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Story Publication logo December 6, 2023

Exclusive: Inside a Beijing-Linked Chinese Help Center in Tanzania

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An investigative series explores how the Chinese government is quietly trying to advance its...

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Illustration by Sarah Grillo/Axios. Images by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

The center and dozens of others around the world illustrate the long arm of Beijing’s influence.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — A rare glimpse inside a Chinese service center in Dar es Salaam reveals a dual strategy for Beijing: helping citizens abroad while replicating the tools China uses elsewhere to keep tabs on them.

Why it matters: The center and dozens of others around the world illustrate the long arm of Beijing’s influence. They operate under the auspices of a Chinese Communist Party bureau tasked with amplifying political support for the party and marginalizing dissent, raising concerns about the CCP’s authoritarian reach into overseas Chinese communities, analysts say.

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Hundreds of thousands of Chinese traders, business owners and workers moved abroad over the past two decades to find new opportunities in emerging markets, spurred by Beijing’s push to deepen its economic reach. The Chinese government has responded by establishing help centers for Chinese citizens across North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.


Data by Chinaqw. Image courtesy of Axios.

Members of Tanzania’s Chinese communities come to the service center in Dar es Salaam for assistance with domestic disagreements, immigration issues, short-term unemployment and other household emergencies, and trade and legal disputes — much-needed services in a country where it’s often difficult for Chinese-speaking residents to navigate local bureaucracies.

But the Dar es Salaam center also shares the same leadership — and even the same office — as the local chapter of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, a CCP-affiliated organization that has faced scrutiny in the U.S. for alleged complicity in Beijing’s efforts to repress Chinese people beyond China’s borders.

Axios met with the Tanzania center’s director, Zhu Jinfeng, in the first extensive media interview with a service center leader and received a rare look into the center’s services and operation. Zhu denied the center had any relationship with the Chinese Embassy or government.

“Our main purpose is to serve as a bridge between Chinese people and Tanzanian people,” Zhu told Axios in an interview conducted at the center’s offices.

But Chinese-language information posted to the embassy’s website states the embassy in Tanzania and the Chinese government in Beijing founded and continue to oversee the center’s operations.

The Chinese government is the world’s largest perpetrator of transnational repression, which is when a government harasses, intimidates or interferes in the rights and freedoms of people beyond its own borders.

It’s a “very high-functioning authoritarian state. It takes very seriously the idea of solving its citizens’ problems. But at the same time, it takes the idea of absolute political control very seriously as well, and it uses the provision of services as a lever of control,” Matt Schrader, adviser on Chinese affairs at the International Republican Institute and the author of several reports about overseas Chinese centers, told Axios.

“To put that in plainer language, if I give you something, I can take it away.”

What's happening: How service centers help Chinese citizens abroad

The Chinese service center in Dar es Salaam, a city of 7 million people, provides important services to the thousands of Chinese citizens living in Tanzania.

Zhu, who is 68 years old and has lived in Tanzania for almost 25 years, runs the service center. He said local Chinese residents come to him for help resolving personal disagreements, such as when family members are squabbling and don’t want to go to the local police. The center also helps find lawyers and resolve legal disputes for importers and exporters between China and Tanzania.

There were about 40,000 Chinese citizens in Tanzania before the pandemic, many of whom were involved in the manufacturing, agriculture, raw materials and energy sectors. That number fell sharply during the pandemic, and now there are only about 6,000 Chinese citizens in the country, said Zhu, who told Axios he is retired and runs the center in a volunteer capacity.

The center is located inside a small, gated compound off a main highway that includes a strip mall with a few Chinese restaurants, a hotel, an import-export and logistics office, a company that makes prefabricated housing for laborers, and a small grocery store selling Chinese food imports. Image by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

Image by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

The center has organized fundraising drives to support local Chinese residents facing illness and job loss, donated clothes to local orphans, and brought holiday care packages to Chinese nationals — Zhu said there are about a dozen — serving time in Tanzanian prisons. During the pandemic, the center distributed masks, hand sanitizer and traditional Chinese medicine, provided in part by the Chinese government, to the Chinese community.

The center is “completely about helping people. If someone has a traffic accident, we can take them right away to the hospital. Once at the hospital, if they don’t have money with them, we can use our own money to pay, then they can pay us back later time,” Zhu said.

The center is “completely about helping people. If someone has a traffic accident, we can take them right away to the hospital. Once at the hospital, if they don’t have money with them, we can use our own money to pay, then they can pay us back later time,”  Zhu said. Audio courtesy of Axios.

Analysts express concern about this setup, however. “[I]f anybody in the community needs anything, they have to pass through these [centers],” Laura Harth, of the Spain-based nonprofit Safeguard Defenders, told Axios.

The big picture: “At your back stands a strong motherland”

More than 1 million Chinese people migrated to Africa in the 21st century; 200,000 of those went as part of China’s sweeping infrastructure and investment initiative, the Belt and Road.

Despite Chinese state incentives to migrate, Chinese citizens in Africa often believed they would receive little support from Beijing or even from local embassy staff if they ran into trouble.

In the 2010s, Beijing began a major effort to change that longstanding perception and gain the trust of its citizens, through both actions and propaganda campaigns. When a civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, China sent a naval frigate to evacuate thousands of Chinese citizens living there. Chinese state media touted the effort to domestic audiences as proof that China could protect its people anywhere in the world, contrasting it with the U.S. government’s failure to evacuate U.S. citizens living in Libya. The evacuation became a source of national pride for many Chinese people both inside and outside China.

Beijing has also powered up its box office propaganda to underscore this message. The 2017 Chinese blockbuster “Wolf Warrior II” tells the story of a Chinese special forces operative who fights his way across a fictitious African country, shooting mercenaries and saving Chinese nationals. The movie ends by showing an image of a Chinese passport and the message, "Citizens of the People's Republic of China: When you encounter danger abroad, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland."

How it works: The center’s ties to the Chinese party-state

The Chinese government began establishing overseas help centers about a decade ago. Around the same time, Beijing also launched a global campaign to repatriate, forcibly if necessary, people deemed to be fugitives from China. Both efforts came amid a larger push from Beijing to extend its authoritarian rule beyond its borders.

There are two types of centers — service centers and police-community cooperation centers. Both are typically operated by local Chinese community organizations, which at times blurs the distinction between help centers and police centers, as two centers in one city are in some cases run by the same people.

This “two-center” policy is intended to strengthen “consular protection” for Chinese citizens in Tanzania facing danger or threats of some kind, then-Chinese ambassador to Tanzania Lü Youqing said in July 2017, according to a Chinese-language transcript of his remarks posted on the Chinese Embassy website.

Police-community cooperation centers are typically established by regional offices of the Ministry of Public Security, China’s law enforcement agency. Some have official relationships with the governments of their host countries, as in the case of South Africa. Others, more controversially, are operating under the radar, as with the overseas police stations recently uncovered across Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. Some European governments, including the Netherlands and the U.K., ordered the closure of these unregistered overseas police centers after a series of reports by Safeguard Defenders revealed their existence.

There is at least one documented example of the alleged involvement of an overseas police center in transnational repression. Two Chinese residents in New York City opened and operated an unregistered police station in Manhattan and allegedly participated in Chinese law enforcement efforts to locate fugitives living in the U.S., including at least one pro-democracy activist, according to a U.S. Department of Justice indictment issued in April.

The overseas Chinese service centers, meanwhile, are less security-focused. The center in Tanzania was established in November 2017 by the embassy and under the guidance of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which was originally overseen by China’s State Council, the Chinese government’s highest governing body, and later was absorbed by the United Front Work Department. That department is tasked with ensuring that Chinese people abroad support, or at least do not oppose, the CCP’s global ambitions.

The service center has an extensive — and at times veiled — web of ties to the Chinese government, the embassy and a CCP-affiliated organization, the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, an organization headquartered in Beijing and overseen by the United Front Work Department.

Zhu denies the overseas Chinese service center was founded or is directed by the Chinese government. "We are independent. We have no relationship whatsoever with the embassy,” Zhu told Axios. “The embassy has acknowledged our work ... and we have received their praise. But they do not provide any support or assistance at all. They do not manage our affairs. We started this ourselves.”

 "We are independent. We have no relationship whatsoever with the embassy,”
 Zhu told Axios. Audio courtesy of Axios.

“The embassy has acknowledged our work ... and we have received their praise. But they do not provide any support or assistance at all. They do not manage our affairs. We started this ourselves,” Zhu said. Audio courtesy of Axios.

Two Chinese ambassadors in Tanzania have said otherwise, however. Lü in 2017 said the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania would establish the country’s service center with the “enthusiastic hard work of overseas Chinese associations and chambers of commerce and with the support of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council.”

Image by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian/Axios.

Our main purpose is to serve as a bridge between Chinese people and Tanzanian people.

Zhu Jinfeng, Center director

The embassy has also maintained an ongoing role in the operations of the Dar es Salaam center. In November 2021, according to a post on the embassy website, Chinese Ambassador Chen Mingjian presided over the change in leadership of the center from former director Zhu Jinfeng to the new director Yi Zhiling. (Zhu assumed the directorship again after Yi subsequently left the post.)

In December 2021, Yi said during a ceremony that “under the Chinese Embassy’s leadership,” the overseas Chinese service center had “successfully mediated almost 1,000 cases” and in “more than 200 cases helped overseas Chinese resolve disputes with the immigration bureau and the police bureau.”

A member of the service center’s staff, who spoke to Axios on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said Zhu served as a “direct connection” between the Chinese Embassy and the local Chinese community and that Zhu spoke with the Chinese ambassador on a regular basis.

It’s not clear if Tanzania has a Chinese police-community cooperation center. A job posting on a website supported by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in 2015 announced the establishment of a police-community cooperation center in Tanzania and stated that the center was seeking to hire three Chinese males between the ages of 25 and 40, for a salary of $1,500 USD per month. In 2017, Lü said the embassy planned to establish a police center to “help Tanzanian police in providing necessary public security assistance and rights protection to all Chinese citizens in Tanzania,” which suggests the center did not yet exist at that time.

When asked if the service center doubled as an overseas police center, Zhu said this suggestion was  “not correct.” He said the Chinese government had tried for several years to set up a police cooperation center in Tanzania, in concert with the Tanzanian authorities, but that for various reasons the police center was never established.

The Chinese Embassy in Tanzania and the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Zoom in: The Party is everywhere

A key partner for the CCP on the ground in Tanzania and elsewhere is the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification.

There is little distinction between the local council chapter in Dar es Salaam and the overseas Chinese center. Zhu is the founder and longtime president of the chapter; he now holds the title of permanent honorary president. The current council president, Feng Zhenyu, serves as the vice director of the overseas Chinese service center. The two organizations are housed in the same office.

The council has chapters in dozens of countries around the world that typically function as a central hub for Beijing-friendly organizing in the host country. The heads of other overseas Chinese community organizations, such as chambers of commerce and hometown associations, attend council meetings and serve on the board.

These chapters help Beijing monitor overseas Chinese citizens, make their prosperity dependent on not crossing Beijing, prevent them from forming pro-democracy organizations, and, overall, contribute to the perception that the party is everywhere.

The sign for the Overseas Chinese Service Center in Dar es Salaam. Image by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

“The thing that sets China apart from transnational repression from other authoritarian regimes is the element of control — what they really want to do is control the entire overseas communities,” Harth said.

Council members and leaders gain the favor of Chinese diplomats and often enjoy enhanced access to visiting Chinese government officials and state-owned enterprise executives. Council chapters often host events together with local embassy staff and, in some cases, allegedly carry out instructions from Chinese diplomats to organize pro-Beijing demonstrations and even disrupt anti-CCP protests.

Despite the council’s direct affiliation with the CCP, active members of council chapters typically present their organization and activities as independent and voluntary, and they deny any affiliation with the CCP or Chinese government.

This denial of clear links is typical across the United Front system, Schrader said. “The first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club.”

The Bottom Line

Beijing-led organizations and overseas Chinese service centers often do perform legitimate functions and provide needed assistance in local communities.

“If people want to help members of their community, that’s not a bad thing,” Harth said. “But leaders of local United Front-affiliated groups, which have at times helped Beijing, have managed to make themselves the interlocutors for local law enforcement, for local politicians, for local media,” she added.

“Members of the community might feel even more isolated and less likely to go to the authorities in this country. It’s quite an effective setup.”






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