A CANTONESE restaurant in the centre of Glasgow seems an unlikely focus of international intrigue.

But experts say reports that a network of “secret police stations” operated by the Chinese communist regime – including one based at the same address as the Loon Fung eatery in the city’s Sauchiehall Street – are not a surprise.

Human rights campaigners and international observers say they have watched Beijing launch an increasingly sophisticated operation to try to limit criticism of the Chinese government and keep tabs on their citizens abroad.

The allegations of overseas Chinese police “service stations”, operating in 21 countries spanning five continents and based in nondescript locations such as estate agencies and convenience stores were made by Spanish NGO Safeguard Defenders.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs the Scottish Government and Police Scotland are taking the reports of a secret Chinese outpost in Glasgow “extremely seriously”.

And an alleged Chinese police station in Dublin’s city centre was ordered to close by the Irish government after the reports emerged.

The Loon Fung restaurant in Glasgow has denied any involvement. “There’s no secret police here,” a spokesperson told journalists last week.

Ian Williams, former Channel 4 Asia correspondent and author of The Fire Of The Dragon: China’s New Cold War, said people may have the idea of a police station with a “light out the front and uniformed men wandering around”, but it appeared to be something “more informal and potentially more sinister”.

The National: Ian Williams.

He said: “The restaurants and the real estate shops and the takeaways named have all seemed pretty surprised to be told they have been listed in a Chinese police document as part of their overseas network.

“Are they front organisations, are they places perhaps where people meet and documents and information exchanged – either with or without knowledge of the owners of the organisations?

“But certainly the Fuzhou police name them as part of their network for going after fraudsters as they describe them, and other ‘miscreants’.

“It is extraordinary, but it wouldn’t be out of character – China has used and does use a whole range of informal ways to survey or exert influence. In that sense it comes as no surprise. This has been going on for a very long time.”

The reports of the alleged secret police stations come after an incident which provoked outrage in which a Hong Kong protester was pulled inside the grounds of the Chinese consulate in Manchester and beaten up by its staff.

The UK Government under Liz Truss previously said it would wait for the outcome of a police investigation before taking action, but a Chinese official last week issued a warning that “providing shelter” to Hong Kong protesters will bring “disaster to Britain”, pointing to how much the UK relies on China as its third-largest trading partner.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said: “I think what is partly motivating more critical responses by governments like the UK and the US is they are starting to come to grips with the fact the Chinese government is threatening human rights in their own countries.

“This is not just something happening to people inside China far away.”

Richardson said reports of the police “service stations” were a “tangible, physical” expression of what had been going on for years.

She added: “It is remarkable – there has been plenty of evidence sitting in plain view for over a decade. Many democratic governments have chosen to look the other way.”

SNP MP Alyn Smith said he plans to put questions to the UK Government in the Commons this week over China’s operations in the UK.

He has long raised concerns about Confucius Institutes in universities, which are funded by the Chinese government with stated missions of promoting knowledge of Chinese language and culture – but have been blacklisted in several countries over fears of being used to advance Beijing’s political agenda.

Smith said: “I am in favour of cultural exchange, China is a country I am fascinated by. But this is also a communist dictatorship that is committing genocide against the Uyghurs.

“What they have done in Hong Kong is trashed the Sino-British agreement over the handover of Hong Kong, and are in the process of a brutal anti-democratic crackdown.

“So we need to be real about what the Chinese government is.”

A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said: “Universities engage with open eyes and due diligence, ensuring that their practice is consistent with academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

“The internationalisation of higher education brings many benefits to our home students, to the curriculum and to research as well as revenue to universities and a contribution to Scotland’s economy and cultural life.”

Stephen Gethins, professor of international relations at St Andrews University and a former SNP MP, said it was important to bear in mind that China is an “autocratic regime with a dreadful human rights record”.

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He said: “Although engagement with China is something that politicians and institutions across the UK engage in, and that is right and proper to do so, we must be mindful of the kind of administration with which you are dealing.

“You can’t draw direct comparisons between Russia and China, but I think we need to learn from our failures in terms of engagements with Russia, where there were failures in terms of the flow of dirty money around finances, not least in London and around issues of disinformation.

“There are lessons to be learned about being careful when you engage with autocratic regimes – these are not regimes that pursue the same democratic norms that many of us are used to.”

The Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh has refuted the allegations of the alleged secret police stations, saying it is “simply untrue”, and that “overseas Chinese service centres” were set up as a solution during Covid-19 to help Chinese nationals unable to travel home with issues “such as renewing their driving licence”.