The Canadian government says it did not know that the Beijing police own a company that operates its visa application centre in the Chinese capital, saying such information isn’t normally scrutinized by Ottawa in awarding contracts.
On Monday, VFS Global, the company paid to run Canada’s visa application centres abroad, told the House of Commons committee on citizenship and immigration that the Canadian government approved its use of Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Co., which the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau owns. Working with a local partner is required by law in China, the company said.
But Public Services and Procurement Canada was “not aware of their corporate ownership structure and whether or not it was owned by the Beijing public security bureau,” spokesperson Stéfanie Hamel said in a statement.
The public security bureau is the Beijing police, and its ownership is disclosed in Chinese corporate, court and government records. On Monday, Jiten Vyas, VFS’s group chief operating officer for the region covering China, described the company as owned by “an investment arm of the organization,” in response to a question about the police ownership.
Beijing Shuangxiong also acts as a subcontracted facility manager for VFS in Beijing for other Western countries, including New Zealand, the U.K. and Ireland. Immigration New Zealand has said it knew “from the outset” that the Beijing police have ownership of Beijing Shuangxiong.
Ms. Hamel did not say when the Canadian government discovered the police’s financial involvement in the centre.
“A review of the ownership structure of subcontractors is not part of the regular processes associated with federal procurement,” she said. “Under the contract, VFS Global must ensure that the privacy and security aspects of the contract are observed in all of their respective subcontracting arrangements.”
Beijing Shuangxiong has since 2008 provided facilities and staff for Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing, which collects personal and biometric information that is forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who will be granted visas. A document posted by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education says the company recruits some of its staff from a school that trains the next generation of Communist Party elite. At least one of those recruits has gone on to manage the Canadian centre, the document says.
VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai, has a contract to provide visa-processing services around the world for the Canadian government.
Opposition MPs, including NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan and Conservative immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan, pressed VFS officials on Monday about when the company told Ottawa that Beijing Shuangxiong – owned by the local police – was the subcontractor.
“We first started working for the Canadian government in China in 2008 with this FMC [facility management company], and we informed the Canadian government that it was our intention to use this FMC,” Chris Dix, head of business development for VFS Global, told MPs.
Mr. Dix said the Canadian visa application centres in China “operate according to the same tough security standards we employ around the world” and that the Chinese companies that manage the local facilities do not “set up or have access to our IT [information technology] systems.” All the computer servers transferring this information to the immigration department are in Canada, not China, he said.
Mr. Dix said 64 governments trust VFS to provide visa and passport application services.
Parliamentary records show that in 2013, during a routine appearance to discuss spending estimates, immigration department officials were unable to immediately answer questions from MPs about subcontractors being used for visa application processing. In November, 2013, MPs asked senior immigration officials before the immigration committee “whether VFS Global is subcontracting to other outfits” for visa processing. Then-deputy minister Anita Biguzs replied that she wasn’t aware of that, as did then-assistant deputy minister Robert Orr.
New Zealand, Britain and Ireland have contracted out visa application centres in Beijing to VFS, for which Beijing Shuangxiong is the subcontracted facility manager.
The government of New Zealand recently told The Globe and Mail it has known from the beginning that a police-owned company was behind its visa-processing centre in Beijing. Immigration New Zealand spokesman John Mitchell said he understood “the company VFS partnered with is the one they were told by the Chinese authorities they had to use.”
Mr. Vyas told MPs it was up to the Canadian government to approve the use of Beijing Shuangxiong as the local partner for the visa application centre in Beijing.
Mr. Vyas said VFS looked at more than one option for a facilities manager in Beijing. He said factors that went into the decision include whether a company has the requisite licence and what volume of traffic it could handle.
But if the Canadian government did not know about the police ownership of Beijing Shuangxiong, “they cannot give that assurance to Canadians about the security of the information that’s being processed in those centres,” Ms. Kwan said in an interview.”
Either the Canadian government is completely in the dark about its operation that they contracted out to a third party in Beijing, or the Canadian government has not been properly informed by VFS Global. Either way is not a good scenario.”
On Monday, Ms. Kwan asked VFS about legal requirements in China that oblige any state-owned company with more than three employees who are members of the Chinese Communist Party to set up a party unit within the enterprise. All major business decisions in these companies must be discussed by the CCP unit before being presented to the board or management, she noted.
She asked VFS to provide information on how many Communist Party members work at Beijing Shuangxiong.
Ms. Kwan asked VFS whether Beijing Shuangxiong staff in the Beijing office wouldn’t have access to the visa-application data when they enter it into the computer system. “How could it be they don’t have access to the data? They put it into the system,” she asked.
Mr. Vyas said the local staff are thoroughly screened, and the equipment they use gives them no means to copy the data. “There is no access to e-mails and no access to USB drives” and data entered are “fully encrypted.”
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