Chinese businessman Zhou Jiexiang, pictured with Sir John Key, appears to be connected to a Chinese 'police centre' operating in Auckland, Photo: Wenhua Weekly

News that Chinese authorities are allegedly operating an overseas police centre in New Zealand has left officials here scrambling to find out more. Now, Newsroom can reveal the centre’s location, as well as its ties to a businessman with United Front ties – who says he is only a volunteer helping Chinese Kiwis

A clandestine Chinese police centre allegedly operating in New Zealand has links to a businessman who has rubbed shoulders with senior Kiwi politicians, a Newsroom investigation can reveal.

The man has denied working for Chinese police, saying he is merely an unpaid volunteer helping to connect Chinese New Zealanders in need of assistance with authorities back home.

The Government is currently carrying out a multi-agency probe into claims about the centre’s operations, first disclosed in a report by an international NGO earlier this month.

Newsroom has now uncovered further information about the alleged non-official police presence – including its apparent location at one point – from Chinese-language media and websites.

In 2020, a post on state-owned tech giant Tencent’s QQ platform by the Nantong Public Security Bureau, which is run through the Ministry of Public Security, openly advertised the presence of Chinese police activity in several nations, asking its readers to “please keep” a list of addresses of its overseas ‘service centres’ around the world. 

Among 29 addresses on the list, spanning multiple continents, is a location on Great South Road in the Auckland suburb of Epsom – within a five-minute drive of both the city’s Chinese consulate and the University of Auckland’s Epsom campus. It is unclear whether the centre is still operating from that address.

A mirror of the same piece, also attributed to a verified Nantong Public Security Bureau account, was found in a popular China-based news and information portal The Paper

The Epsom electorate has the fifth-highest Asian population among New Zealand’s 72 electorates, at 34.8 percent compared with 15.1 percent across the country as a whole according to the 2018 Census.

The Auckland site is linked to Chinese businessman Zhou Jiexiang, who holds a number of political roles in the country and appears to be tied to the Chinese Communist Party’s controversial United Front operations.

‘Chinese investor very popular with govt in NZ’

A 2017 article from a Jiangsu TV station announced Nantong police had granted “coordinator certificates” for overseas branch centres in seven countries, including New Zealand. The piece shows a man resembling Zhou holding one such certificate in a group photograph commemorating the development.

Companies Office records name Zhou as the owner of a business at the same address as the police service centre in 2017; it remains the registered office address of a company in which Zhou owns a personal stake. The remaining shares are owned by Nantong Jinshi, a Chinese company.

In a 2019 post by a verified account of the CCP’s Nantong City Propaganda Department, Zhou was in the running to be named one of the most praiseworthy United Front figures with ties to Nantong prefecture, noting his work helping elderly members of the Overseas Chinese community, and his ties to the Nantong Jinshi company.

A 2020 profile of Zhou on an NZ Chinese-language news site lists his senior position in a host of United Front bodies, including as a Nantong and Haian committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2020 described the CPPCC, which officially acts as an advisory body and includes members of the eight legally permitted minor parties in China, as “the most important United Front forum” due to its role in controlling political representation in diaspora Chinese communities.

In October this year, Zhou authored a piece hosted on the Chinese website Meipian, celebrating the CCP’s 20th Congress and declaring that “overseas Chinese [will] continue to unite closely around the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core”.

In 2016, he was pictured alongside Auckland Mayor Phil Goff at a ceremony to celebrate the launch of the Nantong Association of New Zealand, while a 2022 story on Zhou included a photograph with former prime minister Sir John Key.

A separate article in 2021 described Zhou as “a Chinese investor who is very popular with the government in New Zealand”, further noting he had been invited to a “small private dinner” hosted by Key while he was still prime minister “to discuss investment in New Zealand.”

“China’s undeclared, illegal, police operations in New Zealand breach our sovereignty and our laws and are a threat to freedom of expression and association in our society.”
– Anne-Marie Brady, University of Canterbury professor

Speaking to Newsroom, University of Canterbury professor and China expert Anne-Marie Brady said the station’s existence “has serious implications for our vulnerable New Zealand Chinese community, most of whom live in our largest city”.

“The Ministry of Public Security is tasked with monitoring dissent in China, as well as counter-intelligence,” Brady added. “China’s undeclared, illegal, police operations in New Zealand breach our sovereignty and our laws and are a threat to freedom of expression and association in our society.” 

“The New Zealand government should order the closure of the Chinese government’s illegal police presence in our country immediately. China would not tolerate a similar organisation being set up there.”

Freeman Yu, a Chinese New Zealander and critic of Beijing, told Newsroom that reports of an illicit police centre in the country made him feel personally unsafe. 

“In the past, I felt that the CCP was targeting corrupt officials, but now I feel that I may be the next target,” he said by phone.

Yu added that the threat to the Chinese community and New Zealand’s sovereignty was compounded by growing United Front activity, which he described as a “non-traditional espionage organisation” with “strong mobilisation capabilities.”

“New Zealand, a small country with a free and open society that welcomes new immigrants, is almost defenceless against such covert aggression,” he continued.

ACT leader and Epsom MP David Seymour told Newsroom the centre’s existence would be a real concern for New Zealanders of Chinese origin “who in many cases have left China in fear of the CCP”.

“It needs to be made absolutely clear for their benefit that the New Zealand police are the sovereign police force in Auckland, and should they in any way be contacted or intimidated by any other supposed police force, then the right thing to do is to contact the New Zealand police.”

Seymour said there was no legitimate reason for the Chinese government to operate any type of entity in New Zealand other than its embassy and consular services, which were bound by international diplomatic conventions.

Transnational policing

The police centre’s existence was first reported earlier this month in ‘Patrol and Persuade’, a report from human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders, outlining China’s transnational policing efforts around the world.

The organisation listed New Zealand among a number of countries playing host to overseas policing from the Chinese city of Nantong in southeastern Jiangsu province, but without further details.

The Ministry for Public Security sits at the core of China’s political system as a constituent department of the country’s State Council. The ministry administers all public security bureaus and their overseas annexes and has been cited by analysts as a key instrument of regime security in China, while it has reportedly been involved in extraterritorial repression campaigns against expatriate dissidents and other targets in diaspora communities.

However, Beijing has rejected claims that the centres are used for nefarious purposes, insisting that they were established to assist its citizens with mundane services, such as renewing driver’s licenses from overseas. 

The operations “strictly abide by international law and fully respect the judicial sovereignty of other countries,” foreign affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin said in October in response to questions about alleged illegal police stations in the Netherlands. 

In an email to Newsroom, Zhou denied holding any position with the Nantong Public Security Bureau, but had worked as an unpaid volunteer as part of a “mutual aid platform” to help Chinese New Zealanders from Nantong.

As part of that role, Zhou said Nantong police had shared his contact details with the public so Chinese New Zealanders could ask him for help and he could get answers from “relevant institutions” in the Chinese city; he mentioned the renewal of Chinese driver’s licences which expired during the Covid-19 pandemic as one example.

“The so-called licence you mentioned is only used to show that the Nantong police recognise me as a volunteer to help other expatriates,” he said, adding he had “no legal or administrative relationship” with the police.

“As far as I know, many countries also invite citizens who are enthusiastic about public welfare to serve as volunteers, asking them to actively assist the government and the police in carrying out social services.”

Those involved in the mutual aid service “have no employment or affiliation relationship with any government agency in China, and we do not have any functions of administrative services,” Zhou said.

He fully respected and abided by New Zealand’s laws, and didn’t believe it was necessary for overseas Chinese to declare their activities to the police or government when providing support in relation to domestic Chinese issues.

The Chinese embassy was also approached by Newsroom for comment, but had not responded at the time of publication.

– Additional reporting and translation by Portia Mao

* This article has been updated with comment from Zhou Jiexiang, which was provided after initial publication and a deadline which had been given for comment

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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