Details of a little known agreement between Switzerland and China that allowed Chinese “spies” to enter Switzerland at Swiss taxpayers’ expense have leaked this week. The deal, which was signed in 2015 and is up for renewal, “lays out terms for Chinese agents to travel to Switzerland and interview suspected Chinese nationals that Swiss authorities wished to deport,” according a report by The Guardian.
The deal had never been published by the government and wasn’t even publicly acknowledged until August this year, the report says. This differs greatly from “more than 50” deals Switzerland has with other countries that are widely known about. In fact, the deal was so under wraps that “even the Swiss parliament and foreign affairs committee did not know of its existence”.
An Asia-focused human rights campaign group called the “Safeguard Defenders” were the first to translate the original document, which revealed an “extraordinary commitment to secrecy”.
While Chinese experts needed to be invited by Switzerland for their two week “missions”, China could then send whatever agents it wanted without approval. Those agents were permitted to enter the country “without official status” while the Swiss kept their identities confidential. The reports that the agents would subsequently produce for the Swiss government were also kept confidential.
The agreement contained “no provisions to supervise the agents’ activities beyond their work with Swiss authorities,” the Guardian noted. Peter Dahlin, the director of Safeguard Defenders said: “What they do during that two weeks is completely unsupervised. Theoretically, the fact that it’s allowed is remarkable … If this was kept secret, that means other governments wouldn’t know.”
Safeguard Defenders said in a statement: “In only a minority of cases [do other readmission] deals allow for the other party to send representatives to accompany the individual to be returned, and in those cases [the representatives] are limited to that specific activity, and it is a public, official duty being carried out.”
The deal was called “extremely favorable” to the Chinese by Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University in the US: “It strikes me as odd that if it was as low level as someone who was staying in Switzerland illegally, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] would bother sending over officials. The incentives [for MPS officials to travel] would likely be people who are … of interest to the PRC government.”
The agreement was not well received in Switzerland when it was revealed this year, as the world grapples with the Wuhan Coronavirus and skepticism about China and its intentions it at recent highs. Leo Lan, a spokesman for the country’s Chinese Human Rights Defenders campaign group, said: “Given China’s appalling record of detainees’ rights, it’s also a legitimate concern if the repatriated persons would be exposed to torture or other ill-treatment if they were detained.”
Lewis concluded: “Usually governments want to keep close tabs on any foreign agents who are on their soil. If in Switzerland the MPS officials have time to roam free [outside of the Swiss-initiated interviews], I worry about the possibility for interactions with other PRC nationals that are unofficial in nature, and the potential for coercion.”