The Canadian Security Intelligence Service says Beijing routinely uses undercover state security officials and “trusted agents,” or proxies, to target members of Canada’s Chinese community in an effort to silence critics of President Xi Jinping, including threats of retribution against their families back in China.
The federal spy agency says these illegal activities in Canada are part of a global campaign of intimidation that constitutes a threat to this country’s sovereignty and the safety of Canadians. One of the most high-profile efforts is Operation Fox Hunt, directed by Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security, which has been under way since 2014.
Operation Fox Hunt was ostensibly launched as an anti-corruption campaign by Mr. Xi that targeted wealthy citizens and corrupt Communist Party members, who had fled overseas with large amounts.
However, FBI director Christopher Wray said in July that Operation Fox Hunt’s principal aim now is to suppress dissent among the Chinese diaspora. He called Fox Hunt nothing more than a sweeping bid by Mr. Xi to “target Chinese nationals who he sees as threats and who live outside China, around the world.”
On Oct. 28, the FBI charged eight individuals, including three Chinese citizens, with conspiring to act as “illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China” as part of Operation Fox Hunt. The charges stem from a foiled plot beginning in 2016 to coerce an American resident and Chinese citizen identified only as John Doe to return to China with his family – by threatening his wife and daughter in the United States and other relatives still in China, the U.S. government said.
Now Canada’s spy agency is speaking out on the same issue, publicly acknowledging to The Globe and Mail that China is using threats and intimidation against members of Canada’s Chinese community that are akin to the tactics used in Operation Fox Hunt.
While China may be trying to coerce some fugitive criminals to return home, CSIS said, “these tactics can also be used as cover for silencing dissent, pressuring political opponents and instilling a general fear of state power no matter where a person is located.”
John Townsend, the Canadian spy agency’s head of media relations, was speaking in reply to a question from The Globe about whether CSIS had the same national security concerns about Operation Fox Hunt as Mr. Wray.
“Certain foreign states routinely attempt to threaten and intimidate individuals around the world through various state entities and non-state proxies. These states, such as the People’s Republic of China, may use a combination of their intelligence and security services as well as trusted agents to assist them in conducting various forms of threat activities,” the CSIS spokesman said.
He urged Chinese nationals and Chinese-Canadians to report any threats or intimidation to Canadian authorities.
“Importantly, when foreign states target members of Canadian communities, these individuals, for various reasons, may not have the means to protect themselves or do not know they can report these activities to Canadian authorities. The fear of state-backed or state-linked retribution targeting both them and their loved ones, in Canada and abroad, can force individuals to submit to foreign interference,” Mr. Townsend said.
“When individuals in Canada are subjected to such harassment, manipulation or intimidation by foreign states seeking to gather support for or mute criticism of their policies, these activities constitute a threat to Canada’s sovereignty and to the safety of Canadians,” he added.
Mr. Townsend declined to say how many members of the Chinese community in Canada have been targeted by Fox Hunt. The FBI’s Mr. Wray said hundreds of U.S. residents have been pursued by agents of China.
In a separate statement, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they are aware of China’s operations in Canada, adding “at this time, the RCMP has not laid any charges” of foreign-influenced threats covered by the Security of Information Act. Canada Border Service Agency was unable to say how many Chinese citizens had been removed from Canada because it was determined they were in this country to put pressure on or coerce people.
Former CSIS director Richard Fadden, who also served as national security adviser to prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, said it is noteworthy that CSIS is publicly acknowledging what has been a significant national security concern for many years.
“The Chinese authorities are very active. They are very sophisticated. They have almost unlimited resources and in particular, the Chinese diaspora in Canada is quite large,” he said.
Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said this intimidation from China on Canadian soil has become “standard operating procedure” now.
He said sisters and brothers are often used to exert pressure on behalf of Beijing. “In British Columbia, siblings are fair targets and they’re not even shy about it. It’s literally in your face.”
“The proxy from China will have a face-to-face conversation … to explain either subtly or not subtly what they expect in terms of the family member’s behaviour in Canada and next steps that will be taken if people don’t co-operate.”
Mr. Kurland said the Chinese state has grown “less reluctant to do this kind of dirty work on Canadian soil to members of the Chinese Canadian community.” Such direct pressure would be virtually unheard of 15 to 20 years ago, he said.
“It’s one thing to receive a telephone or message indirectly. It’s something quite different when you get a knock on the door from a proxy from China right here in Canada.”
A former CSIS official said Chinese government officials have made a habit of booking meetings in Canada with government ministries but arranging these appointments so that there were days or weeks between the meetings. That left the visitors time to pay visits to Chinese citizens living in Canada and intimidate them. The Globe is not identifying the former official because he is not authorized to discuss these matters publicly.
He also pointed to incidents in 2018 where an unidentified individual took out full-page ads in Ming Pao Daily, a Chinese language newspaper with Hong Kong owners, that accused a Chinese citizen living in Canada of being a fugitive from justice in China. The ads listed his birthdate, Chinese passport number, Chinese citizen identification number and alleged he was a Communist Party official guilty of embezzlement and taking bribes. It implored the individual to “give themselves up” and admit their guilt. The sponsor of the ads was not identified in the ads.
Toronto refugee and immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman told The Globe that some of his clients in Canada have received cellphone messages from Chinese security officials threatening them and their families if they don’t return home.
Mr. Waldman said he has has worked several cases where Chinese citizens in Canada were the target of intimidation to force them or their relatives to return to China.
“This is a very serious problem,” Mr. Waldman said.
In some cases, Chinese authorities have dispatched people to Canada to try to put pressure on people to return, he said. In other cases, his clients' relatives in China were detained to force them to come back.
Mr. Fadden said Chinese Fox Hunt agents come to Canada either under diplomatic cover or covertly on tourist visas, as business people and students to bully expatriates, including some suspected of corruption, to return home.
“They try to do it in such a way where it is not obvious,” he said.
Mr. Fadden said it can be difficult to lay criminal charges in these cases, but CSIS and the RCMP are able to stop the intimidation tactics if people come forward to complain.
“Either CSIS or the RCMP can make a point of making it very clear that we are onto to them and they better stop. I would guess in most cases they would stop and go away,” he said. “It’s difficult to get a grip on unless the people who are being approached, harassed, intimidated complain and very few do.”
In a heavily redacted report issued in March, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians said the RCMP had co-operated with China’s Fox Hunt, facilitating their requests for police and prosecutors to travel to Canada to interview alleged fugitives. However, the committee said the “RCMP imposed increasingly stringent criteria on PRC investigators as time passed.”
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