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An article posted to its website said the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, seen here, hosted a training seminar with volunteers on Dec. 6.DAVID RYDER/Reuters

Chinese government representatives are recruiting and training volunteers to help ensure the “safety” of their citizens living in Canada.

The initiative has been undertaken by consulates in Calgary and Toronto, as well as in missions around the world. The Chinese consulate in Osaka says in a recent post that it hopes the volunteers can play a role as the consulate’s “eyes, ears, mouths and hands.” But the call-out for volunteers has raised concerns among pro-Hong Kong activists and China experts who question the work China wants the volunteers to do.

It comes as relations between Canada and China have been strained since the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou last December. China then detained two Canadian citizens – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor – and banned Canadian agricultural products such as canola.

Other frictions have arisen as some members of Canada’s sizeable population of Hong Kong immigrants have been vocal in opposing the Chinese government’s increasing interference in the affairs of the semi-autonomous city. Demonstrations in Vancouver have involved shouting matches between pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing demonstrators.

An article posted to the Chinese consulate’s website in Vancouver last Wednesday says it’s an important task for the Chinese government to “protect the lives and property of the people and safeguarding the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens overseas.”

The post says it’s important to improve the efficiency of consular protection “in the new era and new situation.” The post says the consulate held a training seminar with volunteers on Dec. 6.

It states that Wang Chengjun, the deputy consul-general in Vancouver, told the meeting that such voluntary work is an “honour" and “responsibility” and that the volunteers should strengthen their communication, co-ordination and corporation with the consulate and continue presenting positive images of overseas Chinese and promoting China-Canada relations.

Gloria Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, said she considered the volunteer initiative a very “aggressive and inappropriate exercise” of consular services.

“I think it is an attempt of the Chinese consulates to legitimize the Chinese Communist Party’s building of its network in Canada,” she said in an interview.

She said Chinese diplomatic institutions categorize overseas Chinese, including those who have become Canadians, as their own nationals. She said Chinese Canadians do not need to seek help from the Chinese government.

In June, the Chinese consulate in Calgary noted on its website that it had held a meeting of 13 volunteers, as well as about 50 others, including representatives from local Chinese enterprises, Chinese travel agencies, Chinese-language media, airlines and international students. According to the Calgary post, an RCMP officer and a lawyer were also invited to the training session to discuss safety and legal issues for Chinese citizens.

In July, 2018, Zhuang Yaodong, acting consul-general of the Chinese consulate there, met with volunteers, and he asked them to support the consulate’s work to provide efficient consular protection and services for Chinese citizens.

Similar efforts have been under way in Japan, Brazil and African and European countries. Articles from Chinese state-run media and the Chinese embassy in Turkey suggest the program was established in Sydney in 2016 and was proposed in Turkey in 2017.

Charles Burton, associate professor of political science at Brock University, said whether the program includes monitoring and reporting to the People’s Republic of China via the embassy and consulates would be of “great concern to Canada.”

“This program would play into the PRC rhetoric that Canada is a dangerous and hostile place for persons from China and therefore they should identify with China seek protection from the PRC authorities,” Prof. Burton wrote in an e-mail.

But other experts say it is not uncommon for countries to ask their ex-pats for help.

Philip Calvert, senior fellow at the China Institute at the University of Alberta, said Canadian embassies and consulates also have networks of wardens – expatriate Canadians living abroad – to help out in emergencies such as evacuations.

“In the case of China’s networks, though, the question is what else people might be being asked to do beyond just emergency preparation,” he said.

But University of British Columbia Professor Wenran Jiang said the requests for volunteers, including in the case of Osaka, may simply be an effort to offer better services because China’s consular resources are thin.

“China is one of the most fast-growing outgoing immigrant countries, and in recent years, there are clear indications that the limited Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel is not enough in meeting consular demands,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“While Canada and all countries should be always vigilant in protecting its sovereignty, I don’t think Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the resources, the sophistication or any master plan to be able to launch such local control or influence operations as some loud critics would let us to believe.”

In response to questions about the post and the timing of it, a spokesperson for Chinese consulate in Vancouver directed The Globe and Mail back to the statement. Global Affairs Canada referred The Globe’s request for comments to the Chinese embassy.

Professor Paul Evans with UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs said although the volunteer program doesn’t appear to be “clandestine, it’s worth inquiring about precisely what ‘consular functions’ they are providing."