This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Switzerland has admitted to handing out Schengen visas to agents of the Chinese state, after a report revealed it has scant oversight over what law enforcement officers sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) do during their trips to Europe.
Responding to a recent report by the rights group Safeguard Defenders, State Secretariat for Migration spokesperson Emmanuelle Jaquet von Sury said: “delegations are treated under the same rules as other foreigners who enter Switzerland legally and their movements are not restricted in their free time.”
“This was specified on request of the Chinese side in order to differentiate the experts from Chinese diplomats who officially represent China at the political level,” Jaquet von Sury said.
In a Dec. 9 report titled “Lies and Spies,” Safeguard Defenders said it was inconceivable that a western European country would give “unfettered access” to Chinese security and intelligence officers working within its borders.
Under “readmission agreement” with Beijing, Switzerland agreed from Dec. 8, 2015 to allow agents from China’s ministry of public security to roam freely and unsupervised within its borders. The details only emerged as the deal approached its expiry date this year, Safeguard Defenders said.
Usually, bilateral readmission agreements govern the repatriation of nationals of the other country and requests for assistance, but the Sino-Swiss deal was “of an entirely different character,” the group said in its report, which was triggered by an article in the Swiss German-language newspaper NZZ am Sonntag in August.
While most are negotiated between immigration departments, the deal with China was struck with the ministry of public security, which has branches dealing with espionage and counterintelligence.
“It is also a body implicated in widespread, systematic, and wide-ranging human rights abuses,” Safeguard Defenders said, adding that the benefits only extended in one direction, and were not reciprocal.
“Agents are officially allowed into Switzerland secretly – that is, they do not declare their status or are there in any official capacity,” the report said, citing a deal with the U.K. which insists that officials from either state must enter the other country in their official capacity and not under cover.
Chinese agents are permitted to stay for two weeks and interview Chinese nationals while they are there, with the full costs of their trip paid for by the Swiss government.
“Swiss taxpayers are paying for Chinese police agents to secretly enter Switzerland and conduct unsupervised operations against Chinese people inside their country,” Safeguard Defenders wrote.
While interviews are being conducted with Chinese nationals, Swiss officials are physically present but have no interpreters, and are therefore unable to understand what is being said.
They are also free to travel anywhere within the Schengen area, and could enter other Schengen and EU states without the authorities becoming aware of their status, the report said.
It said the practice, which as been defended by Swiss officials as a necessary administrative arrangement to enable the return of Chinese asylum-seekers, also risks enabling agents of the Chinese state to force people to return to China while they are in the country, unbeknown to the Swiss government.
China’s state security police are believed to have carried out “involuntary returns” of asylum-seekers to China from other countries, including Thailand, in recent years.
Germany-based commentator Cheng Shiguang said the agreement was akin to “doing a deal with the devil.”
“This secret agreement between Switzerland and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on immigration will definitely affect Chinese human rights activists and democracy advocates in the West,” Cheng told RFA.
“The CCP could use it to send its agents in to threaten people and force them to come back to China,” he said. “Switzerland has basically opened a huge backdoor into the EU for Chinese spies, who can make use of their Schengen visas to steal intelligence from any of the Schengen countries.”
He called on the Swiss parliament and the EU parliament to investigate further.
A moral dilemma
Guangzhou-based rights activist Wang Aizhong said people fleeing a national security crackdown in Hong Kong could be put at risk, even after they have arrived in a Schengen country.
“If this treaty isn’t revised or adjusted, there will be a moral dilemma,” Wang said. “Do they really want to leave these people’s fate to the Chinese government?”
“This isn’t just about Switzerland; other countries around the world should be alerted too,” Wang said.
Swedish human rights activist and Safeguard Defenders founder Peter Dahlin said the Swiss penchant for secrecy could be dangerous if used to forge deals with authoritarian regimes like China.
“Switzerland’s classification of this agreement as a “readmission agreement” is misleading,” Dahlin said. “It is outrageous that this so-called reciprocal agreement puts the Swiss side under the obligation to keep the identity and activities of visiting agents of the Chinese ministry of public security, a known spy organization, secret.”
Since the Safeguard Defenders report, the Swiss government has confirmed that the agreement was allowed to expire on Dec. 7, and that there are no plans to renew it.
“We have not yet discussed [renewing the deal] concretely with China,” immigration spokesperson Daniel Bach told the Keystone-SDA news agency, adding: “It is not our top priority.”