This article was originally published on Medium:
Nestled into the one hundred block of Manhattan’s East Broadway, surrounded by small Chinatown storefronts, is a low and unassuming glass building. The nearby Manhattan Bridge approach clatters overhead, further dispelling suspicion that this is a location of international political significance. From the street, it would be difficult to tell that the building’s third story houses The American Changle Association. This organization became ensnared in an international controversy after the New York Post alleged earlier this month that the organization had been acting as a front for the New York branch of the Fuzhou Police Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau. The bureau, a shady arm of China’s vast law enforcement apparatus, has established dozens of these branches worldwide from Myanmar to Benin to Canada. Bureau offices have mainly pursued suspects of “telecom fraud,” a major issue in the Chinese expat community. Human rights advocates have accused the Bureau of building a network to surveil and harass enemies of the Chinese Communist Party abroad.
The Bureau’s overseas police program was first described in a report by the Madrid-based human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, a group of ex-Chinese human rights defenders and lawyers. The report detailed a coordinated effort by Chinese law enforcement to “persuade” fugitives to return to China for prosecution. The report alleged that a staggering 230,000 fugitives had returned to China in 2021 and 2022. In some examples, Chinese authorities pressured fugitives’ families within the country into contacting and persuading the fugitive to return home for trial, but in many cases fugitives were approached directly by Overseas Affairs Bureau agents who would threaten to punish the suspect’s relatives in China if he or she did not return to face prosecution. All suspects technically returned of their own “free will.”
However, the anti-telecom fraud campaign may have more sinister goals. The New York Times reported that Wang Jingyu, a Hong Kong dissident who fled to the Netherlands to avoid persecution claimed to have received phone calls from Bureau agents, who warned him to “think of his parents back home” and return. Wang had also been harassed and received death threats while in the Netherlands. It is yet unknown whether these incidents were directed by Chinese authorities or the Bureau.
The Bureau’s program has been directed exclusively by the local governments of China’s southeastern Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, not China’s central government. Of course, each province needs government approval to start such programs, so there is little chance that programs act independently from Beijing. At least ten other provinces have received approval to open offices, but the majority of Chinese immigrants to the US and Europe hail from the country’s southern provinces such as Fujian, making them the number one priority for international law enforcement.
THE NEW YORK OFFICE AND CHANGLE
The America Changle Association has a lengthy and somewhat clouded history. The Association was founded in 1998 as a “common family” for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Americans who had immigrated from the Changle district of Fujian. It has a well-documented history as a cultural center for New York’s Chinese community. It had operated in several locations in Manhattan’s Two Bridges neighborhood before their current location was built in 2014. The organization’s charter claims no affiliation with the Chinese government or its New York consulate, although it threatens to revoke membership for anyone in violation of Chinese laws. In May, the group lost its tax-exempt status for failing to file a tax return for the third straight year. The association’s website has been inactive since 2021, its phone is disconnected, and emails from World Affairs staff have not been answered as of publication. As of 2021, and published the names and photos of its largest donors on its website, all of whom were Chinese nationals. Neither US nor Chinese officials have confirmed that the Changle association is operating a Bureau office.
The discovery of Bureau offices in Western Europe caused an immediate outcry. The Dutch government began an investigation into Bureau offices in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which may have played a role in the harassment of Wang Jingyu. A spokesperson for the Dutch foreign ministry called the offices “very worrying” and claimed that the offices were established secretly and therefore illegally. Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed that the offices were only assisting Chinese nationals in renewing their drivers licenses and other documents. On October 27th, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs ordered a Bureau office in Dublin to close. It based its decision on “international law and domestic law requirements,” including the Vienna Convention on consular relations. The Chinese Embassy in Dublin confirmed that the office had closed because an online system had been set up for easier renewal of official documents.
In the United States, Republicans wasted no time in blaming Democrats for the Bureau office in New York City. Representative Jim Banks (R, IND-3) demanded the Departments of Justice and State “explain why the Biden administration has allowed CCP police to set up an office on US soil.” After the New York Post found that New York mayor Eric Adams and other local politicians had once attended a dinner hosted by the Changle Association, some right-wing news sources accused Adams of having allowed the Bureau to establish its office.
Perhaps the Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau is little more than a clumsy attempt by several of China’s regional governments to reel in international law-breakers while sidestepping extradition processes. However, the clandestine nature of its program hints that China may have used or intends to use its offices for more than it has admitted. If their motives are as innocuous as China has claimed, why were they established in dingy office buildings, instead of in the country’s embassies and consulates? Why were the local governments of the relevant countries not notified? Surely the fight against cyber-fraud could benefit from international cooperation and transparency. If the United States Government values its territorial integrity, not to mention the human rights of its’ Chinese immigrant population, it should follow the Netherlands’ lead and investigate the matter further.
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