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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a press conference in Ottawa on Nov. 13, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has condemned China for using covert agents to threaten and intimidate members of Canada’s Chinese community in an effort to silence dissent and criticism of President Xi Jinping.

Mr. Trudeau said on Friday that China has stepped up this activity in recent years, and it is unacceptable in a democratic society.

“For a number of years, we have observed foreign actors wield influence on members of their diaspora in Canada. Unfortunately, recently this has intensified,” he said at a news conference when asked about a warning from Canada’s spy agency over the targeting of people in Canada’s Chinese community, including democracy activists and Uyghur human-rights advocates.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service told The Globe and Mail this week that national security and the safety of Canadians are being jeopardized by undercover Chinese state security officials and others who are trying to silence critics using tactics that include threats of retribution against their families in China.

CSIS said these illegal activities are part of a global campaign of intimidation. One of the most high-profile efforts is Operation Fox Hunt, directed by Beijing’s Ministry of Public Safety, which has been under way since 2014.

Mr. Xi launched Operation Fox Hunt as an anti-corruption campaign against wealthy Chinese citizens and Communist Party members who had fled overseas with ill-gotten money.

FBI director Christopher Wray has said Operation Fox Hunt’s principal aim now is to suppress dissent among China’s diaspora. He called it a sweeping bid by Mr. Xi to target Chinese nationals outside China who he sees as threats.

Mr. Trudeau said Canada is working very closely with allied countries where similar things are happening.

“This behaviour is simply not something that is either productive for China’s interest in the medium and the long term, but more specifically something that is not acceptable in a world where the rule of law needs to be respected and held up,” he said.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond directly to The Globe report about the CSIS warning, but accused the paper of maligning China.

“This article turns a blind eye to basic facts and smears Chinese efforts to repatriate corrupt fugitives and recover illegal proceeds. We firmly oppose this,” the embassy said on its website. “Repatriation of fugitives and recovering of their illegal assets worldwide is a just cause to safeguard and promote rule of law.”

While China may be trying to bring some fugitive criminals home, CSIS spokesman John Townsend 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.”

Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu turned down an invitation to meet with the House of Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations to answer questions about this issue, and China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.

“Members of the special committee, while disappointed with the response they received, remain open to a meeting with the ambassador, at a mutually agreed time,” the committee said in a statement on Friday.

CSIS has declined to say how many people in Canada Fox Hunt has targeted. Mr. Wray has said agents of China have pursued hundreds of U.S. residents.

Last month, the United States charged eight people, including three Chinese citizens, with conspiracy to act as illegal agents as part of Operation Fox Hunt. The charges stem from an alleged plot to force a U.S. resident to return to China by threatening his family.

Chinese-Canadian groups are urging the federal government to set up a dedicated national hotline where they can report intimidation or harassment by agents of the Chinese government.

Cheuk Kwan, former chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said a hotline would send a message to the Chinese government and its proxy groups in Canada.

“If nothing else, a national hotline gives a signal to the Chinese consulates that the Canadian government is taking this seriously. That CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are taking this seriously,” Mr. Kwan said in an interview. “Even if it is not as effective as we want it to be, it can still serve as a symbolic warning to anybody who wants to listen, including the Chinese government.”

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said intimidation from China on Canadian soil has become “standard operating procedure.”

He said people’s sisters and brothers are often used.

“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,” he said.

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