‘Don’t step out of line’: Confidential report reveals how Chinese officials harass activists in Canada
The National Post, 5 January 2017
By Tom Blackwell – At home in Ontario, his activism barely raised an eyebrow. But when a quiet-spoken Chinese dissident travelled to the country of his birth last year, security officers shadowed him for weeks, booking hotel rooms next to his, even following him to breakfast.
Before he left, they also had a disturbingly direct message: Stop condemning the Chinese government to Canadian media, or the family he had come to visit would face the consequences.
“They said if this (critical) story comes out in the Canadian press, then you are responsible for the life of your relatives,” he recalls.
According to a confidential report submitted to the federal government earlier this year — not yet released to the public — it’s just one example of a sweeping intimidation campaign by Chinese officials against activists here in Canada.
The product of a coalition led by Amnesty International Canada, the report catalogues harassment ranging from digital disinformation campaigns to direct threats.
Targets include Canadian representatives of what the Chinese sometimes call the five “poisons”: the Uyghur Muslim minority, independence-minded Tibetans, Taiwanese, democracy advocates and, especially, the Falun Gong.
“This is not just a matter of occasional and sporadic incidents,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty Canada, one of the organizations behind the report, along with groups representing Chinese religious, human-rights and ethnic minorities in this country. “There is a consistent pattern … a troubling example of a foreign government being very active in Canada in ways that are undermining human rights.”
The threats also seem to be working. The report, which comes just as the Liberal government and business leaders strive for closer economic ties with China, notes a “significant chilling effect” on human-rights activism among Chinese-Canadians.
That includes the Ontario dissident interviewed for this story, who agreed to speak only on condition of total anonymity, and has ceased activism since his trip.
Among those who continue to speak out are Falun Gong organizers. And as recently as last month, emails making grandiose claims about the group — that their leader was “the greatest God in this world, exceeding any others including Jesus Christ” — were sent to members of Parliament. The missives also claimed that MPs such as Liberal Judy Sgro were being featured in the group’s posters.
The emails were purportedly from Falun Gong practitioners themselves, but according to organizer Grace Wollensak, they had nothing to do with the group, and clearly echo Beijing’s propaganda campaign against it.
Seen as a threat to communist party control, China banned the Falun Gong in 1999, and has allegedly jailed, tortured and killed countless practitioners since. Although Chinese authorities often call it an “evil cult,” Canadian experts have described Falun Gong as a new, loosely organized religion emphasizing meditation and “profoundly moral” teachings.
When the fake emails began to arrive a few years ago, says Wollensak, they were easily traced to accounts in China. They’re harder to track now, and some politicians are unaware they are not from Falun Gong.
“It’s really an attempt to disparage the Falun Gong’s followers,” says Sgro, who chairs a parliamentary “friendship” committee with the organization (and keeps getting the emails).
Over the last decade or so, city councilors, mayors and other politicians have certainly tried to quash Falun Gong commemorative events or protests, often under pressure from local Chinese consulates. The former mayor of Vancouver, for instance, publicly ordered the group to stop protesting outside the local consulate in 2006.
Uyghurs in Canada, who number about 2,000, have faced more insidious intimidation, says community leader Mehmet Tohti.
The Muslim ethnic group is at the centre of unrest in China’s Xinjiang region, with human-rights groups accusing Beijing of repressive crackdowns in response to calls for independence and alleged terrorist acts.
Tohti, who founded the Uyghur Canadian Association, believes he too has been shadowed by Chinese agents in Toronto. And he says telephoning kin back home can land them in prison.
When he rang a distant relative two years ago, for example, “immediately she was put in police custody.” “It was in February and she was put outside for two hours,” says Tohti. “They’re punishing me and forcing me to stop doing what I’m doing.”
Experts say such tactics form part of a larger push to influence and monitor Chinese-Canadians, Chinese citizens who study here and Canadian society as a whole — a project active in many other countries, too — that has reportedly swelled under leader Xi Jinping.
The groups behind the report — presented to Global Affairs Canada, RCMP and CSIS officials at meetings in September — want Canadian authorities to take a more coordinated, aggressive approach to the harassment.
Adam Austen, a spokesman for Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, declined to comment on the broad-ranging report, saying the department does not talk about “specific cases.”
But he says any attempt by a foreign government to improperly influence or harass Canadians is taken seriously. “In instances where unacceptable activities by foreign diplomats do occur, appropriate action is taken, up to and including rendering the diplomat ‘persona non grata.’”
One Chinese official accused of harassing Falun Gong was blocked from renewing Canadian credentials. Another was successfully sued for libelling the group. But activists say they are unaware of any Chinese diplomat actually declared persona non grata.
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, activists suggest the long arm of China continues to punish dissents in Canada. Former Miss Canada Anastasia Lin is acutely aware of the collateral damage from criticizing China: After speaking to Canadian media about China’s oppression of the Falun Gong, she was barred from the 2015 Miss World contest in Sanya, and says her father, still living in China, has been intimidated repeatedly by police.
Lin also revealed to the Post that her pageant sponsor — a Toronto dress shop owned by a Chinese-Canadian — dropped her after receiving an admonishing email from the local consulate.
“Most of the Chinese here would have business ties or family back in China, and that itself is holding everything they have in China hostage,” she says. “So people here don’t step out of line.”
Reported by Tom Blackwell for the National Post