Hong Kongers say they're being targeted by Chinese agents on Canadian soil
TORONTO -- “We know where you are. We’re coming to get you.”
The person on the other line of Cherie Wong’s Vancouver hotel room phone repeated that threat multiple times, until she hung up, stunned.
It was January 2020, and Wong – who’s executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong -- had travelled from Toronto to Vancouver to host a series of events surrounding the imminent launch of the pro-democracy group.
Out of an abundance of caution, Wong’s room was booked under another name by a member of the group – but they found her anyway.
"They" being suspected agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to Wong and her group.
“Two days after the launch, very early in the morning, I received a phone call on my hotel landline to say ‘we know you’re there, this is your room number, we’re coming to get you,’” Wong said in an interview with CTVNews.ca. “I hung up the phone after a little bit when they kept repeating the same words, and…I shook. I shook sitting there and there were no tears, there was no screaming, it was just a calm, silent panic that went through my body.”
“I can still feel just how horrified I was. They knew where I was…it was just fear in that moment.”
Wong is one of many Hong-Kongers and other East Asian diaspora who say they have felt directly threatened and harassed by what they believe are CCP agents operating domestically in Canada.
The abuse has been ramping up since the major Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the subsequent implementation of the mainland’s National Security Law.
Officials have taken the rare step in recent years to directly label China as a “significant concern” for Canada – with intelligence agency reports painting a grim picture of how the CCP operates within the country.
But for Wong and other activists, their day-to-day lives are significantly affected by foreign influence, with their safety - and the safety of their family and friends overseas – directly on the line.
Wong said that in the past year, Hong Kong activists have experienced “countless harassment incidents, online attacks and physical altercations” with agents and individuals that they believe are acting on behalf of the Chinese government.
“A lot of the times when we do try and seek help from law enforcement, we are getting bounced between departments,” Wong said. “We're told to call 911. We get connected to the local police who then say this is a foreign policy issue, [and] send us to RCMP, who say there's nothing we can do for you, and they send us to CSIS, and CSIS sends us [back] to the local department.”
Wong said the experience of being “bounced around” between departments and agencies feels like there is no one listening to them.
“I don’t think that any of these agencies are equipped to deal with foreign harassment operations…often these cases are not criminal offences, but they border on this grey zone where its somewhere between criminal harassment and a civil dispute,” she said. “Without that nuanced lens to understand that this harassment is actually targeting human rights activists – the activists suffer.”
CANADA’S 'FOREIGN INFLUENCE' PROBLEM
Stephanie Carvin, an ex-Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analyst and associate professor of international relations at Carleton University, said that Canadians have long been a target of foreign interference.
“Canada has long had a foreign influence problem. It's happened for decades, it's not just China, and I think we don't really have an infrastructure for dealing with it because we've always seen it as a foreign problem,” Carvin said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca
“We're seeing this a lot,” Carvin continued. “We've seen this against Tibetans. We've seen it against Uyghurs in Canada, and now we're seeing it against Hong Kong activists as well.”
Mimi Lee, a member of the Toronto Hong Kongers Action Group, said she was followed after a protest in 2019 in front of City Hall.
“All the police officers had already left, I was alone because I was going back to my car,” Lee said in an interview with CTVNews.ca. “I felt that person following me…so I had to run around and try to get away from them.”
Lee said she did not file a police report for that instance, as she “had no evidence” and that it was “too scary” to turn around to take a picture.
Two members of the pro-democracy group Halifax- Hong Kong Link, who CTV News has agreed not to name due to their fear of reprisals, also spoke of the fear they live with on Canadian soil.
One member said they had tried to reach out for help to Halifax police and a local MP, but that it was “hard to describe why you're being followed and why you've been put on propaganda.”
Describing a 2019 Halifax pro-democracy rally, the member said their small group of about eight protesters were “surrounded” by “50 to 60” pro-mainland counter-protesters.
“For at least eight hours, [they were] chanting the Chinese national anthem, booing at us and taking our pictures,” the member described, adding that in messages and articles circulated online afterwards in places like WeChat, the pro-democracy group were called “separatists,” and that the mainland group had “corrected” them “on their thoughts” and showed “what loving China is.”
The member specified they did not suspect all of the pro-mainland rally goers of being CCP agents, but said there is an expectation for Chinese-Canadians to attend on behalf of the mainland’s interests.
Carvin said situations like that are hard for law enforcement to investigate as intimidation because “how do you prove that someone is motivated by clandestine foreign influence purposes?”
However, Carvin agreed that China’s “foreign interference” is often implemented in “exactly the kinds of activities [the activists] are describing.”
Another member of the Halifax-Hong Kong Link who travelled to Hong Kong to participate in the 2019 pro-democracy protests, says they’re “wary of being watched,” and never show their face in public when protesting as they’re “afraid of being found out.”
Both Wong, Lee and the other activists interviewed by CTVNews.ca mentioned “bystanders” coming to pro-democracy protests and filming or taking close-up photographs of the activists – something they say is used by the CCP to put pressure on relatives overseas.
“Since the National Security Law was put in place in Hong Kong, we can see a lot of people censoring themselves,” Lee said. “They are afraid their friends and family would be affected.”
Lee said its “very likely” the people taking pictures “work for the Chinese state and they want to create some terror.”
Hong Kongers are all living a double life in Canada Lee, said. “We have our life as a normal citizen…but then we are living a second life, concerning what's happening from where we came from.”
Carvin said one of the most successful tactics foreign governments use when it comes to intimidation is the fact “people feel very alone.”
“They feel like they have no one to turn to…that feeling of isolation makes them more vulnerable,” she said. “The best you can do is contact the police, but often those threats come from overseas, so there's very little enforcement that can be done.”
“I do not feel safe here,” Wong said. “Every decision I make surrounds my own safety…I'm worried when I send a text message to my family back home that that message would contain something that would endanger my family's safety.”
Wong said she knows of activist colleagues who have been violently beaten on the streets overseas because they “were walking home alone.”
“I'm afraid that would happen to me and I don't think the police or the government could protect me from that kind of violent attack,” she said.
Despite living in Canada, Wong said that activists like her are afraid to go outside and to protests, as once their photographs are taken, someone “pays a visit” to their families overseas.
“They’ll say ‘your cousin or your daughter just came to this protest, you should tell them to stop,” she said.
OPERATION FOX HUNT
The intimidation tactics the activists describe are part and parcel of the playbook used by CCP agents in service of missions like “Operation Fox Hunt,” which has been running since at least 2015 and is operated by Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security.
Operation Fox Hunt originally was part of China’s anti-corruption crackdown to hunt down party officials labelled as “corrupt” who fled the mainland in droves.
But FBI Director Christopher Wray said in October 2020 that the core mission had changed to include a “sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi and the CCP to target Chinese nationals” globally “who are viewed as threats to the regime.”
The comments came as the FBI announced charges against eight people, including three Chinese nationals, accused of “acting at the direction and under control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government…to harass, stalk, and coerce residents of the U.S. to return to the PRC as part of a global, concerted, and extralegal repatriation effort known as “Operation Fox Hunt,” according to a press release.
The release details the tactics used against the U.S. victim, named only as John Doe.
Agents coerced John Doe’s elderly father to travel from China to New York to use his surprise presence “to threaten and attempt to coerce John Doe’s return to the mainland.” Other agents harassed John Doe’s daughter over social media and attempted to hire a private investigator to find out her location in order to photograph her to exert pressure on her father, according to the release.
In the 2020 security report released by CSIS, the agency confirms that a “significant concern are activities by threat actors affiliated with the People’s Republic of China” that seek to “leverage and exploit critical freedoms” from communities who often “fear state-backed or state-linked retribution targeting both themselves and possibly their loved ones in Canada and abroad.”
In a statement to CTVNews.ca, CSIS said that that fear “can force individuals to submit to foreign interference.”
The organization reiterated that such actions by China and other state actors are illegal and are an attempt to “undermine Canada’s sovereignty.”
In a public speech to the Centre for International Governance Innovation in February, CSIS chief David Vigneault reiterated the danger posed by China, telling Canadians they are being “aggressively” targeted by “activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”
Vigneault acknowledged Operation Fox Hunt’s presence in Canada, “which claims to target corruption but is also believed to have been used to target and quiet dissidents to the regime,” he said.
Carvin said the fact that Vigneault publicaly named China marks a big shift in the intelligence community, calling it “a huge change.”
“This is done carefully,” she said. “When an agency actually names the actor engaged in malicious activity, they have to coordinate across government and get high levels of approval - it's effectively making foreign policy if you're accusing another country of hurting you.”
Carvin said the way Canada’s intelligence agencies have talked about security for the past two decades is changing to recognize “the long game” is the “threat to our economy and intellectual property from foreign interference.”
“The goal is to not just amplify Beijing's views, but to suppress anyone who speaks out against those views,” she said.
Vigneault also said in his speech that those who feel threatened by China’s attempts to silence dissension can report instances to law enforcement agencies – but Wong said the resources are simply not there.
“We have been screaming and yelling about how we are being bounced between departments with not one single person taking us seriously - that feeling is exactly why our community has given up on reporting these types of incidents,” Wong said.
The RCMP has touted their National Security Information Network hotline as a direct way Hong Kongers can report harassment, but Wong pointed out that the community can’t access the resource as “the information is not available in our languages.”
In Wong’s case – she “did what she was supposed to do” and called Vancouver police and filed a police report, but she said the response was, “there was nothing they could do.”
“I never even met the responding officers who came to the hotel… I was feeling unsafe in that hotel room for hours before my own community members were able to come and sit with me,” she said, adding that she has never received an update or follow-up on the incident.
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, the RCMP declined to answer specific questions about the activists’ allegations, writing that the agency is “aware of foreign actor interference activity in Canada, from China and other foreign states.”
The RCMP would not go into specifics, but said “various methods and techniques are in place to combat foreign actor interference.”
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) said while they were bound by the Privacy Act and could not give specific details on whether someone had been removed from or denied entry to Canada because of intimidating or threatening someone on behalf of a foreign political party – they could disclose they had removed “183 individuals to China who were deemed inadmissible on serious criminality grounds” over the past 10 years.
The CBSA said people removed from Canada on the grounds of “criminality” have either “been convicted in Canada of a criminal offence, or they have either been convicted of, or have committed, an act in another country that would constitute a criminal offence in Canada.”
Lee says part of the pressure that Canadian Hong-Kongers face is messaging from the CCP that regardless of their passport of nationality, they are “Chinese first.”
“When the Chinese government is in our faces saying that we are first and foremost a Chinese, whether or not you hold a Canadian passport, it's really stepping on our rights being a Canadian,” Lee said. “If the Canadian government is not doing anything to protect us from that message, you see how the Chinese government is effectively ‘ruling’ over the globe, even though we are not on Chinese land.”
Executive Director of Community Family Services Ontario Anna V. Wong (no relation to Cherie Wong) says that the CCP messaging of being “Chinese first” is part of a wider discourse the party uses to justify its actions in Hong Kong and in Canada.
“By imposing an identity onto someone, it’s meant to show them that this [country] is not secure, they want everybody to believe they belong to them,” Anna Wong said, adding that she identifies as a Canadian who was born in Hong Kong.
“I don’t identify myself as a CCP Chinese and I would say this is a hijacking process of the concept of patriotism,” she said.
Among the CCP messaging being dispersed globally is the reality of the crackdown on dual nationality within Hong Kong’s new political and social landscape.
In February, a dual citizen of Canada and China who has been held prisoner in Hong Kong was recently forced to choose between their two nationalities, Global Affairs Canada said, an escalation of tactics used by the CCP for some time.
After the U.K. announced a special pathway to citizenship for Hong Kongers who hold a British National (Overseas) passport, China retaliated by promptly derecognizing the specially-issued passports as valid travel documents.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam also confirmed in February that dual nationality was not recognised in Hong Kong, in line with Chinese nationality regulations – meaning Hong Kongers with dual nationality were no longer entitled to foreign consular assistance.
Global Affairs Canada recommends that any dual nationals looking for help from the government in Hong Kong never identify themselves as Chinese, and instead should “present themselves as Canadian to authorities at all times.”
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not answer queries on specific allegations levelled by the activists, responding with a one-line response to CTVNews.ca that “such allegation has no factual basis at all, it is nothing but self-hype and malicious slanders, attempting to sabotage prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Xizang [sic].”
‘YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME’
While Hong Kongers have been scrambling to take advantage of the government’s new pathway to Canada, many here are struggling with their own complex feelings of saying goodbye to Hong Kong – a place they say they no longer recognize under CCP rule.
“I can for sure tell you I won't go back to this place…it's not the place that I know - Hong Kong is a DNA that comes with the package of values, including freedom, human rights, freedom of press, freedom of speech,” Anna Wong said.
Cherie Wong said the day the national security law was implemented was the day that she accepted she will “never go home again.”
“I want to say I’m sad, but really I'm angry,” she said. “I am more angry than I've ever felt before. The regime took away my family's home, my grandparent’s home, and now they have taken away my home. It's a motivator for me to keep on doing the work I do, but knowing that I can never go home again, it's soul crushing.”
Wong said the threats facing Hong Kongers in Canada are from the same source, just in different forms.
“In Hong Kong, they live in fear that the door knock that they are hearing is the police coming to come and arrest them,” she said. “Here the fear is a slow-burning kind.”
“I don't want to discourage any Hong Konger from coming here… but don’t think that once you're here, you're free - there's nothing stopping the regime from coming after you here, just the conditions are different.”
Others pro-democracy activists have echoed the same grim warnings.
“When you come over to Canada, don't think that you're going to have a good life in terms of getting away from the Chinese government's arm, because we have so much infiltration and interference from the Chinese government - our fight is even more important,” Lee said.
A member of the Halifax Hong Kong Link said they do not want Hong Kongers to “regret” their decision to leave, but said it will come at a cost.
“If you have decided to come to Canada, you have to know you cannot go back.”
Individuals who feel under immediate threat should contact the police of local jurisdiction. They may also report foreign interference activities to CSIS by telephone (613-993-7620 or 1-800-267-7685) or on CSIS’ web page under Reporting National Security Information.
Individuals may also contact the RCMP’s National Security Information Network by phone (1-800-420-5805) or email.
Edited by Philip Hahn
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Canadian Border Services Agency.