Image courtesy: Vox
Article 32/ 2023
China officially granted Approved Destination Status to Saudi Arabia, enabling Chinese citizens to embark on group tours to the Kingdom. The Saudi Tourism Authority, in partnership with various stakeholders, is actively working to enhance aviation connectivity between the two countries. Efforts are underway to streamline visa services, with e-visas available in under three minutes, along with visas on arrival. Furthermore, the integration of Chinese payment solutions such as UnionPay aims to facilitate smooth transactions for Chinese travellers. With a diverse array of 162 tailored offerings for the Chinese market, the Saudi Tourism Authority is eager to strengthen collaborations with online travel agencies and companies from China.
Over the past two decades, China's presence in the Middle East has seen a substantial surge. This surge is intricately linked to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) framework, which places the region at the forefront of its foreign policy endeavours. The exponential growth in trade, investment, and commerce between China and West Asian states since the 2000’s has led to a notable influx of Chinese nationals, businesses, and capital into the region. While the estimated number of Chinese citizens in West Asia stands at approximately 1 million, the transient population of temporary Chinese visitors, merchants, and contract workers could potentially augment this figure. Notably, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain have emerged as prime destination countries for Chinese expatriates in the Gulf. Concurrently, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel serve as key destinations for Chinese migrant workers, tourists, and overseas students.
China's economy has facilitated the global expansion of Chinese companies, resulting in sizable diaspora communities of Chinese citizens worldwide. Following a surge of emigration in the 1990s, according to the World Migration Report, an estimated 10.5 million Chinese citizens now reside abroad, with an additional 35 million to 60 million individuals temporarily working/ travelling overseas. It is crucial to note that this Chinese diaspora encompasses a diverse range of individuals, including workers, emigrants, and dissidents. This necessitated a novel approach by Chinese state security agencies in monitoring them and gauging their political inclinations. Moreover, the growing Chinese diaspora constitutes a primary focus of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s United Front strategy (China's United Front strategy serves as a manipulative tool in the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) governance playbook. These agencies are employed within the country and on the international stage. Its objective is to consolidate power for the CCP by subverting diverse sectors of society, including ethnic and religious groups, business leaders, intellectuals, and overseas Chinese communities. In the realm of community policing, this strategy is cynically utilised to exert undue influence, exercise authoritarian control, and manipulate cooperation within local communities, aiming to bolster its political sway on a global scale.
Consequently, there has been a noticeable upswing in law enforcement activities by Chinese agencies beyond their domestic jurisdiction targeting Chinese nationals. This phenomenon includes the establishment of "Chinese Overseas Police Service Centers," a development brought to light by the human rights group Safeguard Defenders in 2022. Safeguard Defenders' report reveals that China currently maintains 102 overseas police stations across 53 countries spanning five continents. These centres leverage the substantial size of Chinese overseas communities to establish a robust global presence. Managed by China's Ministry of Public Security and operated by local-level public security bureaus from three Chinese provinces (Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Fujian). These centres are officially tasked with aiding Chinese citizens abroad in administrative matters such as licence renewals.
Despite these operations, the Chinese government consistently denies the existence of overseas police service stations. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, asserts that China strictly adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs and abides by international law, thereby respecting the judicial sovereignty of all nations.
However, it is essential to bear in mind that the United Nations Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 prohibits countries from dispatching government representatives to other nations without the consent of the host government. This renders China's overseas police stations technically illegal in numerous countries.
In the Middle East, where China's influence is markedly growing, the number of police service centres is surprisingly low compared to other regions worldwide. According to Safeguard Defenders' findings, Chinese overseas police service centres are present in only two Middle Eastern countries: one in Israel and two in the UAE.
In Israel, a police service centre has been operational since at least April 2020. Its purpose is to monitor Chinese nationals abroad and regime opponents without adhering to local judicial protocols. The precise location of this station remains undisclosed, and the nature of cooperation between the station and Israeli authorities, including whether it was established with their consent and collaboration, remains unclear.
In recent years, Israel has witnessed a surge in Chinese tourists, making it an increasingly vital destination. China currently ranks as the 10th largest source of tourists to Israel, with Chinese travellers constituting the fastest-growing segment. Additionally, the Israeli government is actively recruiting thousands of Chinese workers to address the nation's housing crisis. Chinese workers, renowned for their reliability and skills, play a pivotal role in the Israeli construction industry.
In the UAE, China has established at least two overseas police service stations, one in Dubai and another in an undisclosed location. These stations are reportedly operated by the police departments of Nantong and Wenzhou and function in cooperation with local authorities. Concerns have been raised by UAE authorities regarding the activities of these stations, with reports indicating the existence of "black sites" operated by Chinese intelligence agencies for detention and investigation.
According to the Gulf News, Dubai hosts the largest and most diverse Chinese population in the Middle East, with an estimated 400,000 Chinese residents, constituting roughly 4 percent of the country's total population. In 2022, approximately 6,000 Chinese enterprises were operating in the UAE. While the outbreak of COVID-19 disrupted tourism, the UAE remains eager to attract more Chinese visitors, recognizing the significance of this demographic in achieving their goal of 10 million tourists by 2030.
In recent times, a noticeable trend has emerged: Chinese community police stations are being set up wherever there is a Chinese presence. These stations grant direct access for monitoring not just Chinese citizens, but also events within the host countries. As the Middle East gains prominence as a favoured destination for Chinese tourists, it is anticipated that the proliferation of Chinese police stations will increase. This will result in heightened surveillance of developments in West Asian nations.
While the expansion of Chinese influence in the Middle East is largely driven by economic interests and connectivity initiatives, the establishment of overseas police service centers raises valid concerns about the extent of China's reach and influence beyond its borders. The presence of these centers, particularly in Israel and the UAE, underscores a potentially troubling trend in monitoring Chinese nationals and dissenting voices abroad, bypassing local legal processes.
The lack of transparency surrounding the operations of these centers, along with China's official denial of their existence, adds to the unease. This situation challenges established international norms, particularly the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, highlighting potential legal and diplomatic ramifications.
As the Middle East continues to attract a growing number of Chinese visitors and expatriates, the proliferation of these police stations is anticipated to rise. This development necessitates careful scrutiny and dialogue among concerned parties, including governments, human rights organisations, and the international community. It is imperative that the rights and interests of individuals, regardless of their nationality, are protected and respected in line with established principles of sovereignty and human rights. Vigilance in the face of these emerging challenges is crucial to safeguarding the integrity and autonomy of host nations in the Middle East and beyond.
China’s offshore police “service stations” fuel human rights concerns. (n.d.). Nikkei Asia. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Comment/China-s-offshore-police-service-stations-fuel-human-rights-concerns
Human rights group says China has more secret “police stations” abroad than reported. (2022, December 5). The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/china/chinese-overseas-police-stations-human-rights-b2238951.html
Ruehl, J. P. (2023, May 2). Examining China’s “overseas police stations.” Asia Times. https://asiatimes.com/2023/05/examining-chinas-overseas-police-stations/
Santos, N. dos. (2022, December 4). Exclusive: China operating over 100 police stations across the world with the help of some host nations, report claims. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2022/12/04/world/china-overseas-police-stations-intl-cmd/index.html
What Are China’s Alleged “Secret Overseas Police Stations”? (n.d.). Thediplomat.com. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from https://thediplomat.com/2023/04/what-are-chinas-alleged-secret-overseas-police-stations/