Police in California are investigating at least two cases of people posing as Chinese police driving cars with markings of the Communist Party of China's People's Armed Police (PAP).
California Highway Patrol spokesman Florentino Olivera said an Asian man was arrested Sept. 10 after reports he was impersonating a PAP officer while driving a black Audi A4 with PAP markings and a Chinese national symbol.
Photos of the car were posted on the CHP Facebook page with notice that police responded to several complaints regarding a male Asian driver impersonating a PAP officer.
"The driver was arrested and charged with impersonating a peace officer and for forging/possessing a fraudulent public seal," the notice said.
Police are looking for a second white vehicle also reported to bear PAP markings in the same area of Irvine, Calif. The town's population is 42 percent Asian American, and many residents are Chinese American.
Prosecutors expect to charge the suspect as if he had impersonated a U.S. police officer. Olivera said the man's name was withheld at the request of investigators.
"We think there is a bigger case here," Olivera said in an interview.
No details of the motive for the activities of the person arrested Sept. 10 were provided. Investigators are still looking into whether the impersonators are linked to the Chinese government.
The arrest in southern California comes amid reports of other Chinese police impersonators in Australia, northern California, and Washington state.
Intelligence experts say the activities appear related to covert Chinese government efforts to intimidate overseas Chinese people regarded by Beijing as dissidents or opponents of the Communist Party.
"The circumstances of this case suggest this may be a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act," said Nicholas Eftimiades, a former Defense Intelligence Agency counterintelligence official.
"There are many examples of China's Communist Party employing the government or party apparatus to intimidate and coerce ethnic Chinese abroad, whether or not they are Chinese citizens."
China's security and intelligence services have in the past conducted covert intelligence operations in the United States.
The operations, code-named Foxhunt by the FBI, targeted dissidents and regime opponents.
A report made public in April by the National Defense University said the PAP may be used by China's government to protect Chinese civilians and assets abroad.
The PAP is China's political police and security force. The Chinese Communist Party uses it for political control in addition to its nationwide police functions.
The PAP, which the National Defense University report calls China's "other army," has at its disposal large numbers of troops and military forces, including tanks and armored vehicles. It was once under dual civilian and military control but recently was placed directly under the command of the Chinese military as part of a power consolidation bid by Chinese president Xi Jinping.
The PAP is known to use black Audis. The markings on the black car in Irvine read "Special Police" and are similar to SWAT special units that employ even more brutal methods than regular PAP officers. Regular PAP officers usually drive white cars.
Recent images show PAP officers, wearing uniforms with the same Chinese characters for Special Police, herding blindfolded and shackled minority Uighurs into trains.
For overseas Chinese, police cars marked as Special Police would be similar to cars adorned with Nazi SS insignia.
According to KTLA television, which first reported the Irvine arrest, an incident involving Chinese police impersonation took place in northern California earlier last summer.
In that case, an Asian driver of a car with Chinese markings was arrested after attempting to pull over an off-duty police officer.
Reports from Australia in August revealed two cases of Chinese police car impersonators in the cities of Perth and Adelaide.
The Adelaide case involved a white BMW with PAP markings.
Those cases coincided with Chinese government efforts to stem international support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the same month saw a clash in Adelaide between pro-China protesters and supporters of the Hong Kong protesters.
The Australian Broadcasting Company quoted an Australian member of parliament, Tammy Franks, as saying the law needed to be tightened to outlaw impersonating foreign police.
"It appears that our laws anticipate perhaps somebody impersonating an Australian police car but certainly not a Chinese cop car on the streets of Adelaide," she told ABC.
Franks said the police car was "potentially intimidating and threatening, particularly ex-pats from China or people from Hong Kong and Taiwan."
Another explanation for the unusual Chinese police activities is that they may be criminal.
The FBI in Washington state issued a public notice in December warning that people posing as Chinese police were attempting to fleece Chinese students and residents.
The notice said email and text message scams were targeting Chinese nationals on student visas at universities as well as Chinese in the United States on work visas.
The scams netted at least $100,000 each from five people who were told they were under investigation by Chinese authorities for money laundering or other crimes and that they were supposed to send money to Chinese investigators.
The victims were told they could either resolve the crimes by returning to China and going to prison or transferring money to accounts that would be used to analyze proof of their innocence.
A Seattle FBI spokeswoman said the scams were limited to online contacts and did not involve the use of fraudulent Chinese police cars.