The government of New Zealand says it has known from the beginning that a police-owned company was behind a visa-processing centre in Beijing, an arrangement defended by Western governments including Canada, but criticized as “shockingly naive” by a prominent scholar of Chinese overseas influence.
The Beijing visa application centres (VACs) used by New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Ireland and other countries are operated by Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, which is owned by the Beijing Public Security Bureau but under contract to VFS Global. Headquartered in Zurich and Dubai, VFS holds a wide-reaching contract to provide visa-processing services around the world for the Canadian government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week he has asked his immigration and procurement ministers to ensure the Canadian government can guarantee the safety of its visa-application system after The Globe and Mail reported on the police ownership, based on Chinese corporate registry and court documents. Beijing Shuangxiong describes itself on China’s National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System as a provider of “contract visa outsourcing services” to New Zealand, Canada, Britain and others.
But New Zealand, which is a member alongside Canada of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, says it has known all along about the police ownership of Beijing Shuangxiong.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) “was aware from the outset that the Beijing Public Security Bureau has a stake in this FMC’s parent company, which is a matter of public record,” John Mitchell, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. (FMC refers to a facility management company.)
The Globe asked the offices of Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand, as well as their departments, whether Canada had also known this from the outset. Mr. Mendicino’s office referred the matter to Public Services. Public Services did not answer the question but it did say: “Canada is aware of the situation regarding concerns associated with ownership of subcontractors within the visa application centre network within China, and is working closely with Immigration … to review and monitor the situation.”
The Globe also asked why Canada had not disclosed the fact that the office is run by the Public Security Bureau to applicants. Mr. Mendicino’s press secretary Alex Cohen said the Immigration department informs applications that “visa application centres are private companies that have contracts with the Government of Canada.”
VFS Global’s involvement in the processing of Canadian visa applications in Beijing goes back to 2008. Guy Saint-Jacques, a former diplomat who served as Canada’s envoy to Beijing between 2012 and 2016, said he had no idea that Canada’s Beijing visa centre had links to the Chinese police.
In New Zealand, however, the government’s acknowledgment of its prior knowledge prompted questions.
Knowingly using a company owned by the PSB is “shockingly naive,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand specialist on Chinese Communist Party domestic and foreign policy who is a global fellow at the Wilson Center.
“I have had several people contact me in recent years raising concerns about New Zealand visa processing in Beijing, saying they did not feel safe and that it had somehow been infiltrated by the CCP,” the Chinese Communist Party, she said. People such as Tibetans have told her about unexpected hostility while applying for visas to New Zealand.
Police ownership of the visa centre means “anyone who has ever spoken up against the CCP, or been imprisoned and tried to leave the country will be able to be targeted by the PSB and prevented from leaving,” Prof. Brady said.
She called it “absolutely terrifying news for the New Zealand Chinese community.”
Beijing Shuangxiong is not the only choice for foreign countries seeking visa application services in Beijing. At least two other companies in the city provide such services for foreign countries, including Beijing Dongfang Tianxiao Entry-Exit Service Co. Ltd. and Beijing Ballino Investment Consulting Co. Ltd. Ballino is owned by the Ministry of Public Security.
Dongfang is owned by several individual shareholders, a Shanghai industrial firm and the tourism arm of state-owned CITIC Group. Dongfang provides visa services for Germany, Australia, Norway, Sweden and others.
Democratic countries have an obligation to look seriously at alternatives to a Chinese police-owned company, said Robert Potter, a cybersecurity consultant in Australia who has worked as an adviser to the Canadian government. If there’s a visa centre “down the street that doesn’t have as many spies in it, wouldn’t due diligence tell you that’s the better choice?” Mr. Potter asked.
Mr. Mitchell, however, said he understood “the company VFS partnered with is the one they were told by the Chinese authorities they had to use.” Immigration New Zealand had “no concerns” that Beijing Shuangxiong could provide access to confidential information by Chinese security services. “There is no access to confidential INZ data or systems, nor any influence on visa decision-making,” he said.
“Completed application forms filed at a VAC are digitized, encrypted and sent to INZ via a secure portal operated by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment,” Mr. Mitchell said. In addition, he said, “VACs do not handle applications for residence and humanitarian visas, which are sent directly to INZ in New Zealand.”
The Canadian government has similarly said applications in Beijing and elsewhere are handled “according to Canada’s privacy laws” and the service providers have pledged not to interfere with visa applications. “As set out in the contract, VACs are expressly forbidden from providing any visa-related advice to applicants or from making any type of determination on their application,” Department of Citizenship and Immigration spokesman Rémi Larivière said.
VFS spokesman Peter Brun has 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.”
“Individuals or local companies having a stake in the FMCs that you described have no access to visa application data and no influence on the integrity of the visa-application process as defined by any client government we serve,” he said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.