By Barry van Wyk, Africa-China Reporting Project, Research Associate
The world is suddenly filled with alleged covert and illicit Chinese police stations, from Toronto to Tokyo. In South Africa there is an organisation that is now almost two decades old that was founded by the local Chinese community to deal with safety and security, and it is definitely not covert and illicit.
On April 19 2023, Politico reported that two Chinese citizens were indicted by the United States (US) Department of Justice “for using [an] unlawful Chinese police station in Manhattan to go after dissidents,” and that this “highlights the growing tentacles of Beijing’s overseas operations, which it uses to harass and silence critics around the world.” The article reports that security agencies in Europe and the Americas are now investigating more than 100 such facilities — including in the US, Canada, Nigeria, Japan, Argentina and Spain — that were identified in a September 2022 report by the non-profit advocacy organization Safeguard Defenders. In November 2022, the Chinese Embassy in the US denied that it operates unlawful police stations, instead confirming that these are in fact “service centres” for Chinese nationals residing abroad. Following the arrests in the US in April, the Chinese Foreign Ministry again denied the existence of such police stations abroad.
The September 2022 report by Safeguard Defenders outlines a transnational campaign launched by People’s Republic of China (PRC) security agencies in 2018 against Chinese nationals living abroad who commit criminal activities. The campaign included attempts to persuade Chinese nationals abroad to return to China and for the establishment of 54 Chinese police service stations in “dozens of countries on five continents.” The report linked these service stations with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front Work Department, which among other things is responsible for engaging with overseas Chinese communities. The report identified three such stations in Africa in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Lesotho, but did not provide any further details.
In a follow-up report published in December 2022, Safeguard Defenders identified a total of 102 “Chinese Overseas Police Service Stations” in 53 countries. The report states that “alongside the clandestine stations, official stations involving central government bodies are also being established across Asia and Africa with the cooperation of host governments,” and the report mentions 11 African countries in this regard: Angola, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia. Thus, the report appears to draw a distinction between “police service stations” (i.e. mostly located in Western countries), which are supposedly covert and illicit, and those located in Asia and Africa, which operate with the support of the host governments (and which are not the main focus of the Safeguard Defenders report).
Indeed, of the 11 African countries mentioned in the latter Safeguard Defenders report, South Africa is the only one for which it provides some detail. The report references a January 2019 article by Matt Schrader for The Jamestown Foundation on “Chinese assistance centres” around the world that are “sponsored by the United Front Work Department.” Schrader’s article was written in response to a controversy that arose in South Africa in October 2018 when an official ceremony took place in Gqeberha (formerly known as Port Elizabeth) in the Eastern Cape province to mark the opening of a regional office of the Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centre (hereafter “the Centre”) in the city. This was the 13th regional office of the Centre, and news of the ceremony elicited outraged messages on social media about supposed neo-colonialism with China said to be opening “13 police stations” in South Africa. Even opposition Member of Parliament Julius Malema joined in to express his outrage.
In his article, Schrader comments on the controversy by saying that the social media posts are mistaken: the centres are not police stations; but he then lists a number of reasons why the posts are “less mistaken” due to the centres’ “complicated relationship with the PRC government.” Firstly, according to Schrader, the Centre does not hide that it receives funding from the Chinese Embassy in South Africa, but it is less forthcoming about its leaders (notably Li Xinzhu, see below) also holding leading positions in the South African chapter of the China Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (中国和平统一促进会), a United Front organisation, and that these same leaders regularly make public statements in support of the PRC government. Secondly, the article mentions that the South African Centre is part of a global network of “Overseas Chinese Service Centres” (OCSCs) that was established in 2014 by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (国务院侨务办公室), which was absorbed into the United Front Work Department (统一战线工作部) in 2018. (According to Schrader, organisations that pre-date 2014, like the Centre that was founded in 2004, were later provided with an OCSC designation by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.)
That the Centre’s leaders appear to be closely aligned with the PRC government and the United Front Work Department should not be surprising: the present South African Chinese community is overwhelmingly composed of recent immigrants from Mainland China, especially Fujian province, including all the leaders of the Centre. As the largest overseas Chinese community in Africa, moreover, the one in South Africa maintains close links with various Chinese government organisations and this is well documented in South African Chinese-language media. Furthermore, in maintaining close links with PRC government institutions, the Centre is adhering to the practices of the South African government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Schrader’s article concludes that although the OCSCs have been used by the CCP as mouthpieces and advocates for its policies in other countries, this is not the case in South Africa where there is no proof whatsoever of unacceptable political interference or influence on the part of anyone associated with the Centre. On the contrary, this organisation appears to have “arisen to meet the legitimate needs of a community — overseas Chinese — that is often underserved or overlooked by local authorities.”
The December 2022 Safeguard Defenders report, however, does not include any mention of the conclusion of Schrader’s article as to the South African Centre, but does reference the latter’s membership in the United Front Work Department’s OSCS network, and includes 10 of the 11 African countries (excluding Namibia) on a map of countries with “known vs newly revealed stations.”
In short, as outlined below, the Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centre in South Africa, with its 13 regional offices, is an organisation fundamentally distinct from the reportedly covert and illicit Chinese police stations that are now the subject of media reports in Western countries. In fact, although the Centre is undoubtedly included in the CCP’s and United Front Work Department’s global network of overseas Chinese organisations, it is also a decidedly South African organisation that is now almost 20 years old. It was founded in South Africa by South African Chinese residents, it operates legally and with the full support of local government organisations, its activities are well documented in the local Chinese-language media, and it continues to play a vital and multifaceted role in the local Chinese community — and it is definitely not a police station.
No Chinese police stations in South Africa
The Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centre (“the Centre”) is a product of its dangerous environment, and as such is a uniquely South African organisation implemented by the local Chinese community to deal with the problems of safety and security. This remarkable organisation is able to provide help and assistance for any kind of need or emergency for Chinese people anywhere in South Africa.
What follows below is a study of the history and activities of the Centre, as reported in South African Chinese media. It is impossible to state definitively that the Centre does not engage in any or some of the unlawful or clandestine activities described above in relation to the Chinese police or service stations that have appeared in various places around the world. The Centre’s day-to-day activities, however, are well documented, as is the Centre’s history of almost two decades of cooperation with South African authorities, as well as the correspondence of the numerous Chinese people that the Centre has assisted over the years.
According to the Governance, Public Safety, and Justice Survey (GPSJS) conducted by Statistics South Africa from April 2018 to March 2019, which was based on a sample of 27,071 households, in 2018-2019 there were an estimated 1.345 million incidences of housebreaking in South Africa affecting 969,567 households. Indian and Asian households were the most likely victims of housebreaking at 9.09%, compared to 7.28% of White households and 5.58% of Black households. This lends some support to the view commonly held by Chinese people in South Africa that they are specifically targeted by criminals, such as when they are trailed from the airport or because Chinese shops can be found in urban areas as well as remote rural towns all over the country, and these shops are known to often use a cash economy (so Chinese people are thought to always carry money).
The real reason for the founding of the Centre, however, was murder. In 2003, 20 Chinese people were murdered in South Africa, and this served as a grim incentive for the local community that something had to be done. So, in January 2004, with the support of the Chinese Embassy, the South African Chinese Community and Police Cooperation Centre was founded in Johannesburg. The organisation’s main functions were to serve as a bridge between the Chinese community and local law enforcement agencies, to cooperate with police to investigate various types of crimes against Chinese people, and to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese community (Van Wyk, 2021).
The first years of the Centre were difficult. Li Xinzhu (李新铸 Lǐ Xīnzhù), the Centre’s first director (2004-2011, and again from 2018 to current), later stated that he often had to spend his own money to support operational costs and took time out from his business to attend to cases. According to Li, the first years of the Centre were like “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” i.e., a cautious and gradual progression. At the beginning, the Centre was not recognised by the South African Police Service (SAPS). But then in 2006 when four policemen were killed in the line of duty, Centre staff attended the memorial service and raised R160,000 (about $25,000) to support the families of the deceased. From this point onwards, the Centre were able to establish close working relations with the police.
In 2019, Wu Shaokang (吴少康 Wú Shǎokāng), a founding member of the Centre and director from 2011 to 2018, stated that to him, the Centre embodies the struggle of the local Chinese community to integrate with confidence in South Africa. “When Chinese South Africans encounter difficulties, they turn to the Centre, and hence the people behind the Centre spare no effort or cost to ensure their safety and successful development.” When the Centre was established in 2004, Wu recalled, he provided office space at a Johannesburg Chinese mall that he owned, people brought computers from their own homes, and various Chinese organisations raised R1 million (about $150,000) in startup capital.
The legal foundation for the Centre is the Community Police Forum (CPF) or Community Safety Forum (CSF), statutory bodies defined in the South African Police Service Act of 1995 that are intended to facilitate cooperation between the police and members of the community on policing and law and order. CPFs serve as platforms for community members and organisations to meet with the police to discuss local crime prevention initiatives, and are an integral component of the SAPS’ Community Policing Strategy (CPS) to fight crime via multidisciplinary collaboration.
The Centre operates as a non-profit organisation whose daily operational expenses are covered by annual membership fees paid by the members of its council; subsidies from the Chinese Embassy; contributions from overseas Chinese groups, individual Chinese people living in South Africa, Chinese corporations, and the Chinese government; and donations from South African government departments. The Centre consists of a management section with a council that elects a new director and other positions every two to three years, and an operational section with staff based in all the regional offices, although there are only a small number of full-time staff (Van Wyk, 2021).
Like most Chinese organisations in South Africa, the Centre maintains strong links to PRC Chinese institutions, and regularly receives delegations from Chinese government organisations. These activities are not hidden, however, but are clearly reported in South African Chinese media.
In December 2016, for example, then director Wu Shaokang led a delegation to Mainland China, visiting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Front Work Department, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the Ministry of Public Security, and several cities and institutions in Fujian province.
In terms of the Centre’s day-to-day activities, in 2019, Li Xinzhu reported that from 2004 to 2019, the Centre handled around 3,000 cases, or around 300 per year, and receives on average five or six calls for help every day, but often as many as ten. Apart from assisting Chinese people who have been robbed or attacked and facilitating their interaction with the police, the Centre handles various other kinds of requests for help with a 24-hour hotline; deals with complaints and disputes within the Chinese community; and maintains social media networks and issues security warnings, tips, and useful information (Van Wyk, 2021).
In addition to its headquarters in Johannesburg, the Centre now has 12 regional offices in Nelspruit (Mpumalanga), Nelson Mandela Bay (Eastern Cape), East London (Eastern Cape), Polokwane (Limpopo), Upington (Northern Cape), Cape Town (Western Cape), Durban (KwaZulu-Natal), Newcastle (KwaZulu-Natal), Rustenburg (North-West), Mahikeng (North-West), Bloemfontein (Free State), and Maseru (Lesotho). Hence the Centre can provide assistance over the full length of the country.
In September 2017, for example, a Chinese tourist was driving in the arid Northern Cape province when his car broke down, leaving him stranded with almost no money. A call to the Northern Cape Centre, which was established in July 2016, was enough to get his car fixed at no cost. The Centre’s reach even extends beyond the borders of South Africa and well into the continent: In March 2017, for example, a Chinese girl who was shot in the head during a robbery in Mozambique was airlifted to Johannesburg for emergency surgery, and there have been similar reports of assistance provided to Chinese people in Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and other African countries (Van Wyk, 2021).
In conclusion, the Centre in South Africa is not a Chinese police station — its function is to assist members of the Chinese community in various ways and to facilitate their interaction with the local police. The Centre does not operate independent (or without the approval) of local law enforcement, and does not attempt to hide the links it (and the South African Chinese community as a whole) maintains with PRC government institutions.