Beijing is always watching

Chinese-Canadians say spies have been monitoring and intimidating them

May 14, 2007

For Mehmet Tohti, it was the Canadian equivalent of the midnight knock on the door. The phone rang in his Mississauga apartment shortly before bedtime, and on the other end of the line was his mother Turmisa, who lives in the northern Chinese city of Karghilik. The sound of her voice was itself a surprise: Tohti, a Uyghur activist who escaped China in the late 1980s, hadn't seen his mother in 16 years, and the two had rarely spoken by phone. But they hardly had time to exchange greetings before she handed the receiver to a man who -- dispensing with all pleasantries, himself -- began scolding Tohti about his political activities.

The official, who identified himself only as a member of China's infamous Overseas Affairs Commission, had a laundry list of instructions. Tohti was to cease efforts to draw sympathy in Canada to the Uyghurs -- the oppressed, largely Muslim population of Xinjiang province that has become a thorn in Beijing's side; he was to stop spreading allegations of cultural genocide against the People's Republic; most importantly, he was not to attend an upcoming conference in Germany where Uyghur groups from around the world planned to form an international congress. "We have your mother here, and your brother, too," he added cryptically, noting that police had driven the pair some 260 km to a regional police headquarters in Kashgar to help deliver Beijing's message. "We can do whatever we want."

Indeed. In the three years since that night, the 43-year-old Tohti has had enough brushes with China's long-armed security apparatus to conclude Beijing's agents are still doing much as they please -- not just in China, but in Canada, too. The incidents have ranged from more such phone calls, he says, to one unsettling encounter last October, in which three Chinese men spent a night watching his suburban home through the windows of a black SUV. The men hung around until about 1:30 a.m., says Tohti, and for days afterward he couldn't sleep. After complaining about the incident to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs, he moved into a condominium with 24-hour surveillance. "I no longer feel secure in Canada," he told federal officials.

He's not alone. The Taiwanese community, Tibetan Canadians and Falun Gong practitioners have all reported incidents of spying or intimidation to federal authorities in the past five years. And while Ottawa has reportedly issued stern warnings to the Chinese embassy, nothing seems to work. With the 2008 Summer Games in the offing, some critics believe Beijing is actually ramping up covert activities against Canadian-based dissident groups to help mute criticism of its human rights record during the Olympics.

Those anxieties rose further in March when Jiyan Zhang, an accountant who worked at the embassy and the wife of a Chinese diplomat, told reporters that staff there had formed a special unit to collect information on groups like the Uyghurs, Tibetans and Falun Gong. Zhang, herself a practitioner of Falun Gong, also smuggled out a document suggesting that the embassy had mobilized a letter-writing campaign to the CRTC in hopes of scuttling the licence application of a Chinese-language TV station it considered anti-Communist. Her husband has been sent home to China in disgrace, but Zhang, who's now claimed refugee status, has kept up her offensive. "I just hope to show that the Chinese embassy was doing bad things," she told the Ottawa Citizen. "I wanted to reveal their lies."

Not everyone, however, is feeling so brave when it comes to tweaking Beijing. Several Chinese expatriates who last week recounted harrowing tales of threats and intimidation asked not to be identified in Maclean's for fear of reprisals against relatives they left behind. Others worried about their own safety -- though there are no known incidents of violence by Beijing's agents on Canadian soil. Nearly all agreed that Canadians need to be better informed about the espionage going on inside their own borders.

Uyghurs, in particular, have been feeling vulnerable in recent months. The surprise arrest of Huseyin Celil, the Burlington, Ont., imam who was sentenced to life in a Chinese prison last month, reminded many how closely Beijing follows their movements. Friends of Celil point out that the 37-year-old participated in several Uyghur demonstrations in front of the Chinese consulate in Toronto, where consular staff photographed or videotaped him each time. Then, in June 2006, he was arrested at China's behest during a visit with his in-laws in Uzbekistan -- a capture so smoothly executed that Celil's advocates believe it must have orginated on Canadian soil. "I've maintained all along that the reason Huseyin came on the radar of the Chinese authorities was because of activities here," says Chris MacLeod, Celil's Canadian lawyer. "Obviously, they monitored him and they knew he was travelling. They certainly don't want other Uyghurs speaking publicly about the cause. I guess this is their way of sending a message."

Since then, members of the 450-strong Uyghur community have meditated nervously on their own stories of intrigue -- some of them as obvious as the surveillance of Celil, some of them much more subtle. Sixty-five-year-old Salim (not his real name) recalls a September 2004 phone call from the embassy's visa office inviting him to Ottawa to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Communist revolution. None of his fellow Uyghurs received the same call, he says, and given his family's long history of defiance toward Beijing, it was easy to impute sinister motives. "They put my son in prison for life," says Salim, whom fellow Uyghurs regard as an elder statesman of sorts. "They've had an arrest warrant out for me since 1997. Why would I want to celebrate anything to do with China?"

Salim's mind raced. Did they plan to arrest him during a party on embassy property? Would they poison him? He now suspects Chinese officials merely hoped to use his presence at the party to blunt criticism they're prejudiced toward Uyghurs. In any case, they had quite cleverly demonstrated they knew where he lived, and they didn't seem to hear his polite refusals: the official called him back three times and a few days later a written copy of the invitation appeared in his mailbox. "I don't mind telling you I was afraid," says Salim.

Efforts to silence those who use the Internet to mobilize dissent against China have been equally crafty, and effective. Kayum Masimov, a Montreal-based organizer for the Uyghur Association of Canada, began receiving emails in 2004 that were so ingeniously disguised as messages from other Uyghurs in Canada that at first he never suspected trouble. Then, after a friend opened an attachment to one, Masimov's hard drive quickly filled with digital dreck. "I've already lost one laptop over this," says the 33-year-old. "Now, if I get a message from someone I know, I phone and ask if they sent it." Proving a connection to the embassy here is probably impossible, Masimov concedes, but he's not the only one who's been hit.

The tactic is known as a "virus assault," and it's become a daily hazard for Chinese dissident groups working in Canada. The messages feature content and senders too unique to have come from garden-variety troublemakers, and are so disruptive to communication that some groups now speak only in person, or by phone. Dermod Travis, executive director of the Montreal-based Canada Tibet Committee, submitted two infected emails his group received last fall to a private company for analysis, and has since been advised that the messages originated in China. The emails were tailored to look as though they were sent by Tibetan activists, he says; one even contained bogus registration forms for an upcoming international conference. The question is how the saboteurs obtained his group's address list. "This goes beyond the generic stuff you see in standard viruses," says Travis. "It would require some effort on the part of someone here in Canada."

All this said, it has taken Canada's spy agency an uncommonly long time to point a finger at Beijing, or any other meddlesome government. For years, CSIS has stuck to its policy of not naming countries it investigates, while victims who report incidents often never hear back from the agents who take down their stories. As late as last week, spokeswoman Barb Campion was sticking to the script, saying CSIS does investigate reports of foreign interference but avoiding specific mention of China. (As for leaving complainants hanging, Campion cited operational reasons: "Individuals come to us all the time, but much of what we find is going to be classified and we're not going to be able to share it.")

CSIS director Jim Judd was a bit more forthcoming before a Senate committee on Monday, acknowledging that Chinese operatives account for nearly half the service's domestic counter-intelligence work. "It's surprising, sometimes, the number of hyperactive tourists we get here and where they come from," he said, referring to the use of visitors as spies. But he provided little detail about the breadth and scope of China's activities, and even less in the way of reassurance. "As one of my foreign counterparts said once, in this business you spend most of your time worrying about what you don't know," he said. "That would certainly apply here as well."

The disclosure sent a buzz across Parliament Hill -- and presumably through the Chinese embassy (repeated calls by Maclean's to the mission went unanswered, as did calls last week to Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay). But to those paying close attention, Judd was merely corroborating numerous anecdotal reports of Beijing stretching its tentacles throughout Canada's expatriate Chinese community. In June 2005, for instance, a former Chinese security official who sought asylum in Australia alleged that the Chinese government had roughly 1,000 spies operating in this country -- many of them monitoring Chinese students and scientists who are here on visas. Less than a month later, Guangsheng Han, a 52-year-old former security official, came forward in Ottawa to say Beijing was cultivating informants here to keep watch on dissidents. "They're very interested in what happens in the ethnic Chinese community in Canada," he told Canadian Press. "They pay a lot of attention."

Uyghur activists, meanwhile, proudly wield a 1996 directive leaked last year from the Chinese Communist Party, which appears to show that China's strategy of interference and infiltration is at least 10 years old. The memo, known as Document No. 7, instructs officials in foreign missions to "establish home bases in the regions or cities with high Chinese or overseas Chinese populations" and to "collect information on related developments." "Be especially vigilant against and prevent by all means the outside separatist forces from making the [Uyghur] problem international," it says.

None of this should come as a surprise to those who follow China on the world stage, says Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation. "All countries have an interest in monitoring the activities of overseas nationals," he notes, "as well as activities that affect the homeland." And while the relatively large size of Canada's 1.6-million strong Chinese community make it an attractive espionage target, it is by no means unique in having Chinese spies on its soil. The good news, says Woo, is that China is quickly learning the value of charm and spin. "They're becoming more sophisticated," he says. "They're starting to use the tools of soft power."

Perhaps. But those who feel the eyes of Beijing upon them today say that China has a long way to go. The case of Celil is an extreme example of how determined Communist authorities are to silence their critics, they note, and while the kinds of tactics they appear to have at their disposal are by no means an option for Ottawa, nipping them in the bud will almost certainly require equal resolve. The first step, of course, is admitting we have a problem.

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M.Tohti Uyghur Canadian Association 416 825 8641