Chinese espionage networks operating in B.C., U.S. indictment alleges

The RCMP says it's "aware of foreign interference activity in Canada" and has methods and techniques to combat it

The espionage, according to U.S. officials, is two-fold | Photo: Utamaru Kido/Moment/Getty Images

China’s secret police and espionage networks are allegedly operating in British Columbia, according to an indictment in the United States.

On Oct. 26, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed an indictment against seven individuals alleged to be illegally acting as People’s Republic China (PRC) agents, including in Vancouver.

The espionage, according to U.S. officials, is two-fold. First, it involves Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials calling upon American residents or citizens to covertly, and thus illegally, act on behalf of the People’s Republic of China to coerce overseas Chinese citizens to return to China to face criminal charges.

The espionage may also involve similar tactics to threaten and intimidate CCP dissidents, who are often American citizens. In either instance, threats are made against the victims, as well as their family members and any business arrangements located in China, as leverage to suppress freedom of speech and assembly. 

The documents state American resident Quanzhng An, one of the Chinese nationals charged in the case, was tapped to force the involuntary repatriation of an unnamed man residing in New York. The indictment refers to him as John Doe-1, and states he is accused of embezzling public funds in China.

U.S. officials allege An was working for a provincial wing of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. It works in conjunction with PRC’s Operation Fox Hunt program, which is meant to target corruption.

The indictment says An, a luxury real estate developer and hotel operator in New York, allegedly coerced John Doe’s son to consult with a Chinese national living in Vancouver who had been in a similar situation in 2018.

John Doe and a Vancouver man, referred to as the “Canadian victim” in the indictment, spoke in a phone call this August that was arranged by co-defendant Chunde Ming — one of the 175 members of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the highest-level legislature in China.

During that call, the Vancouver resident told the son about his experience returning to China to report to the International Cooperation Bureau in Beijing. He said his case was quickly closed within 40 days and he was able to return to Canada afterwards and had subsequently not been bothered by anyone. 

He also told the son it was likely John Doe would face continued harassment and threats from PRC officials until he cooperated. 

China’s embassy in Canada did not return requests for comment about the indictment.

The U.S. indictment raises questions about illegal foreign repression and extrajudicial schemes in Canada, says Charles Burton, a former Beijing diplomat and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

“There's no question that there are Chinese diplomats, and agents of the Chinese state, who are very active in our country,” says Burton. “But up to now, we have not developed legislation or regulations to fully come to terms with this.”

The RCMP told Glacier Media it’s “aware of foreign interference activity in Canada, from China and other foreign states” and that it has methods and techniques in place to monitor and combat it.

The RCMP also noted that China, like other countries, does send police officers from the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Public Security to Canada for liaison officer postings or international police training. However, those visiting officers do not have law enforcement officer powers or status while in Canada.

Unlike the U.S., there have been few cases under the Security Offences Act that target foreign interference.

Burton says Canadian entities outside government and law enforcement, such as universities and courts, have had better luck identifying foreign interference, legal or otherwise.

Conservative critic for foreign affairs, Michael Chong, says the Canadian government response has been inadequate compared to allied nations such as the United States.

“There's plenty of evidence that illegal unregistered agents of Beijing have been operating in Canada for some time, coercing and intimidating Canadians,” said Chong. 

Among that evidence, says Chong, are reports from Spain-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders that China has set up illegal police stations in the Greater Toronto Area to harass expatriates. The Chinese embassy has dismissed these accusations, saying the locations are for services such as drivers’ licence renewals. 

The RCMP said they are investigating the Safeguard reports. 

gwood@glaciermedia.ca