The nondescript, six-story office building on a busy street in New York’s Chinatown lists mundane businesses on its lobby directory. On the third floor is an unlisted Chinese outpost suspected of conducting police operations without jurisdiction or diplomatic approval. The office is one of more than 100 around the world that are unnerving diplomats and intelligence agents. FBI counterintelligence agents searched the building last fall as part of a criminal investigation with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn. The search represents an escalation in a global dispute over China’s efforts to police its diaspora far beyond its borders. Irish, Canadian and Dutch officials have called for China to shut down police operations in their countries. The FBI raid is the first known example of the authorities seizing materials from a Chinese outpost, reports the New York Times.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington played down the role of the outposts, saying they are staffed by volunteers who help Chinese nationals perform routine tasks like renewing their driver’s licenses back home. Chinese state news media reports cite police and local Chinese officials by name describing the operations very differently. They tout the effectiveness of the offices, which are frequently called overseas police service centers. Some reports describe the Chinese outposts as “collecting intelligence” and solving crimes abroad without collaborating with local officials. The public statements leave it murky who is running the offices. Sometimes they are referred to as volunteers; other times as staff members or, in at least one case, the director. Some of those online articles have been deleted as Western officials and human rights groups have called attention to the police offices. Western officials see the outposts as part of Beijing’s larger drive to keep tabs on Chinese nationals abroad, including dissidents.