China Covert Consular Volunteers: Unmasking the CCP's Global Influence - Greece's complacency

China Chinese spies

In a concerning revelation, a new report by Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders exposes the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) extensive global network of "consular volunteers" operating through its embassies and consulates. This network, part of the CCP's "United Front" influence and enforcement operations abroad, has raised alarms, prompting calls for democratic governments to investigate, including Greece.

While Chinese embassies have utilised informal networks for over a decade, a recent State Council decree, effective September 1, 2023, formalised these operations. However, these networks largely remain undisclosed to host countries, allowing them to function covertly. The consular volunteers primarily perform administrative tasks related to consular protection, risk assessments, and issuing warnings to overseas citizens and organisations. Informal networks play an important part in Chinese espionage, too. China is known to use its international students to spy on other countries. These students are often forced to act as spies through threats to their loved ones back in China. Clearly, there is no law to which CCP would not stoop to get what it wants.

The report highlights that consular volunteers, with their roles, gain access to individuals' personal information, raising concerns about the potential for increased control over overseas communities and dissenters. This revelation is particularly troubling as it aligns with China's existing use of overseas "police service centres" for monitoring and harassing dissidents in foreign countries.

Despite the shutdown of some overseas police service centres due to host country protests, the consular volunteer network has largely flown under the radar. This secrecy enables China to expand its overseas influence and conduct illegal transnational law enforcement operations. Since Xi Jinping's ascent to power in 2012, China has accelerated its global political influence activities, often using overseas community and business groups under the United Front Work Department.

The State Council decree encourages organisations and individuals to provide voluntary services for consular protection and assistance, urging Chinese nationals overseas to abide by Chinese laws, regardless of location. Those making outstanding contributions are promised commendation and rewards. This decree further solidifies the consular volunteer network's ties to the CCP's United Front and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, previously labelled an "entity engaging in espionage" by the Federal Canadian Court in 2022.

Recruitment drives for consular volunteers have been observed in various countries, including the Czech Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Botswana, Turkey, Malaysia, Johannesburg, Equatorial Guinea, Chile, and Japan. The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office has been directly involved in Rio de Janeiro and Florence, Italy training events.

Critics describe consular volunteers as quasi-spies, suggesting their primary role is to collect financial support from overseas Chinese individuals. This financial support is seen as a tool for the CCP to control overseas Chinese, ensuring loyalty to the party and state. Additionally, these volunteers are accused of gathering information on dissidents and threatening their family members, forming an integral part of the CCP's transnational repression network.

The Safeguard Defenders report calls on democratic countries to scrutinise the practice of consular volunteering by Chinese diplomatic missions and warns against participation in United Front-linked events. Some commentators argue that European countries, including Greece, have been slower than the United States in recognising and addressing these practices, emphasising the need for EU legislation to curb such activities promptly.

After Chinese international student Tian Ruichen took part in protests supporting the "White Paper" movement of November 2022 and the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, he was unsettled to find he'd been doxxed – a common tactic employed by supporters of Beijing.

"The latest China strategy document of the German federal government states that overseas dissident communities will be protected, so they can exercise freedom of speech and engage in political activism," Tian said.

"We hope that the German government will establish safe channels to contact the Chinese dissident community and actively collect information on cases of transnational repression by the Chinese Communist Party, he said, calling for an investigation into overseas Chinese networks like the "consular volunteers."

The revelation of China's extensive consular volunteer network sheds light on the CCP's covert efforts to extend its influence globally. As democratic nations grapple with the implications of these operations, there is a growing call for transparency, scrutiny, and legislative action to curb the CCP's transnational repression and United Front activities. The international community must confront this form of government control to safeguard the principles of democracy and protect the rights of individuals on a global scale.

Xi Lao is a freelance journalist based in Taiwan.

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