Ottawa says it only learned in February that Canada’s visa-application centre in Beijing is managed by Chinese police, the same month The Globe and Mail reported the arrangement.
The federal government has trusted its visa centre in Beijing to a police-owned company since 2008, and has been required to conduct due-diligence screenings during renewals of the contract in subsequent years including 2018.
The government acknowledged its lack of awareness in documents tabled in the House of Commons this week in response to written questions from NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan.
“In February, 2021, Public Services and Procurement became aware that Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company is ultimately owned by the Beijing Public Security Bureau,” the government said in an answer to Ms. Kwan that was signed by Steven MacKinnon, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement.
The Globe reported the ownership structure of the company managing the visa-application centre on Feb. 8.
Ottawa said in the documents that government officials have conducted three site visits to visa-application centres in China “since becoming aware of the subcontractor ownership,” according to another response to Ms. Kwan signed by Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.
Ms. Kwan said she’s surprised by the government’s admission. “That to me is absolutely shocking. … How on Earth did they not know about the ownership structure?”
She blamed both the Liberal government and previous Conservative government for failing to stop this arrangement and said she remains concerned about how Canada can safeguard visa applicants’ private and confidential information. “I fear for the applicants who use the Canadian government’s services there.”
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, The Globe discovered. 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.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has given no indication that it intends to end the Beijing arrangement.
Alexander Cohen, press secretary for Mr. Mendicino, said Wednesday that Immigration officials regularly audit and inspect visa-application centres for compliance, including through unannounced audits, and that video cameras are used for ongoing monitoring.
He said no privacy breaches have been reported at these centres by those operating them and that VFS Global has complied with all security requirements in its contract. “Since 2018, [the Immigration department] has conducted over 20 site visits to visa-application centres in China,” Mr. Cohen said.
The government had acknowledged earlier this year that it was unaware from the start of the contract that Chinese police ultimately owned the company that is the facilities manager of the Beijing visa-application centre. At the time, though, it did not reveal when precisely it learned of the matter.
Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who served as national security adviser to two prime ministers, has said that Ottawa should end the visa situation in Beijing.
“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.”
The 2018 contract was not the first time VFS and affiliated companies had won federal contracts to operate visa-application centres, including the ones in China. Earlier contracts were awarded under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. And during parliamentary hearings in February, MPs learned that Beijing Shuangxiong has actually provided facilities and staff for Canada’s visa-application centre in China’s capital since 2008.
VFS told the hearings it informed Ottawa in 2008 that it intended to use Beijing Shuangxiong as the local subcontractor, or as it calls the company, its local facility-management company.
However, two former Conservative immigration ministers Jason Kenney, now the Premier of Alberta, as well as Chris Alexander, have told The Globe that they were unaware the subcontractor for the visa-application centre in Beijing was a company owned by the Chinese police.
“There was a public tendering process, and as you know there can be no political interference in tendering. If this happened during my tenure and I had been made aware of it, obviously I would have stopped it,” Mr. Kenney told The Globe earlier this year.
Mr. Alexander, for his part, said: “I was never informed of this arrangement in Beijing: it should never have happened. No state body in any region should be controlling access to our immigration or any other programs.”
Jeremy McIntee, a spokesman for former Conservative immigration minister Diane Finley, who was in charge of the department in 2008, said she does not recall whether she was informed of the subcontractor’s ownership.
VFS has said it is obligated to use local partners under Chinese law. It has also said it conducts “deep identity, credit, criminal, residency, education and employment checks” on employees, uses encrypted systems to send application information to Canadian servers, and employs a raft of measures to secure information, including an obligation for employees to hand over mobile phones to managers inside the visa centre.
Beijing Shuangxiong also acts as a subcontracted facility manager for VFS in Beijing for other Western countries, including New Zealand, Britain and Ireland. Immigration New Zealand has said it knew “from the outset” that the Beijing police have ownership of Beijing Shuangxiong.
VFS spokesman Peter Brun has previously said the Chinese companies it works with “are managed by VFS Global and we ensure they operate entirely according to all VFS Global security processes and protocols, and according to the Canadian government’s visa-application process and data-protection requirements, which are audited regularly by the Canadian government.”
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