Lawmakers in Ottawa were shocked to learn this week that Chinese intelligence had allegedly targeted MP Michael Chong’s family in Hong Kong after he criticized Beijing’s human-rights record. But for many Chinese, Hong Kong, Uyghur and Tibetan activists in the diaspora, the news came as no surprise.
Chinese security services have long pressured and harassed family members of dissidents living overseas, in some cases even imprisoning them in apparent retaliation for criticism of the government.
“It is an illusion that diaspora communities can escape authoritarianism by moving away,” said Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong. Many in the diaspora “choose silence,” she added, “because no one can afford angering Beijing and endangering our family and friends back home.”
The Globe and Mail has been reporting for months on allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections, after a whistleblower in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) came forward to complain that the government was not doing enough to combat the problem. Many Chinese-Canadians said they had tried to sound the alarm themselves with both CSIS and the RCMP for years but were often ignored.
Speaking in Parliament Thursday, NDP lawmaker Jenny Kwan said one of her constituents had received death threats as a result of their work promoting democracy in Hong Kong. Ms. Kwan represents Vancouver East, which has a large Hong Kong diaspora.
“They reported it to the RCMP. Then what happened? Nothing. Nothing happened,” Ms. Kwan said. “Who do you think will come forward to say that this is happening to them when there is no recourse? Who will dare to speak up when even a member of Parliament and his family could be threatened?”
Dolkun Isa, president of the German-based World Uyghur Congress, said governments should do more to protect their citizens from intimidation or harassment – setting up hotlines to report incidents, for example – and must emphasize to Beijing that such behaviour is unacceptable.
“This is a very dangerous trend. Not only is this foreign interference, but it also violates the freedom of expression of individuals who are not even Chinese citizens, but Canadians, Americans and Europeans,” he told The Globe.
In December, Spanish-based human-rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders exposed a network of secret Chinese police stations around the world. Last month, the FBI arrested two men for allegedly operating such a police station in New York, in what U.S. district attorney Breon Peace said was a “flagrant violation of our nation’s sovereignty.”
Carmen Lau, a former Hong Kong district councillor who now lives in Britain, said these revelations have alarmed many in the diaspora, making people even more reluctant to join rallies or protests.
Nor do exiles necessarily need to be engaged in politics overseas, she said, pointing to reports of the families and associates of former Hong Kong politicians being surveilled or questioned by police after they left the city.
Baggio Leung, a former lawmaker now working to set up an “exile parliament” for Hong Kong, said he has received threats. Mr. Leung said intimidation is unfortunately the cost of speaking out, but it has a “chilling effect” on people in the diaspora, who may hesitate even to join something as innocuous as a dragon boat team because it has “Hong Kong” in the name or uses symbols of the city’s pro-democracy movement.
For those who do get involved in politics, even at the lowest levels, the reaction can often be intense. After Tibetan-Canadian Chemi Lhamo was elected president of the student union at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough’s campus in 2019, she said she received thousands of intimidating messages, including threats of murder and rape.
Chinese state media published multiple reports on Ms. Lhamo’s candidacy, calling her a separatist and questioning her qualifications. Protests against her were co-ordinated by Chinese student groups, which often have links to local consulates or the United Front Work Department, the wing of the Communist Party responsible for co-ordinating Beijing’s overseas influence operations.
Ms. Lhamo was one of several activists who testified before Parliament in 2020, calling on Ottawa to do more to protect victims of foreign state-sponsored harassment.
Since The Globe’s revelations this year, lawmakers have pushed for Canada to adopt a foreign agent registry, similar to those in the U.S. and Australia. CSIS director David Vigneault said in March that he supported the idea, adding that a registry “wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it would increase transparency.”
Beijing has consistently denied interfering in Canadian politics. After Ottawa summoned China’s ambassador and said it was considering expelling a diplomat linked to the alleged harassment of Mr. Chong, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Friday that the scandal had been “hyped up by some Canadian politicians and media,” adding that Beijing has “lodged a strong protest” with Canada’s own ambassador.
“China is strongly dissatisfied with Canada’s groundless slander and defamation of the normal performance of duties by the Chinese embassy and consulates in Canada and firmly opposes it,” she said.