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The Chinese flag flutters on Tiananmen Square before the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on May 21, 2020.Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki calls Beijing’s interference and intimidation operations targeting people who emigrate from China to Canada a “problem,” and says victims can report the harassment to Canadian authorities without fear.

Commissioner Lucki said Friday in an interview that she had no details at hand about the scale of the issue, but is looking to step up actions the force takes against such operations.

“I would say yes, it is a problem, but the breadth and depth of it I couldn’t really say for sure,” she said.

“It’s a growing problem, obviously, and something we want to work together with our international and domestic partners on. A lot of it is about awareness and education, because things happen and we want to make sure people who are affected by this feel safe – that they can report this without fear of reprisal.”

To that end, Commissioner Lucki said, there is an RCMP phone number for people affected by such incidents to call. She said the number has been available at least since she became commissioner in 2018, but she could not immediately say how many people have called it.

The Globe and Mail reported this week that China has been expanding its use of coercion to force the return of Chinese citizens who have settled abroad, many of them in Australia, Canada and the United States, in a campaign targeting fugitives and dissidents.

The trend was identified in a new report by Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders.

Citing Chinese government data, Safeguard’s report says Beijing had surpassed 10,000 returns under one repatriation program, called Sky Net, by late 2021. This is the only program for which data are available, and the watchdog group says it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to non-judicial efforts to secure the return of people wanted by the Chinese state in 120 countries.

The report identifies three methods China employs to forcibly retrieve citizens.

Chinese authorities first attempt to coax a return through the target’s family and relatives who still live in China. They harass loved ones and try to coerce them into passing messages to the person abroad.

A second method is directly approaching the target outside mainland China, including by sending Chinese agents. A third method is what Safeguard Defenders calls “kidnappings abroad,” in which Chinese authorities arrest targets on foreign soil and take them back to China.

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Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in Canada, said many have lost faith that law enforcement in this country can help stop harassment from Beijing.

“The community has lost trust in Canadian agencies to help them. Many individuals have approached RCMP for help, but are bounced between enforcement and intelligence agencies,” she said. “Canadian enforcement and intelligence agencies do not have the tools and resources to effectively counter foreign interference operations. Chinese party-state actors have long utilized legal grey areas to assert influence inappropriately.”

Ivy Li, a spokesperson for the Canadian Friends of Hong Kong, said Canada needs a foreign-agents registration act like those in Australia or the United States, as well as a centralized reporting centre for victims of intimidation by the Chinese government.

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said the RCMP do not have a public record of successfully tackling foreign-based harassment in Canada. “Uyghurs and other China-related activists approached the RCMP numerous times without any tangible result. For that reason many activists have already stopped reporting to the RCMP,” he said.

He added that he personally tried after his organization’s smartphones were hacked. His legal adviser “was directed from one unit to another unit, one department to another department,” he said.

Former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson has acknowledged that not enough is being to done to stop coercion activities by China in Canada.

Mr. Paulson, the commissioner from 2011 to 2017, told The Globe this week that Canadian laws relating to extortion and threatening behaviour forbid these activities. But, he said: “We hadn’t devoted resources to this. … I can’t think of an instance where we have succeeded on the back of a complaint that Chinese agents were strong-arming citizens. You have to throw your shoulder into it.”

Commissioner Lucki said the RCMP’s federal policing program includes monitoring for foreign interference in Canadian affairs, such as election processes. She added that she expects some change in the RCMP’s approach to the issue in the year ahead, but declined to describe any specific plans. “It’s probably too early to ask that question,” she said.

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