At about 2 a.m. on Dec. 23, two people arrived at the house where Xie Weidong lives with his wife, Yang Mei, in Toronto. The couple's doorbell rang repeatedly.
Ms. Yang got up to see who was there, then roused Mr. Xie, a former Chinese judge who has been the target of a lengthy campaign by authorities in China who want him to return home as part of a corruption investigation.
By the time he got to the door, the people were gone. But he couldn't fall back asleep. "We were very scared," he said. "Their purpose is to intimidate me or kidnap me and force me back to China," he added.
For more than 15 years, the Chinese government has provoked anger in Canada, Australia, the United States and elsewhere for sneaking security agents abroad on tourist and business visas to strong-arm suspects. Now, Chinese authorities acknowledge they are pressing others to do that work for them, sending non-state actors to apply pressure overseas. Mr. Xie, they say, must be held to account for wrongdoing.
"Based on Chinese law, all criminals at large, no matter whether they are in China or abroad, should be be caught and held to account for their wrongdoing," said Zhao Xudong, a local procurator in Hubei province, which has sought Mr. Xie's return.
"Xie Weidong is no exception. The law never discriminates against any individual. Isn't that right? I don't care what your nationality is. Whether you are Chinese or Canadian, it makes no difference to us."
But the techniques they are using run counter to Canadian law, critics say.
"Agents and people who are working on behalf of the government are supposed to notify the Canadian government of that in advance and get permission to engage in the activities they engage in," said immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman, who has represented numerous Chinese citizens wanted in China.
"It's obvious that the Chinese government doesn't respect Canadian sovereignty at all."
Local prosecutors in China spent months trying to find someone who would go to Canada to get in contact with Mr. Xie. They spoke with his ex-wife, his long-time business partner and others.
Then in mid-December, Lang Zijun, a lawyer who once represented Mr. Xie's sister in China, unexpectedly called and sent texts to Ms. Yang, asking for a meeting. He said he was at a Holiday Inn Express in Toronto. Ms. Yang later recognized one of the people who showed up at her door at 2 a.m. as Mr. Lang's wife.
Two days later, Mr. Lang and his wife arrived at the Ottawa home of Mr. Xie's sister, Xie Weihong.
Mr. Xie believes Mr. Lang came to Canada at the behest of the procuratorate in China's Hubei province as part of what he called "illegal transboundary law enforcement."
Hubei authorities, he added, want to "force me to go back to China where they can torture and destroy me, which is completely against Canadian law."
The Globe and Mail text messaged and called Mr. Lang numerous times. He hung up on one call and did not answer other inquiries.
But in interviews, judicial authorities in China acknowledged they have been trying to get associates of Mr. Xie to Canada to speak with him.
One of their targets was Lu Mingxi, a former business partner of Mr. Xie. "We did tell him about our desire to have him go to Canada and bring our messages to Xie Weidong," said Hu Minhan, who is with the anti-dereliction of duty bureau at the Huangmei county procuratorate in Hubei province.
Mr. Xie needs to be told "Chinese policy over criminals at large" as well as "detailed information about his case," he said. He added: "Our goal is to let [Mr. Xie] come back to China."
The procuratorate turned to Mr. Lu, because "we know they used to be really close and had a lot of contact," Mr. Hu said.
He would not say what crime Mr. Xie is suspected of committing.
But in 2016, Chinese authorities began legal proceedings against a Canadian-Chinese woman, You Ziqi, accusing her of embezzlement and fraud and saying she bribed Mr. Xie. She has said she was tortured into confessing to the bribe.
Mr. Xie believes authorities want a confession from him to convict Ms. You.
He said he has not been formally charged. Instead, he said, he has been the target of a concerted campaign that has landed another sister in detention as well as his son, who was injured so badly when he was seized from a Beijing parking garage that he had to undergo surgery.
Chinese authorities also approached the son's mother, Mr. Xie's ex-wife, Wang Liwei, to ask her to go to Canada.
"They said, 'You must help us with this, or your son's problem will never be resolved. He will be detained for two more years or even longer,'" Ms. Wang said.
"I am 100-per-cent sure that the way they ordered me to become an intermediary can be described as coercion."
Mr. Lang's appearance in Canada is not the first time Chinese authorities have sent people on such a mission, said Mr. Waldman, the immigration lawyer.
"I have heard of other instances where the Chinese authorities have recruited non-state agents to come to Canada to put pressure on family members who are wanted in China," he said.
Dispatching friends and family members could be an attempt by Chinese authorities to sidestep foreign rules, said Peter Jennings, a former high-ranking defence and national security adviser in Australia who is now executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
"Whereas there's a clear illegality to conducting police-type operations in a second country without declaring the operation, it's much harder to sanction that type of behaviour where it is just a case of informal connections," he said.
"It is difficult to stop such efforts, even to stop the secret visits of [Chinese] officials on tourist visits," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on China at New York University of Law.
In Canada, police and intelligence agencies have investigated secret visits to Canada by Chinese officials in recent years. The federal government said it takes "appropriate action" when "unacceptable activities by foreign officials are reported," Brittany Venhola-Fletcher, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in an statement.
"Any attempt by a foreign government to improperly influence or harass Canadians is taken very seriously, and any complaints about illegal activities in Canada should be registered with the police."
But Canadian authorities have neither arrested nor taken to court anyone involved in such operations, an Ottawa insider briefed on the matter told The Globe in 2016. (Public Safety Canada did not provide The Globe with updated information.)
Ms. Xie reported the visit of Mr. Lang to Ottawa police, who responded – and then let them go.
"Officers spoke to everyone and concluded that no criminal activity had taken place," Ottawa Police Service spokesman Constable Marc Soucy said.
"As a result the file is now concluded."
With reporting by Alexandra Li