The RCMP says it’s investigating Chinese “police” stations in Canada.
This comes after the Spain-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders reported that more than 50 exist worldwide, including three in the Greater Toronto Area in predominately Chinese communities.
They include a residential home and single-storey commercial building in Markham and a convenience store in Scarborough.
”In most countries, we believe it’s a network of individuals, rather than … a physical police station where people will be dragged into,” said Laura Harth, a campaign director at Safeguard Defenders.
“It’s completely illegal under international law. It’s a severe violation of territorial sovereignty.”
In a statement to CBC in response to questions about these stations, the Chinese embassy said local authorities in Fujian, China, had set up an online service platform to assist Chinese nationals abroad.
“Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, many overseas Chinese citizens are not able to return to China in time for their Chinese driver’s licence renewal and other services,” read the statement. “For services such as driver’s licence renewal, it is necessary to have eyesight, hearing and physical examination. The main purpose of the service station abroad is to provide free assistance to overseas Chinese citizens in this regard.”
The embassy said the overseas service stations are staffed by volunteers who are “not Chinese police officers” and are “not involved in any criminal investigation or relevant activity.”
But Safeguard Defenders said there is evidence individuals connected to these stations have been involved in persuading nationals suspected of committing crimes to return to China to face criminal proceedings.
Foreign states may ‘intimidate or harm’ communities: RCMP
CBC News has not been able to corroborate that, but in a statement, the RCMP said it’s “investigating reports of criminal activity in relation to the so-called ‘police’ stations.”
The RCMP also said it takes “threats to the security of individuals living in Canada very seriously and is aware that foreign states may seek to intimidate or harm communities or individuals within Canada.”
“This is an outrageous intrusion on Canadian sovereignty,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong.
These stations are … another tool that Beijing can use to repress Canadians here in the Chinese community in Canada.– Conservative MP Michael Chong
“We’ve heard of threats directly targeting people who are advocating for minority rights in China, such as those from the Uyghur and Tibetan communities. These stations are now another tool that Beijing can use to repress Canadians here in the Chinese community in Canada,” he said.
“The government needs to take immediate action. At minimum, they should be hauling the Chinese ambassador to Canada on the carpet through a formal demarche and strongly voicing our outrage.”
Pursuing fraud suspects abroad
The statement from the Chinese embassy did not address the reports of intimidation, but earlier this year, China’s state-run newspaper Global Times reported that 230,000 people suspected of telecom fraud were “persuaded to return to China from overseas to confess crimes from April 2021 to July 2022.”
In September, China adopted an Anti-Telecom and Online Fraud Law with the aim of tackling telecom and online fraud in China and abroad.
“There may be those that are guilty of economic crimes. We also know these kinds of campaigns have been used to target dissidents, critics of the regime, even those within the Communist Party … those that might have stood up to [President] Xi Jinping himself,” said Harth.
“These kinds of operations go from harassing and threatening family members back home to sending covert agents abroad to approach the target directly and coerce them into returning home,” she said. “[The] worst-case scenarios are those where they even lure or entrap people to a third country, from where they can have them returned — or even kidnappings.”
At a House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations on Oct. 4, Chong questioned Global Affairs officials about the existence of the police stations reported in media outlets.
“There is space for legitimate police liaison co-operation, state to state,” said Weldon Epp, director general of North Asia and Oceania at Global Affairs, in response to Chong’s question.
“But the allegations reported in the press would fall well outside of that, and we would have deep concerns if they proved to be true.”
Epp said Global Affairs was working with partner agencies to confirm the allegations.
CBC reached out to Global Affairs and Public Safety Canada for comment, but both federal agencies deferred to the RCMP’s statement.
Dissidents fear being targeted
Journalist and human rights advocate Sheng Xue moved to Canada after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to flee repression.
She said she’s been repeatedly targeted by Chinese officials online for her activism and was arrested in Beijing in 1996 when she traveled there to visit her mother, as well as in Hong Kong in 2008. In both instances, Xue said she was forced to leave after being detained.
“They want to destroy my reputation. But since I am in Canada, they cannot just kidnap me or kill me, like many of my friends in Thailand or Vietnam [or] Hong Kong,” she said. “[But] now the Chinese police station [is] here, just a few kilometres from me, so I am asking myself, where else I can escape to?”
Xue said some Chinese nationals in Canada may choose to co-operate with Chinese officials out of fear for family members back home.
Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush says many members of her community in Canada are afraid to publicly criticize China’s actions toward the Uyghur Muslim minority because of possible repercussions for family in China.
“They live in Canada [and] they can’t freely speak up like me,” she said.
A 2021 report drafted by the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank concluded that China “bears state responsibility for an ongoing genocide” against Uyghurs.
It detailed serious abuses, including mass internment, family separation and forced sterilization and abortions. China has denied the allegations, claiming the crackdown on Uyghurs is about countering extremism.
Turdush fled China’s western Xinjiang region in the 1990s after her brother was killed by Chinese soldiers for protesting against Chinese influence in the region.
Turdush said several Uyghur students in Canada told her “they were intimidated by Chinese police online and [the police] threatened them, threatened … to return [them] to China.” She said she doesn’t know where they are located because the harassment happened virtually.
Turdush said that out of fear for their safety, she hasn’t communicated with members of her own family back home for more than 20 years.
“I cut the connection,” she said. “I never communicate with anybody because if I communicate with them, maybe they’re going to be in trouble over there.”