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Banking mogul breaks silence to defend against allegations of Chinese interference

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Once lauded as a Canadian immigrant success story, Shenglin Xian, the 68-year-old founder of Wealth One Bank, now can't even get approved for a credit card.

Xian says he has been ensnared by "unfair" allegations of Chinese political interference and forced out of the company he built.

In April, Canada's Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland ordered Xian to divest all his shares in Wealth One and prohibited him from stepping onto bank property.

"I have not been treated fairly. I've been open and I've done nothing wrong," said Xian, breaking his silence to defend himself against the allegations in an exclusive interview with CTV National News.

"It's hard for me to understand what is happening."

MOUNTING PRESSURE, DAMAGING LEAKS

Xian, who became a Canadian citizen in 1993, says he has opened his books to investigators and provided thousands of documents detailing his personal and corporate banking transactions and his family ties in China. But that hasn't been enough to counter the damaging leaks about him.

At the time of the minister's directive, the Liberal government faced growing pressure to call a public inquiry over allegations it may have benefited from an orchestrated campaign by the Chinese government to get Beijing-friendly candidates elected in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Not only is Xian not welcome at Wealth One, but he has also been labelled persona non grata at other banks as well. The entrepreneur said one of the Big Five banks, which he has patronized with his business for more than two decades, recently closed his account. He also showed CTV News an email from a Vancouver hospital, returning his $10,000 sponsorship of its annual gala.

"My reputation is ruined. I don't have a bank account. I donated to a hospital – they rejected me. I applied for a credit card – they rejected me. I have a high income – that's the bitter part."

BICYCLE IMPORTER TO BANKING MOGUL

When he moved to Canada with his wife and daughter in 1990, his first job was selling bicycles that he imported from China. The following year, Xian started selling insurance. Within a decade, he became one of the top brokers for London Life insurance. In 2001, Xian gained national attention after he was asked to join then-prime minister Jean Chretien's trade mission to China.

Xian had larger aspirations beyond insurance. Most of his clients were new Chinese immigrants who couldn't get credit from established financial institutions. To fill that hole, the entrepreneur envisioned a new bank that would allow his customers to use their insurance policies as collateral for loans.

Xian invested $30 million of his own money and convinced his "VIP" clients to invest as well. In 2016, his vision was realized with the incorporation of Wealth One Bank. The Schedule 1 bank now has assets of more than $400 million. But now that achievement has been marred by the events of the past year.

CONFIDENTIAL LETTER MADE PUBLIC

Scrutiny of Wealth One intensified last December after Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Freeland warned in a letter to Xian and the bank's two other founding shareholders – Morris Chen and Yuangshen Ou Yang – that they could be susceptible to coercion by the Chinese government. Freeland also informed the shareholders that they were facing allegations of money laundering from other banks.

The contents of Freeland's letter were leaked to the Globe and Mail and published three months later. The article, widely quoted by other media, also alleged that the shareholders had been under investigation by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) since 2021. The Globe did not identify its sources but said they feared prosecution under the Security of Information Act.

Then in April, Freeland ordered the three founding shareholders to dispose of all their shares in Wealth One.

In Freeland's April 24 letter, obtained by CTV News, she stated that after careful consideration, Xian's continued ownership of the shares "would be contrary to public interest as it would pose risks to the Bank and the broader financial system of Canada."

UNREPORTED PROBES

Joel Etienne, Xian's personal lawyer, calls Wealth One a "symbol of pride in the Chinese-Canadian community." He says he was surprised by Freeland's disposition order because two independent investigations commissioned by the bank found "absolutely no scintilla of evidence" that his client was a conduit for Chinese interference.

"They dug and dug and dug and when all was said and done they weren't able to find anything that suggested impropriety by Shenglin," Etienne said.

The existence of these two audits has not been reported until now.

Etienne said the audits were conducted by a national law firm and an international accounting firm, but an ongoing legal process prevents him from providing more details.

But Xian wanted to emphasize that he voluntarily stepped down from his position as vice-chairman of the bank's board last December to facilitate the probes.

Xian said he provided investigators with more than 4,000 documents, including his personal and corporate financial records, along with details of his political donations.

Investigators probed whether his three sisters in China could be used as leverage against him, he said.

"They're farmers. They have nothing to do with the Chinese government," Xian said.

When asked by CTV if he had ever had an encounter with CSIS, Xian said officials with Canada's spy agency visited him in 2018. During the 10-minute visit, Xian said, the agents inquired about his relationship with certain individuals he didn't know or only had brief contact with.

Etienne pointed out that the process for Wealth One to become a Schedule 1 bank was "arduous," requiring it to clear the highest level of regulatory scrutiny. His lawyer said he is concerned that the government is making his client a scapegoat to counter criticism that it's not doing enough to fight foreign interference.

"Is this discrimination? Racism? Shenglin prays it isn't, but I’m more cynical," Etienne said.

REVEALING THE AUDITS

CTV News asked Wealth One CEO Paul Leonard about the findings of the third-party investigations. In an email, Leonard wrote that the independent assessments confirm that the bank's "operations adhere to all relevant laws, regulations and orders."

However, Leonard said, "We are in no position to comment on the behaviours or actions of individual shareholders as they are distinct from us."

CTV News sought out the reports in order to verify the findings.

After searching court records and reaching out to more than a dozen sources within the government and the financial industry, CTV was able to obtain the two independent audits conducted by investigators at the law firm Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG) and forensic accountants at Price Waterhouse Cooper.

Both reports attempt to address the minister's concern that Wealth One's primary shareholders were susceptible to Chinese interference and money laundering.

THE LAW FIRM'S ASSESSMENT

BLG's investigators said that they could not rule out that Xian could be potentially susceptible because he still had family and business interests in China.

However, the law firm's report stated that there was no "basis in fact to suggest that the Bank has ever been compromised."

The authors also wrote: "We have found no evidence the Shareholders exposed the Bank to foreign-influenced activities or attempted to expose the Bank to being an instrument of foreign interference."

After assessing transactions made through the shareholders' Wealth One accounts, BLG did not find any "reasonable grounds to suspect" money laundering as defined by FINTRAC – Canada's financial intelligence unit.

THE ACCOUNTING FIRM'S FINDINGS

Price Waterhouse Cooper took a deeper dive into the primary shareholders' transactions to address the finance minister's concerns that Xian and his partners were influencing the bank's operations to advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

The 82-page PWC report found that Xian and his partners did not have direct access to customer information, nor did they have input into the bank's day-to-day operations.

Using publicly available election data, PWC also analyzed Xian's political contributions between 2016 and early 2023. Xian donated to both the federal Conservative and Liberal parties, and to candidates running in elections across all levels of government.

In that span of six years, Xian made 37 different contributions totalling $22,125. Xian donated to Conservative MP Michael Chong at the federal level. He contributed to Liberal Charles Sousa in his 2018 provincial campaign. He also donated to then-Toronto city councillor Norm Kelly's campaign.

Xian also donated to the Markham-Unionville Conservative Association and the federal Liberal associations of Don Valley North and Markham-Thornhill.

It was revealed this past spring that parliamentarian Chong was targeted by Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei, who was allegedly gathering information on Chong's family.

After Sousa lost his legislative seat in the 2018 Ontario election, he found a seat on the board of Wealth One. His tenure on the board began in June 2021 and ended in December 2022 – the same month he was elected federally for the Liberals in a byelection.

AN 'EXTRAORDINARY' MEASURE

The two reports that were completed in February failed to assuage the finance minister's concerns. In addition to ordering the severing of all ties with Xian and the other two founding shareholders, Freeland also used her power under the Bank Act to impose new operating conditions on Wealth One.

Under amendments to the bank's letters patent of incorporation, Wealth One was required to move its headquarters to a new location and carry out enhanced background checks on staff. It also had to conduct a network-wide security scan and sweep for unauthorized recording devices or transmitters. Staff were prohibited from using the Chinese social media app We Chat to conduct business.

John Pyrik, a former FINTRAC analyst and CSIS intelligence officer, calls the measures "extraordinary."

Pyrik said the key concern revealed in the new operating conditions is the requirement that the bank ensures its data remain in Canada and comply with applicable privacy and data protection laws and regulations.

"To motivate these actions, the government must have had intelligence that was specific and credible. This speaks to the severity of the threat and shows careful thought on the part of the government," said Pyrik in an email exchange with CTV News.

FIGHTING THE ORDER

Meanwhile, Xian's lawyer Etienne points out that since these allegations first surfaced in December, there have been no charges – only innuendo.

"Canadians want to know that people are treated fairly. Over these past 10 months, there hasn't been anything to demonstrate that Shenglin has not followed industry practices at all his businesses."

Etienne says they intend on fighting Freeland's directive to divest, but are not saying what legal action they are considering. Among their options are suing the government in federal court and launching a human rights complaint.

Katherine Cuplinskas, the press secretary for the finance minister, said it would be inappropriate for the office to comment on any legal processes that may be underway.

In an email, Cuplinskas said the minister "is empowered to act to address risks to any bank in Canada and risks posed to the Canadian financial sector."

Xian acknowledges that his wife and five children are worried, but says he assures them he is not tossing and turning at night.

"I'm sleeping because I'm confident. I didn't do anything wrong."

Correction

This article has been updated to correct the year Shenglin Xian came to Canada.

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