s address shares a telephone number with another Chinese restaurant, Sichuan House, based a few doors down the road.

Astonishingly, when Safeguard Defenders telephoned this number last month, making enquiries in Cantonese, someone at the address admitted there was indeed a telephone line to police in China, but that it existed ‘in name only’.

When the researchers attempted to call back for more information, the line was cut off.

While this is hardly proof of a secretive cross-border rendition network, the alleged cells would be in keeping with China’s wider threat to British national security.

MI5 chief Ken McCallum warned in July that the ‘most game-changing challenge’ to our security came from the ‘increasingly authoritarian Chinese Communist Party’.

But next door to shuttered shops and the Nice N Sleazy bar, the restaurant’s less-than-salubrious location of Sauchiehall Street has been marred for years by ructions between rival Chinese Triad gangs

It follows the efforts by Huawei, the telecoms company widely believed to be in thrall to the CCP, to involve themselves in the UK’s 5G roll-out — before then Prime Minister Boris Johnson barred them from the network.

Whitehall buildings are fitted with computerised cameras made by Chinese firm Hikvision, and an investigation in Italy this year found they could be hacked to send footage straight to Beijing. Meanwhile, China embeds military academics into British universities so they can accumulate sensitive information on weapons-building from them, which is then used to strengthen the People’s Liberation Army. CCP apparatchiks praise their espionage and intellectual property theft as ‘picking flowers in other lands to make honey in China’.

Does China now have new flower beds in Glasgow, Hendon and Croydon? All three addresses are allegedly part of the ‘first batch’ of a network that went live in January to serve Fuzhou city police in Fujian province, China.

The local government there was breathless in lauding the launch of these 34 ‘police service centres’.

Fuzhou is regarded as the ‘second homeland’ of China’s president Xi Jinping, after he’d served as governor of the province.

Last month Chinese central government’s Ministry of Public Security praised the Fuzhou scheme as an example of ‘national excellent law enforcement’, leading to fears that similar initiatives could be adopted by police in all 31 provinces.

The only other publicly declared network is run from Qingtian, in the neighbouring province of Zhejiang, taking the total number of ‘cells’ worldwide to 54, but many more are suspected.

In Belgrade, Serbia, for instance, a man was forced to return to China after the local branch of Qingtian police facilitated a week of relentless video and voice calls on the WeChat platform.

The address shares a peculiar distinction with two seemingly ordinary properties 400 miles away: the business premises of a food delivery app in Croydon, South London, and an estate agent on a High Street in Hendon, North London — both of which I visited this week

In Prato, Italy, meanwhile, five men have posed for an official photograph in an office decked with a banner declaring ‘Fuzhou Public Security Overseas Police Station’, celebrating the processing of a Chinese driver’s licence there. The Fuzhou connection is strong in Glasgow.

The address of the Sichuan House restaurant is listed in the World Federation of Fuzhou Associations — a directory of ‘clubs’ linked to the city — while it is also the place where the Scotland Fujian Chamber of Commerce is registered.

Its chairman is Jimmy Lin who, as we have seen, hosted VIPs at the Loon Fung last month to celebrate the Moon Festival.

Four years ago, the chamber chaperoned Edinburgh’s Lord Provost Frank Ross on an all-expenses-paid trip to Fuzhou on the invitation of the city’s mayor, who said he wanted to advance ‘mutually beneficial cooperation . . . keep in closer connections, enhance communications’ and ‘upgrade our friendship to a new level’.

Days after the trip, Xiaoying Lin, a member of Fuzhou’s local government, was in the Scottish capital to sign a ‘letter of intent’ with the Lord Provost, formally marking the strengthened ties.

The sojourn occurred in 2018, the same year that the CCP first announced plans for networks of overseas ‘police stations’ as part of its ‘special fight against gangsterism and evil’.

Because what belies their everyday exteriors is that their addresses and telephone numbers appear on a list of overseas ‘service stations’ connected to police in China. So says a report by Madrid-based human rights NGO (non-governmental organisation) Safeguard Defenders, published last month

Was the purpose of the ‘new level of friendship’ to plant the seed for a Fuzhou police cell in Scotland?

A spokeswoman on behalf of the Edinburgh Lord Provost office said there is no awareness of these addresses being linked to police in Fujian.

She added that the council has ceased any twinning city arrangements and Frank Ross is no longer Lord Provost.

As I continued to investigate the three UK addresses, a Companies House search thickened the plot considerably.

All three are used as business addresses by people with the — admittedly common — surname ‘Lin’.

There are 15 active companies registered to the Hendon address, three linked to people named Lin.

Three more Lins — including one who is director of the UK Fujianese Association — are involved with the four active companies operating out of the Croydon address.

And at the Sichuan House site in Glasgow, there are five active companies, including two linked to Lihao Lin, director of the Scotland Fujian Chamber of Commerce.

It is unknown if all of these Lins are related, but many have direct links to Fujian province, if not to Fuzhou city itself.

The Chinese embassy in London and most of the other parties mentioned above declined to respond to requests for comment, including Jimmy Lin, who despite being linked to the Sichuan House address, we are not suggesting is involved with Chinese police.

The office of Glasgow’s Lord Provost Jacqueline McLaren said they were unaware of any concerns regarding the Loon Fung address.

The manager of Hunter Realty in Hendon, meanwhile, told me: ‘We provide our address as a virtual address to companies . . . We do not know why they put our address and telephone number into 110 Overseas, we have no connection with them at all.’ Last month, however, the estate agent told reporters that the office is also used by a ‘legal firm’.

The report highlighted 54 such illegal ‘police stations’ that have quietly flooded the world over five continents in a flagrant breach of international laws on extradition and cross-border arrests. The NGO described the situation as ‘Chinese transnational policing gone wild’

When I presented my findings to the Home Office, Cabinet Office, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the National Crime Agency, I received a statement from the Home Office which said: ‘Any foreign country operating on UK soil must abide by UK law. We support legitimate requests for the repatriation of suspected foreign criminals.’

But I received no response when I asked what would happen if a foreign country on UK soil did not abide by UK law.

Other countries have not been as inhibited in their responses.

In January, FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged that ‘the Chinese government is increasingly targeting people inside the U.S. for personal and political retribution — undercutting the freedoms that our Constitution and laws promise.

‘The kinds of people the Chinese Communist Party tends to go after are not those that a responsible government would make their enemies — refugees, dissidents, and Uighurs — people with their own ideas, who speak or worship as their conscience dictates.’

Canada has similarly warned of the issue, with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Brenda Lucki confirming that the overseas centres there are ‘a growing problem’.

In Beijing, they are adamant.

Speaking of international ‘criminals’ its government wanted to hunt down, a party official declared this year: ‘We will catch them inside and outside the borders.’

The message from China is chilling and clear: no one is safe.

Additional reporting: Joe Hutchison and Gavin Madeley

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