The Dutch government said on Wednesday that it was investigating reports that Chinese law enforcement agencies illegally operate offices in the Netherlands — without Dutch knowledge or approval — to police Chinese citizens overseas.
The Chinese embassy in the Netherlands said it was “not aware” of and “not involved” with the offices described in the reports. “China’s judicial and law-enforcement authorities strictly abide by international rules and fully respect the judicial sovereignty of other countries,” it said in a statement.
The exchange came after the Dutch broadcaster RTL Nieuws and the investigative journalism outlet Follow the Money published a report on Tuesday about two Chinese operations, set up in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, that are apart from its embassy and consulates.
The Dutch government did not explicitly confirm the existence of the offices. But it was never informed of them, which would make them illegal, said Maxime Hovenkamp, a spokeswoman for the Dutch foreign ministry.
“It’s very worrying for us,” she said.
The report adds to a growing body of evidence that the Chinese government is setting up operations abroad to intimidate and surveil Chinese nationals. The Canadian authorities said Wednesday that they are investigating similar Chinese operations in Canada, adding in a statement that it took threats to the security of people living in Canada “very seriously.”
“This is really part of a growing transnational campaign to instill the same regime of political terror inside China across the world,” said Laura Harth, campaign director for Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group whose own report last month on the stations in the Netherlands spurred the Dutch news media investigation. Chinese police agencies have established dozens of offices around the world, including New York, Paris, London, Madrid and Toronto, the group says.
Such Chinese “service stations” have the double aim of helping the Chinese diaspora abroad with administrative tasks like passport renewals and bank deposits, and “resolutely cracking down on all kinds of illegal and criminal activities related to overseas Chinese people,” according to a statement by the Beijing government’s central political and legal affairs commission, which oversees the police.
But according to the Vienna Convention, an international pact that both China and the Netherlands signed, administrative matters are to be handled by consulates.
According to Safeguard Defenders and the Dutch news reports, the stations in the Netherlands are overseen by the police in the Eastern Chinese cities of Fuzhou and Lishui, where many members of the Chinese diaspora are from. The news reports say the operation in Amsterdam has existed since 2018, and the one in Rotterdam includes a former member of the Chinese military.
The two offices “eschew official bilateral police and judicial cooperation and violate the international rule of law,” Safeguard Defenders’ report said, calling them part of a global program.
The group described a broader crackdown by the Chinese authorities to combat what they have called telecom and online fraud by pressuring Chinese citizens abroad to return home to be prosecuted. Chinese state-run media reported that from April 2021 to July of this year, 230,000 nationals had been persuaded to return to face criminal proceedings.
Rights groups have said that “persuasion to return” involves directly approaching people or their families back in China, and that the alleged crimes can include political dissent.
“It is such a brazen escalation and violation of territorial sovereignty,” said Ms. Garth. “We hope that democratic nations will work together to coordinate these actions.”
Lawmakers in several countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia have expressed concern that the Chinese government is pressuring Chinese nationals abroad, including political dissidents who have sought asylum in those countries.
And at least one outspoken Chinese dissident, according to the Dutch news reports, has given an account of feeling threatened by Chinese agents claiming to be from the overseas offices.
The political dissident, Wang Jingyu, who fled to the Netherlands after openly criticizing the Chinese government online, said that he had received death threats for supporting democracy in Hong Kong.
In one instance earlier this year, Mr. Wang said he had received a call from an officer claiming to be from the Chinese overseas office in Rotterdam, telling him that he should return to China, and should think of his parents back home.
Mr. Wang said he had reported the threats he had received to local Dutch police, but still felt unsafe.
“I’m afraid of the Chinese government,” he told RTL news, adding that he feared the government would send agents to kill him. “I don’t know in the future what they will do.”
Megha Rajagopalan contributed reporting.