The sign outside the door of the building in the Tuscan town of Prato reads Cultural Centre, but a recent investigation carried out by civil rights group Safeguard Defenders claims it is one of over 100 unofficial Chinese police stations around the world that has been conducting "persuasion to return" operations.
The centre has been shut since these allegations came out. According to Safeguard Defenders’ latest report, centres like it have been used to force Chinese dissidents to return home in at least 83 cases.
China denies the allegations. In Prato, which is home to Italy’s largest Chinese community, most of the local residents say they don’t know anything about it.
Safeguard Defenders alleges many other illegal activities are being carried out as part of what they describe as China’s massive transnational policing and repression campaigns. According to their report, Italy is quite a unique case. Not only is it one of the few countries that has not yet launched a full-scale investigation. It’s also the country with the highest number of these police stations on European soil.
But Erica Mazzetti, a Forza Italia lawmaker from Prato who is very concerned about the case, says a recent meeting with Italy’s Interior minister was encouraging
"For the first time something very clear has emerged from the meeting," she says. "The Minister said that an investigation has been launched to look into the issue. We are very pleased to know that. It’s an important step for the city of Prato and for the other cities, where the rest of the alleged police stations are located."
The investigation was based on open-source information gathered from public Chinese statements and data. Safeguard Defenders claims a joint police patrol agreement signed both by Italy and China in 2015 may have encouraged these activities.
"These patrol agreements from 2015 and the 2017 reinforced anti-terrorism agreement were definitely the first ones," says Laura Harth, Campaign Director at Safeguard Defenders. "And I think it was a mistake to sign those, considering the counterpart: the Ministry for Public Security in China, which is credibly accused of multiple crimes against humanity."
Lia Quartapelle, the Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Democrats, is one of the few other politicians who believe it’s a nationwide cause for concern. She raised parliamentary questions on the issue.
“We would like this government to maintain a serious relationship with China," she says. "Different from what happened at the time of the first government headed by Giuseppe Conte, as it compromised too much with China.”
Safeguard Defenders recently took part in a public hearing on the issue before an EU Parliament special committee.
“It makes sense that European countries come up with a common response to counter all these practices together,” says Harth.
Whether or not evidence of illegal activities being carried out at these centres will emerge, it looks like there are many people here in Italy who are still looking for answers.