Alex Ning remembers the feeling of despair when a man he had helped represent returned to China to face embezzlement charges.
Mr. Ning, a Vancouver-area immigration consultant, said Gao Shan "couldn't stand the pressure" after his father, brother and brother-in-law were detained by Chinese authorities for aiding and abetting.
It was Mr. Ning's first case in which China sought the return of an economic fugitive. Today, Mr. Ning says he is helping about 30 others who are in the same situation as Mr. Gao. Mr. Ning said about half have been visited by Chinese authorities on Canadian soil. The other half, he said, have been pressed to return to China over the phone or online.
The Globe and Mail reported last week that China's security services have been sending undercover agents into Canada on tourist visas to strong-arm expatriates to return home, including some suspected of corruption and other criminal activities.
And with the Canadian government recently agreeing to negotiate an extradition treaty with China, representatives for some who have returned to the country in recent years to face criminal charges are criticizing the move – and noting there can be unpleasant surprises for those who go back.
Mr. Gao returned to China in 2012, about seven years after arriving in Canada. Mr. Ning said it had been intimated to Mr. Gao that if he returned to China, he would receive a prison sentence of seven or eight years. Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years for his role in an embezzlement scheme valued at more than $100-million.
Mr. Ning said he is concerned some of his other clients will also buckle under the pressure.
"It's a constant worry," he said in an interview.
Information on individuals in Chinese prisons can be difficult to obtain. Mr. Ning said he has been told by Mr. Gao's family that he is "adjusting" to the situation.
David Matas, a well-known human-rights lawyer who represented a man deported back to China in 2011, said he has been told by the man's family that he is not receiving proper medical care. The man, Lai Changxing, has diabetes.
Mr. Lai had been accused of masterminding a multibillion-dollar smuggling network that imported consumer goods without paying custom duties. He was also accused of bribing Chinese police and government officials.
He was ordered deported by this country's Federal Court after China provided several assurances, including that Mr. Lai would not face the death penalty.
Mr. Lai was convicted on charges of smuggling and bribery in 2012 and sentenced to life in prison.
"I don't think he anticipated that he wouldn't get proper medical care," Mr. Matas said in an interview.
Mr. Matas said one of the assurances Mr. Lai received was that Canadian officials would be able to visit him in custody. However, Mr. Matas said he was later told by the Canadian embassy in China that the assurances did not apply post-conviction.
Mr. Matas said he has represented about a dozen people whom China wanted returned. One of his current cases involves Michael Ching Mo Yeung, a Vancouver property developer.
Mr. Matas said one of his clients returned to China voluntarily after negotiating a deal and still does not appear to have been detained. Another client who went back was able to negotiate with police, get charges dropped, and ultimately return to Canada.
"The results were good for these clients," Mr. Matas said. "But I wonder about such a system which plays so fast and loose with the results, where everything seems to be political."
Douglas Cannon, an immigration lawyer, represented two men who were also accused of embezzlement by Chinese authorities and linked to Mr. Gao. The Li brothers arrived in Canada in 2004 and agreed to return to China about seven years later if certain conditions were met – including that the younger brother would not stand trial, and economic assets seized from other family members would be returned.
But when the brothers went back to China, Mr. Cannon said those conditions were ignored.
"They made a deal in the hopes that the Chinese government would recognize that if you treat people like they promised to treat the Li brothers, it would be a substantial advantage to the Chinese authorities in dealing with international governments who are reluctant to return the alleged fugitives because of how they may be treated," Mr. Cannon said in an interview.
"And unfortunately, the Chinese government missed a huge opportunity to send that message to the world."
Li Dongzhe, the older brother, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Li Donghu received a sentence of 25 years.
Mr. Cannon said he does not have any information on how the Li brothers have been treated in prison but believes they made a "strategic mistake" in returning.
Chinese authorities last week announced a Canadian resident who was wanted on corruption charges voluntarily returned to China.
Mr. Matas said entering into an extradition treaty with China would be a "grave mistake." He said it would mean accepting allegations from the Chinese government at face value, as well as accepting the country's justice system as fair "when it is manifestly not so."
Mr. Cannon said until Chinese authorities show they are "taking seriously the improvements that need to be made in their justice systems and how they treat their people when they accuse them of a crime, Canada's just engaged in wishful thinking."
Mr. Ning noted the conviction rate in China is close to 100 per cent and questioned the evidence that would be presented at any extradition proceeding.
Mr. Ning – who in addition to being an immigration consultant is authorized to serve as counsel for clients at the Immigration and Refugee Board – said the individuals he is assisting generally receive an initial message from Chinese authorities asking them to return. He said if people refuse to comply, their assets can be seized. After that, he said, individuals can be visited in person.
He said some of the people he's working with have refused to answer the door.
"One even moved away from his normal place of residence to avoid them," he said.