Cherie Wong was asleep in her hotel room when the phone rang.
It was January 2020 and the 25-year-old from Ottawa was on a trip to Vancouver. She’d just wrapped up a busy week for the launch of a new activist group called “Alliance Canada Hong Kong,” which accused the Chinese government of cracking down on human rights in Hong Kong and against its Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang.
Wong’s Vancouver hotel room had been booked for the event by a colleague under a different name and she hadn’t told anyone where she was staying, which is why it seemed strange when the hotel phone rang at 7 a.m. She answered it anyway.
“The voice on the phone just kept saying, ‘I’m coming to get you, we’re coming to get you.’ They identified my room number, they identified me by name and just repeated, ‘we’re coming to get you,’” Wong recalled.
“When I hung up, I just sat there in silence and the fear overcame me, the thought that someone knows where I am, knows who I am. And like they said, they’re coming to get me.”
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On Episode 6 of the podcast China Rising, we’ll investigate claims from Canadians who say they and their families have faced threats, harassment and surveillance for speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party.
On Feb. 9, 2021, the director of CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, issued a rare public warning about a covert campaign by the Chinese government targeting Canadians.
“These activities are different from the norms of diplomatic activity, because they cross the line by attempting to undermine our democratic processes and threaten our citizens in a covert and clandestine manner,” David Vigneault siad.
“To be clear, the threat does not come from the Chinese people, but rather from the government of China that is pursuing a strategy for geopolitical advantage on all fronts.”
Vigneault specifically pointed to China’s ‘Operation Fox Hunt,’ which was launched by Beijing in 2014 as an anti-corruption campaign to target wealthy Chinese citizens and Communist Party members who had fled overseas.
But both CSIS and the FBI recently warned the operation is also being used to crackdown on dissent in foreign countries, typically targeting the Chinese diaspora.
Wong grew up in Hong Hong and moved to Canada about 10 years ago. In 2019, she took part in rallies in Canada supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and gave an interview to a local radio host. She said that’s when she started receiving abuse on social media.
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“It was almost an onslaught, a wave of online harassment,” she recalled. “Death threats, rape threats, the amount of online violence almost immediately after each press interview has confirmed my family’s suspicions and the kind of whispers I grew up to: The moment you speak out against the (Chinese Communist) Party, there will be consequences facing you.”
But at the time, Wong said she mostly shrugged it off, chalking it up to a bunch of angry online Twitter trolls; until that January morning in 2020, when the phone rang in her Vancouver hotel room.
“And that was a very clear indication that I am being threatened. This is a threat to my personal safety because of the work that I do,” she said.
Wong reported the incident to Vancouver police, but says she was told the phrase “we’re coming for you” didn’t constitute a clear threat to her safety.
Vancouver police told Global News they investigated and concluded no threats were made. In a statement, a police spokesperson said, “the hotel had previously been having problems with scammers phoning customers in their rooms, and it’s possible this was another scam call.”
Wong said complete strangers have since taken photographs of her while in public, including once while she was waiting at her local bus stop. When she questioned the person, she said, they took off.
Photographs of Wong then appeared online in chat groups, on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, along with other personal details.
“My phone number, my email, where I usually show up in my city, like my neighbourhood, that kind of information, was being circulated in these WeChat groups to say, ‘Look out for this, “race traitor” when you see her on in these regions.’”
“I am scared out of my mind like every day,” she said.
Wong said some of the alleged harassment and intimidation comes from ordinary, patriotic members of Canada’s Chinese community who feel “like they need to protect the motherland’s reputation.” But she also believes she is being targeted by a Chinese state-sponsored campaign.
In May of this year, Wong and her group, Alliance Canada Hong Kong, presented a report to Canadian the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations.
It’s called “In Plain Sight: Beijing’s Unrestricted Network of Foreign Influence in Canada.” The report covers a range of issues and accuses the Chinese Communist Party of conducting a campaign of surveillance and intimidation targeting the Chinese diaspora and dissident communities in Canada.
“The CCP has increasingly decided these overseas communities are a threat to the regime,” she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Canada said China has “never conducted and will never conduct any interference or infiltration against another country,” calling the Alliance Canada Hong Kong report “arrant nonsense.”
The Chinese Consulate
However, there have been cases involving surveillance, harassment and intimidation in Canada, where an alleged link to Chinese government officials is difficult to deny.
In February 2019, a Uighur Canadian named Rukiye Turdush was invited to give a speech at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ont. Turdush grew up in China and moved to Canada in 1998, where she became a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority.
Turdush had been giving presentations to various religious and community groups in Ontario, when she was invited by a Muslim Student Association to speak at McMaster. The title of the talk was “The Genocide of Uyghur Muslims.”
Turdush said more than a hundred people attended, including several individuals who appeared to be of Chinese ethnic origin. Turdush said one of those students, who identified himself as Chinese, recorded a video of her presentation.
When it was over, she took questions from the audience and asked students what they thought of her speech. The Chinese student said she had no right to speak at McMaster, called her a traitor, yelled “f– you” and stormed out of the auditorium. Video of the exchange was recorded by another student and posted online.
In an separate outburst during the presentation, Turdush said a different student also shouted in Mandarin that she was garbage.
“Then he left. I said, OK, he’s Chinese. That’s why he’s saying that. And I ignored him. I continued my speech. I didn’t stop,” Turdush told Global News.
“Of course, I was upset, but I continued my speech and I came back home and I didn’t do anything. The next day, they published the statement.”
A statement posted online the following day and signed by McMaster’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association condemned what it described as Turdush’s “absurd anti-Chinese” presentation. The statement also said the group had informed the Chinese Consulate of the situation.
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And that’s not the only time the consulate is mentioned in regards to the presentation. Screenshots of an online WeChat group, which were shared with Global News, show a conversation in Mandarin between several people discussing and condemning Turdush’s talk.
Members of the chat group claimed to be in contact with the Chinese consulate. They were encouraged to attend and to disrupt her presentation, which it appears is exactly what they did.
They were also told to record video of the talk, which they also did. And it appears that video was then uploaded and shared with the same WeChat group.
And they also discussed Turdush’s son. At the beginning of her presentation, she mentioned her son was a first-year student at McMaster. Someone in the WeChat group said they should find out who he is.
“I was angry. I’m getting crazy, because why are they looking for my son? That makes me sick,” Turdush said.
Both the Chinese consulate and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association denied having any contact about Turdush’s presentation.
But McMaster’s student union government suspended the Chinese student group’s funding and status for one year, citing concerns that members had reported campus activity to the Chinese government.
In a statement appealing that decision, a lawyer for the Chinese Students and Scholars Association said the group did not contact the consulate, despite what its earlier statement claimed.
The Chinese students’ club blamed a former McMaster student, who it said contacted the consulate about the event without consulting the group’s members. McMaster’s student union government rejected that argument and upheld the suspension.
Stories of harassment against those who speak out against the Chinese Communist Party aren’t uncommon, though rarely are they accompanied by written evidence of possible coordination with Chinese officials.
The extent to which Chinese diplomats are allegedly involved in surveillance and intimidation on Canadian soil is unclear and a matter of intense debate.
“We are allowing them to run around this country and try to dictate how Canadians live their lives,” argues Jonathan Manthorpe, a veteran foreign correspondent and author who has written extensively about what he calls Beijing’s “covert campaign of influence and intimidation in Canada.”
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“In Canada, they’ve used agents of influence in academia and in government to gain access to Canadian technology; they’ve used them it gain access to Canadian resources; And they’ve also used it to be able to control, as far as they possibly can, the 1.5 million Canadians of ethnic Chinese heritage. And this, I think, is really one of the most alarming and disgusting situations.”
Manthorpe notes there are about as many Chinese diplomats in Canada as there are from the United States. The U.S. is by far our largest trading partner, responsible for about three-quarters of Canadian exports, while China is a distant second at around four per cent.
“There is no need for the Chinese Communist Party to have the number of diplomats that it does here, unless many of them are what is known as ‘two-hatted’ — that they are, in fact, espionage agents. And we’ve seen a lot of their activities among Chinese students in Canadian colleges and universities.”
But those allegations of Chinese agents spying on Canadians have also stoked paranoia and racism against anyone seen to be sympathetic toward Beijing, according to Fiona, a Vancouver resident who asked us not to reveal her last name. She’s in her 30s and moved to Canada from China in 2012.
“As an immigrant from mainland China, I moved to Canada because I love it here more, of course, but it doesn’t mean I should hate China,” she said. “I just cannot believe why Chinese immigrants must hate China or be anti-China to be a good Canadian.”
Last year, Vancouver police reported 98 Anti-Asian hate crimes, an increase of more than 700 per cent. So last March, Fiona helped to organize an anti-Asian racism rally in Vancouver. She and others were targeted with online abuse from other members of the Chinese community, apparently because they hadn’t directly invited any groups that are openly critical of Beijing.
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Fiona says she’s been targeted with abuse and accused of being an agent of the Chinese government.
“I was shocked. I was heartbroken,” she said. “None of my family members, including me, have any relationship with the Communist Party of China.”
“I’m not anti-China and I’m not pro-China; I would criticize Chinese government when they failed in something, such as the beginning of the pandemic. But I’m happy to share my experience in China. It was not that evil, as people imagine here.”
Leo Shin, a professor and Chinese cultural historian at the University of British Columbia, said many Chinese Canadians are afraid to share their political beliefs with anyone.
“Not knowing whether your friends and your neighbours and your acquaintances are monitoring you; we don’t know, nobody knows, but it’s the possibility of that, is also what makes it work.”
Shin disagrees with claims that Chinese diplomats are quietly pulling the strings behind the scenes, but says Beijing has shown a keen interest in fiercely controlling the narrative both at home and abroad.
“I don’t think the consulate is giving direct orders, but it is clearly interested in promoting the story of China. And the wider community, the Chinese community here and even the Chinese students, they are aware of the interest of the consulate, they are aware of the interest of the Chinese government.”
And those who dare to challenge Beijing’s version say they’ve faced the consequences, particularly Canadians who still have family members living in China, such as Anastasia Lin.
The 31-year-old professional actress and human rights activist was born in Hunan, China. From a young age, her mother encouraged her to become involved in student politics. She was a fiercely patriotic leader in the Young Pioneers, the youth branch of the Chinese Communist Party.
But after her parents divorced, Lin and her mother immigrated to Vancouver when she was 13.
“The education, of course, is very different and it took me a very long time to learn about the society,” Lin explained. “I think that’s something that people who’ve lived in the West most of their life sometimes can’t really understand, is that people who’ve moved from authoritarian society into a free country usually don’t just adjust so readily to the ideas, the freedom, the democracy; And it does take a few years and a person’s active research and learning to understand society.”
After a while, Lin’s mother encouraged her to read Canadian and other Western newspapers and she came across a story marking the anniversary of Hong Kong’s so-called “June 4th incident” — the day, back in 1989, when student protesters took to Tiananmen Square and the Chinese military responded with a brutal bloody crackdown. Any mention of the events of June 4, 1989, is strictly censored within China, so it was all news to Lin.
“I was totally shocked. So I went online and watched more videos,” she said. “It sort of changed my worldview completely. And I did more research after that.”
That research included talking to human rights protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver and meeting members of religious and ethnic groups who claimed to have been persecuted in China.
Lin is a classically trained pianist and worked in Vancouver as a piano teacher; One of her students was a member of China’s Uighur minority, whose family had fled to Canada.
“And I was totally surprised to learn that they have a totally different identity than the one that I was taught about them in China,” she said.
“So after learning about all of that, I wanted to be able to channel their stories, because I realized that a lot of them — although living in Canada — because of their language barrier, they don’t really have a proper way to tell their stories. But they really have heroic stories to tell. And so I wanted to find a platform. And then I was inspired by a former Miss Canada and then I joined the Miss World Pageant.”
In 2015, Lin was crowned Miss World Canada and she used the platform of the beauty pageant to speak out about alleged human-rights abuses in China.
The winner of the annual pageant earns a chance to compete on the international stage at the Miss World competition, which in 2015 was hosted by China.
As contestants from more than 110 countries danced onto the stage for the opening ceremony, “Miss Canada” Anastasia Lin was notably absent.
Lin was denied a Chinese visa to attend the month-long pageant. The decision to ban a beauty pageant contestant made international news.
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa declined to comment on Lin’s visa application but in a statement said, “China welcomes all lawful activities organized in China by international organizations or agencies, including the Miss World pageant. But China does not allow any persona non grata to come to China.”
“I was a bit surprised because it’s a big government. They really didn’t have to do that to a 25-year-old beauty queen,” she said. “Because there were so many media that were following the story at the time, it was sort of a big humiliation for them. If they were trying to save face, which is I think what they were trying to do, they sort of did the opposite thing.”
At first, Lin welcomed the international attention and the chance to do media interviews highlighting the human rights concerns that had apparently got her banned in the first place.
But then suddenly, Lin went quiet. She stopped doing interviews or speaking publicly at all, after her father, who was still living in China, received a knock at the door from the Chinese state police.
“National Security Guard state agents came and told him that if I don’t stop speaking about politics or human rights-related things, then my family would be persecuted like in the Cultural Revolution,” she said. “He wanted me to, just don’t put my family in such a situation by speaking up.”
“We might live in Canada but because our family and business are back home, there’s really nothing, no guarantee that they will be safe. The Communist Party can do anything to them and there’s nothing we can do.”
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She says numerous other family members in China were also threatened; some claimed a dozen police officers arrived on their doorstep, demanding information on Lin and their relationship, including relatives whom Lin has never met.
Eventually, Lin resumed her advocacy work, believing that decision to speak out might actually protect her father by keeping a spotlight on her family’s situation.
Lin also claims some of her sponsors in Canada, including a dressmaker, ended their business relationship, claiming they’d faced pressure from the consulate.
“The Chinese government does not really recognize, because you have a Canadian passport or a US passport, therefore, you are a U.S. citizen and or Canadians, protected by that country. They think all Chinese ethnicity belong to them. And so if you are Chinese descent, then too bad they’re going to use your family inside China.”
Lin hopes that sharing her story will empower others to do the same.
But Cherie Wong, the Hong Kong-Canadian and human rights campaigner, isn’t holding her breath.
“So many of my peers are so afraid. They’re unwilling to show their face. They’re unwilling to say, like, I am pro Hong Kong democracy, even publicly to their friends or family, because they’re so scared that their activism would land them in trouble. And that’s exactly what I experienced.”
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