Even many Chinese have never heard of this Chinese city. Qingtian is nestled in a narrow valley among forested mountains, a river dividing the town in half. With just half a million inhabitants, Qingtian is little more than a village by Chinese standards, but from here, secret Chinese police stations were set up all over the world. And visitors to Qingtian will also come across other phenomena that one might not expect in such a provincial backwater.
On a morning in late November, Lin Xuefeng is standing in his grocery store in Qingtian. There are packages of coffee beans, Italian pasta and Kinder chocolate on the shelves. Entire Ibérico hams hang in the window. Lin imports and sells European goods, as do many here. His neighborhood is home to the bistro La Maison Rouge, the jeweler Ciao Bella and the men's outfitter Milan Station.
Walking down the main street of this prosperous, peaceful city with its apartment buildings and elegant fashion stores, the matter of dubious police stations abroad doesn't exactly come to mind. But in September, Safeguard Defenders published a report on these stations that made headlines around the world. In early December, the NGO followed up with another report, in which the organization revealed that Chinese police agencies have established offices in 53 countries on five continents, including in Germany. According to the information available, the majority of these stations were set up without the knowledge and consent of the respective governments.
From these stations, pressure was exerted on numerous Chinese citizens to return to the People's Republic and turn themselves in to the authorities there. DER SPIEGEL has also documented one such case. This approach violated the national sovereignty of the countries in question – a principle of which China has always been a vehement defender when it comes to its own interests.
Law enforcement agencies in at least 12 of the affected countries have opened investigations, and high-ranking politicians and representatives of the security authorities have spoken out. "To me, it is outrageous to think that the Chinese police would attempt to set up shop, you know, in New York, let's say, without proper coordination" said FBI Director Christopher Wray, to cite just one example.
Amid all the justified outrage, one salient detail has frequently been overlooked: It wasn't the central government in Beijing that set up these clandestine structures abroad. According to the Safeguard Defenders report, the decision to establish the offices was not made at the national police ministry, nor even at the provincial level. It was made at a level one rung lower on the ladder.
The report indicates that the offices set up abroad are branches of police departments from four Chinese cities – including Qingtian, which is located in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. The Qingtian police are also in charge of the only Chinese police station on German soil that Safeguard Defenders has located - in Frankfurt.
The annual wine fair QWine should be taking place right now in Qingtian, but it was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus. The event had been slated to take place at the local basketball stadium, which Lin Xuefeng can see from the window of his grocery store. "It looks like that thing in Rome," he says, pointing at it. Indeed: The facade of the over-sized structure resembles the Colosseum. "That's the kind of flair we strive for," he says.
Qingtian's ties to Europe are old and deep. The area was once impoverished, a product of the lack of agricultural land due to the mountainous terrain. The city thus had to find other ways to make money.
That search led into the mountains around Qingtian. Veins of pyrophyllite run through the range: a soft, shiny silicate that occurs in local deposits in all sorts of colors – red, yellow, green, blue and pink. People call these chunks of colorful mineral, so pliable that they can be carved with a fingernail, "dragon eggs." From the time of the Ming Dynasty, Qingtian stonemasons made seals for imperial officials using the substance, and later ornate sculptures.
The pyrophyllite opened the world up to Qingtian. "Our ancestors brought the first stone carvings to Europe more than a hundred years ago," Lin, the store owner, explains. The merchants were successful – and they established an emigrant tradition. According to the local authorities, around 330,000 people originally from Qingtian now live scattered around the globe.
Grocery store owner Lin Xuefeng: "Relations between China and Europe are a bit bumpy at the moment."Foto: DER SPIEGEL
Returnees like Lin then transformed the place, starting with the culinary arts. The global metropolis of Shanghai is perhaps the only other place in China where you can find Italian cuisine of such consistently solid quality. In Qingtian, this dolce vita has seeped into everyday culture. The men who gather at the Gioielli restaurant after work don't drink the usual baijiu liquor with their cigarette, preferring an espresso instead.
Indeed, Qingtian is an example of something that China and the rest of the world are clearly struggling with: international understanding. Ye Yulu, the owner of the restaurant "Itakake," remembers with affection an elderly regular of her former bar in Brescia, Lombardy, who came to visit her in Qingtian and spent the New Year with her family. Shopkeeper Lin feels the sense of togetherness in China is stronger than in other places, "but foreign countries also have good things. Everyone is equal there, and they have freedom of expression." When Lin, who is in his mid-40s, retires, he can imagine returning to Spain. He loves the climate there. "Relations between China and Europe are a bit bumpy at the moment," Lin says. "But everyone in Qingtian talks to someone abroad every day."
Officials Made No Secret of Police Stations
The pandemic marked a turning point for this lively international exchange. In the spring of 2020, when the first wave of the coronavirus began subsiding in China even as it was still swelling in Europe, the country closed its borders. Since then, Qingtian's emigrant community has effectively been cut off from the motherland.
It appears that the situation lent new importance to an initiative the city had launched back in 2018: the establishment of the "Foreign Service Centers of the Qingtian Police." According to an official website, these centers are designed to "help Chinese abroad solve problems" and "further improve the happiness and sense of belonging of overseas Chinese." The message also includes a telltale sentence: Policing abroad is a "new practice in the new era," it states. This can be read as a reference to the approach of autocrat Xi Jinping, according to which the broader Chinese population is to be subject to stricter controls. The authorities in Qingtian were apparently overly eager to demonstrate their fealty, and apparently didn't consider their initiative to be problematic at all. They didn't even make much of an effort to conceal the establishment of the police stations – indeed, they even bragged openly about them. A news website operated by the state-run China News Service still features photos of the kick-off ceremony for the initiative, with certificates being handed out and a man joyfully saluting.
A shopping street in Qingtian.Foto: DER SPIEGEL
Qingtian Police Chief Yan Huarong listed all the functions of the police stations in a speech. They should help compatriots abroad with things like settling disputes, renewing drivers' licenses or clarifying immigration matters without having to travel to China. The tasks of the "service centers" also include "publicizing policies concerning overseas Chinese" – in other words: propaganda. In addition, "Qingtian police could use overseas service centers to gather intelligence" and "the feelings and opinions of overseas Chinese." That suddenly sounds more like intelligence work than any kind of resident services office. The police stations were set up and operated with the help of expatriate Chinese associations. As early as 2019, a publication by the security agencies said that 135 Qingtian-born compatriots had been recruited for this purpose.
"Protect the Interests of Overseas Chinese"
The Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese of Qingtian is located on the 12th floor of a high-rise building on the city's main street. With the reporter from DER SPIEGEL showing up unannounced, the office staff agree after a brief discussion that they have no time. But they do welcome the reporter to check out the Qingtian Emigrant Museum, which is located one floor below.
Hastily summoned, the in-house historian guides the reporter through the exhibition. It includes documents relating to five dragon egg dealers who were stranded in San Francisco in 1884; yellowed black-and-white photos of Qingtian natives and their German-Jewish wives in Leipzig; replacement documents for internally placed persons from World War II in Europe. The historian explains everything in meticulous detail. It's only in the last room, where history approaches the present, that he speeds up the tour.
Foreign journalists are often tailed in China. In the case of this story, correspondent Georg Fahrion was expecting it all the more. But in Qingtian, no informer appeared to be expecting the DER SPIEGEL team. On the contrary, many of the inhabitants seemed to be pleased about the visit from Europe.
A large display board on the wall is titled: "Protecting the Interests of Overseas Chinese." Several photos show agency employees conferring at long tables. One caption reads: "On April 8, 2021, the County (Qingtian) Public Service Bureau held a video conference with seven of its service centers in Barcelona, Milan, Frankfurt, etc." When asked if he could also share something about this police work, the historian was silent, before saying, "I think it's better if we end the tour here."
In Qingtian, they are proud enough of their foreign police stations to hang them up in the museum. Have the local authorities really somehow overlooked just how problematic their police stations are under international law? After all, such issues aren't usually within their remit.
The Chinese diplomats who supported the initiative, on the other hand, cannot claim such ignorance for themselves. In a 2018 article, a state-run media quoted Lu Cijun, then the vice consul general in Barcelona, as praising the establishment of the stations. After the international controversy erupted, the Spanish daily El Correo was able to speak with an anonymous official from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The newspaper quotes him as saying, "I don't see what's wrong with pressuring criminals to face justice."
Even if it is true that the Chinese police stations abroad weren't based on a central government plan, Beijing knew about them and obviously considered them advantageous.
By now, people in Qingtian have also registered the fact that other countries take a different view. Alerted about the presence of the foreign reporter, two female employees from the local Foreign Affairs Office rushed to the Emigration Museum. One of them says that she isn’t in a position to answer questions about the police stations, but she does agree to forward a list of questions to the Qingtian police leadership. Those questions are never answered.
Afterward, the two women invite the reporter for a hot drink. The museum café serves excellent espresso.