The Canadian government is facing calls to cancel an arrangement in Beijing where Chinese police own a company that collects details of people applying for visas to Canada.
As The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week, Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing is operated by Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, which is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. And at least some of the people working inside the centre are members of the Chinese Communist Party, recruited from a school that trains the next generation of party elite.
Beijing Shuangxiong is a subcontractor for VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai that holds a wide-reaching contract to provide visa-processing services around the world for the Canadian government. VFS offices collect personal and biometric information that is then forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who will be granted visas.
Toronto immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman said he doesn’t believe a company run by a Chinese government security bureau should have any connection to visa processing for Canada.
“I don’t think we should continue this relationship,” he said.
Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) who served as national security adviser to two prime ministers, said Ottawa should end this arrangement in Beijing. But he said he also feels Canada should end contracting out of its visa application services across China in all 11 locations.
“An instrument of the Chinese government has access to a facility in China with connections to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada,” he said. “I cannot think of a more promising entry point for China’s cyberspies.”
On Monday, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office declined a request to interview the minister on this matter, citing a busy schedule. Although the Department of Citizenship and Immigration is the client in this matter, the minister’s office referred questions to the federal Department of Public Works and Government Services, which handles contracting. Public Works said it was not able to immediately respond.
Alexander Cohen, press secretary for Mr. Mendicino, said before the visa application processing contract was awarded to VFS, the Canadian government “conducted an extensive review of VFS Global, including local subsidiaries, to ensure they meet Canada’s high standards surrounding integrity, security and financial capability.”
The department has previously defended the sub-contracting out in China by saying: “For any foreign company to operate in China, they must be partnered with a local Chinese company, and Canadian contractors are not exempted from this.”
In a statement on Monday, Peter Brun, chief communications officer for VFS Global, described The Globe’s reporting as “speculative,” and said visa applications submitted in China are securely protected to safeguard personal data as it’s sent to Canada’s Immigration department.
He said the local partners, the Chinese “facilities management companies” (FMC) with which VFS contracts, are required to operate according to the Canadian government’s visa application process and data protection requirements. Mr. Brun said the Canadian government regularly conducts audits.
“Individuals or local companies having a stake in the FMCs that you described have no access to visa application data and no influence on the integrity of the visa application process as defined by any client government we serve,” he said.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said despite the security assurances, she still sees too much risk in the Beijing visa application centre setup, adding she plans to press Mr. Mendicino to explain how this came about when he next appears before the House of Commons immigration committee.
“I can’t believe the Canadian government is not alarmed by this,” Ms. Kwan said. “They need to immediately cancel this contract and bring this work back in-house.”
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said Canada’s policy toward contracting out in China doesn’t take into account the Chinese government’s transformation from benign trading partner to adversarial rival since Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
“It’s clear that Canada’s relationship with China has changed in the last several years and China is increasingly threatening Canadians and Canadian interests,” Mr. Chong said. “In that context, the Liberal government needs to review and cancel any contracts with connections to China’s state security apparatus.”
A Globe investigation also found the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission owns 30 per cent of the Canadian visa office in that city. China Travel Services, a large centrally owned company, owns the majority of the centre in Guangzhou. In Jinan, the 93.55-per-cent owner of the subcontracting company is Pei Zhongyi, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a key part of China’s ruling apparatus.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.