For the second time in a year, Canada has been drawn into the ruthless interplay of elite Chinese politics, after two men with connections to Canada were arrested as part of an all-out bid by the Communist Party to silence a prominent foreign critic.
On Monday night, Chinese state television broadcast details against Chen Zhiyu and Chen Zhiheng, twins who authorities say confessed to forging documents for a billionaire Chinese dissident living in New York. That billionaire, Guo Wengui, has used YouTube and Twitter to broadcast a series of damning allegations against some of the most powerful figures in the Chinese political establishment.
Chinese authorities have mounted an unusually aggressive campaign to bring Mr. Guo back to China, dispatching agents to the United States to convince him to return and even enlisting the help of prominent Americans such as casino magnate Steve Wynn.
On Monday, they made public the arrest of the Chen brothers, saying their admissions call into question documents distributed by Mr. Guo and provide further reason for the United States to extradite the billionaire.
But the arrests also drew Canada into a highly sensitive political issue for China. According to police in the city of Chongqing, both brothers, aged 41, were born in China. But Zhiheng gained Canadian citizenship in 2008, and Zhiyu moved to Canada in 2012, police said. Local media reported details of them admitting guilt, the first time in recent history that a Canadian citizen has been involved in a pretrial confession, a controversial practice in China widely condemned by human-rights groups.
Canada’s relatively open stance toward immigration has made it a favoured destination for people from China. But the close relationship between Chinese Communist Party power and wealth has also occasionally brought the country’s battles over corruption and politics onto Canadian soil as well – and created potentially thorny issues for Ottawa as it seeks to navigate its obligations to citizens against a desire to strengthen relations with the world’s second-largest economy.
Last year, Canadian citizen Xiao Jianhua, a financier to China’s communist elite, vanished from a Hong Kong hotel, and Chinese authorities have labelled Canada one of the top havens for people it calls corrupt. The Chinese bid to bring back those alleged fugitives has raised concern in Canada over the methods employed, including heavy pressure on family members. Mr. Guo has made numerous allegations about corruption and unsavoury conduct among some of the closest confidants of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In saying he relied on forged documents, Chinese authorities are seeking to undermine his credibility, and persuade U.S. officials to return him to China.
It’s not clear how the Chen brothers were brought in by authorities. They were arrested in the provinces of Guangdong and Hunan, authorities said.
Police in Chongqing invited foreign media to the announcement of the arrest, a rare occurrence, and Chinese media carried detailed excerpts of the men’s comments. They said they forged more than 30 national-level documents at the request of Mr. Guo, detailing their techniques and the payment they received.
“The things that we and Guo Wengui did are like a made-to-order process. What my brother and I did was like assembly-line production,“ Zhiheng said, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
It is impossible to verify the men’s accounts. Authorities said they were arrested in February and confessed under arrest. But critics accuse Chinese police and judicial authorities of routinely using heavy pressure tactics – including physical violence, mental deprivations and threats against loved ones – to coerce confessions.
“The suspicion that those confessions were made under duress is, I think, valid because this is a highly politicized case. It’s almost Guo Wengui versus the entire Chinese Communist Party,” said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese elite politics who is a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation, a non-partisan research and analysis firm.
“Certainly, Beijing would hope that Ottawa doesn’t do anything,” Mr. Lam said.
But, he said, ”I think Canadian External Affairs are duty-bound, at least, to find out the facts.”
Complicating matters is that such confessions can be used as instruments of state power.
“When it comes to these confessions involving foreign citizens, almost all of these forced confessions are obviously statements of foreign policy,” said Peter Dahlin, a human-rights activist who himself delivered a confession in early 2016 he says was forced and scripted.
He and others have called for foreign governments to sanction Chinese media who broadcast such confessions, including state outlets with offices in places like Canada.
Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With reporting by Alexandra Li