Canadians describe surveillance, intimidation and terror ‘under China’s shadow’
For years, Mehmet Tohti has been receiving threatening phone calls from China – the most disturbing of which alleged his mother and various other family members were dead. As a Uyghur activist in Ottawa, he had come to expect intimidation and harassment attempts from his former homeland.
But only recently did Tohti have his worst fears realized, when a Chinese police officer called him in January to confirm the news.
“The attitude was very polite, but the message was clear, and politely they were saying that your mother is dead and your two sisters are dead, your brothers disappeared, and your uncle … is in a hospital bed,” Tohti tells Global News. It is the first time the Ottawa resident has spoken about the revelation.
Tohti lost contact with his mother in late 2016, shortly after he’d become more vocal about the mass detention and abuse of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group from Xinjiang. After that, he says, his mother and 37 of his relatives disappeared.
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He believes now that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is sending him a clear message: “If you continue, you and the only cousin you have could share the same fate unless you stop.”
For many high-profile protesters of the CCP, such as Tohti, harassment and intimidation campaigns have become part of the job. So, too, are threats against family members still living in China. It’s why many Canadians of Chinese origin prefer not to protest publicly and are often too afraid to report incidents to the RCMP – and why the RCMP is struggling to investigate the matter. It also means stories are difficult to corroborate.
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But many allege there are more sinister forces at play. Tohti says that along with being followed and harassed, his activities are being monitored by a network of spies. He does not know how else the CCP would obtain information on his activities and scheduled appearances – which is oftentimes when they call him.
Global News has spent weeks speaking to people who fled China to move to Canada and have since faced intimidation, threats and harassment from authorities in their homeland. Several people have said they were asked to spy on high-profile dissidents in Canada – with their own families in mainland China used as collateral.
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But the Canadian government and the RCMP are well-aware that intelligence-gathering and surveillance are among the tools China uses against critics of its regime.
According to a Canada Border Services Agency document on Chinese espionage, the Chinese Communist Party’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) has been charged with stamping out threats to the regime such as Taiwan independence movements, and it does so partly by monitoring groups.
“The OCAO exerts control over Chinese nationals and relays instructions to various OC communities for the purpose of intelligence gathering against groups identified as threats to the CPC,” said the March 10, 2020 report, classified as “Protected” but filed in Federal Court.
While those perceived threats are usually high-profile activists who have spoken publicly about human rights violations in China and at pro-democracy events, others who have simply attended protests or delivered food to protesters say they, too, have found themselves under Beijing’s microscope.
As a result, the long arm of the CCP is throttling the basic civil rights of Canadians.
‘Your family members are paying the ultimate price’
On Jan. 16, Tohti, the executive director of Ottawa-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, says he received a “chilling” call from a Hong Kong phone number. The man on the other end of the line was speaking Uyghur and identified himself as being from a local unit of the Chinese government.
Tohti immediately started recording the conversation. During the interview with Global News, he plays it back, translating the frenzied voice on the other end.
After being told of the deaths of his mother and sisters and that his uncle was seriously ill, Tohti says he asked to speak with his uncle. He was put on the phone briefly but couldn’t answer many of Tohti’s questions and gave strange answers for the ones he did answer. His uncle said his sisters and mother all died of strokes and that he had also suffered a stroke. The whereabouts of his brothers and the rest of his family remain unknown.
“I asked them to allow our embassy staff to visit my uncle … and to allow him to leave China to have medical treatment in Canada. But they disappeared. They promised to call me back, but they never called,” Tohti says.
Turnisa Matsedik-Qira, a Canadian activist in Vancouver who also has a Uyghur background, says she received a similar call in August 2021 from someone identifying themselves as Chinese police, telling her that her brother, who was in an internment camp, had been killed. She was confused as to why the call came from the police and not her family and has been unable to verify its authenticity.
Tohti, however, has been able to confirm the news. He says he spoke with other family members, who confirmed the deaths of his sisters and mother.
Tohti believes the timing of the January call was intentional because his schedule and activities are being monitored. The final call about his mother and sisters’ deaths came two weeks before the parliamentary vote on the motion to resettle 10,000 Uyghur refugees in Canada, in which Tohti was involved. In 2020, he received a Twitter message telling him his mother was dead, just hours before he was due to speak publicly to politicians about the abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“Here in Canada they follow my schedule, and they know my vulnerability to my family members, and they are using that vulnerability to threaten me,” he says.
“For the truth … you and your family members are paying the ultimate price. That is the reality we are talking about: intimidation, threat, harassment, hijacking your family members and pushing you to live under China’s shadow, even though you are in a free country.”
In fact, one of Tohti’s supporters says he was approached as a prospective spy.
‘They were trying to intimidate me’
Erkin Kurban, a Uyghur refugee living in Montreal, left his home in China’s Xinjiang province in 1999 to escape persecution. Between ages eight and 19, he says he was enslaved at an internment camp in China’s far west.
Now settled in Montreal with three children, Kurban works as a long-haul truck driver, travelling between California and Quebec.
But a seemingly innocuous job and home life did not spare him from what he says was a concentrated intimidation campaign by the CCP for years, one that led him to be recruited as a spy, and culminated in the destruction of his reputation.
“Chinese Communists use this tactic, and they’ve won so far,” Kurban tells Global News through a translator.
“Everyone who goes back and forth (between China and Canada) is subject to such practices.”
Kurban says he met Tohti shortly after arriving in Canada and decided to join in with protests on the treatment of Uyghurs in China.
“When we were inside (China) … we didn’t fully comprehend the situation,” Kurban says.
“But once we were in a free country, after tasting freedom, we understood that we have this capacity.”
In 2008, upon learning his mother was sick, Kurban applied for a visa to return to China to visit her. It was declined. He says he applied several more times until 2013, when he received an invitation to apply for the visa within a week. But it came with a catch.
Kurban’s brother, who works for a government agency in China, received a call from Chinese authorities who referred to his activism and warned him that Kurban’s visa would come with conditions.
“He was told that we know his activities in Canada, he’s against us, he’s doing this anti-China stuff, and we observe him closely. But now, if you tell him that if he co-operates with us, we will issue a visa for him.”
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Kurban accepted the conditions and flew out, his brother picking him up at the airport in Urumqi, Xinjiang. But within two days of arriving, his brother was asked to take him to a security outpost.
He says that once he got there, a Chinese man, dressed in civilian clothes and refusing to show any official identification, took Kurban into a room with four other men inside and began questioning him about his activities in Canada.
“The questions were like, ‘Where do we get support? What do we do in Canada? What kind of objectives do we have in front of us?’” Kurban says.
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“They thought I was hiding something They were trying to intimidate me. They talked very rudely.”
At one point, Kurban says, they took his Canadian passport and stood on it. He was then told that if he did not want to be deported before seeing his mother, he would be required to inform them about anti-China protesters in Canada. They specifically named Tohti, as well as former head of World Uyghur Congress Rabiya Kadeer and Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush.
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Desperate to see his mother before she died, Kurban agreed. But he gave the officials false information by divulging the names of several friends from Kazakhstan instead. He was then introduced to a man who was described as his “handler,” and was told he would be in contact. Ten hours into his interrogation, he was let go.
After visiting his mother, who died shortly after, Kurban returned to Montreal. A week later, he began receiving calls from his “handler” and continued to feed him false information. After six months, the officials stopped trying to contact him, realizing he was being uncooperative.
As a result, he says, accusations were levelled at him for being a spy. Many in his community believed it. To this day, he says, his “reputation in Canada is ruined.”
“The old tactic Chinese use is like divide and conquer, you know, within our exiled community. They would instil this paranoia and mistrust among each other, and accusations fly.”
Like many others, Kurban has not kept evidence to corroborate his story.
However, Kurban says he reported his experience to CSIS in 2014. CSIS did not respond to questions from Global News by deadline.
‘A systematic campaign of intelligence-gathering’
According to the 2020 Canada Border Services Agency report, the CCP views the Overseas Chinese (OC) communities as key to advancing its strategic interests but also as a threat.
“As a result, intelligence gathering against OC and their activities has become an integral part of China’s foreign policy,” said the document.
“Under a systematic campaign of intelligence-gathering, persuasion, influence and manipulation, the CPC has found success in directing OC communities around the world to be supportive of Beijing.”
The report said this amounted to espionage against Chinese communities, and “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Canada and its allies are no exception to OCAO activities.”
Several Canadian charities and non-profit groups are affiliated with OCAO, and their directors have travelled to China to attend events with the organization’s representatives.
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Many people Global News spoke to mentioned fear of their phones being tapped or their activities somehow being fed back to China and to their families. Fear and paranoia abound in these communities. Many did not want to be named for fear of repercussions for their families still living in China.
Hugh Yu, who leads the Democratic Party of China’s Toronto branch, says spying and harassment are common themes of the threats his group receives.
“Almost all the people around me, their families in China are being threatened. They say we know what you’re doing in Canada, you need to stop those activities. A lot of members get scared and walk away.”
‘I have been waiting for this for many years’
The stories of those who say the Chinese government attempted to recruit them as spies bear close similarities. Their family members who remain in China are often used as leverage. And high-profile activists are often the target.
One Toronto man says his family was threatened after he was asked to spy on behalf of the CCP after moving in with prominent Toronto journalist and activist Sheng Xue.
The man, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions, moved into Xue’s basement after arriving in Canada from Shenzhen in 2011. During his time as a tenant, he attended pro-Democratic protests with Xue and parties at her house. Soon after, representatives from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) started visiting his wife, who remained in China with their child, he says.
Officials told his wife he had been doing “bad things in Canada and … he should return to China as soon as possible.” The man says government officials then threatened his wife by saying their “benefits from the government,” such as schooling, could be taken away. His daughter was prevented from getting a passport that would allow the family to reunite in Canada.
MSS agents visited his relatives every three to four months, he says, and at one stage, they sent his wife a voice-text, which she was told to forward to him, saying that if he didn’t stop protesting, perhaps he could “collect some information that we want to know,” including about the Tibetan community in Canada and “who the next Dalai Lama will be.”
He believes another Chinese man, who was also renting a room from Xue at the time and lived between Canada and China, had been reporting his actions back to state security officials. He thinks other “agents” may have infiltrated Xue’s parties too: information he gave to people was often fed back to authorities in China, who visited his wife and questioned her about them. At one party, when asked what he was doing in Canada, he lied and told the person he was an international student.
“The Chinese government visited my friend (in China) and asked how I could get a visa to study in Canada and how did I get the money for it. They asked my wife too.… In summer they asked why I was not coming back for holidays.”
The threats ramped up, to the point where calls were made to his daughter’s school to “monitor her.” Two officials visited his wife, claiming to have documents that proved he was involved in a troubled business and threatened to seize his house.
“I think that was something so bad and very serious.… My family would have nowhere to live.
“(My wife) was crying about that. She felt so scared and (under) pressure. She didn’t understand it because she thought maybe I really did some bad things and (made) the government angry.”
As a result, the man bowed to pressure, stopped his activism and moved out of Xue’s house. His wife and daughter got their passports in 2019 and joined him in Canada.
“Canada needs to be very, very alert about these kinds of situations,” he says.
“I feel lucky that I am in Canada, and it’s not easy for them to physically harm me.”
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For prominent activists, such as Tohti and Xue, who have been vocal about the threat of China without fear for decades, the current spotlight on Chinese interference has been a long time coming.
“I have been waiting for the government and the community and the media to realize how badly the Chinese infiltrate Canada. I have been waiting for this for many years,” Xue says.
And, despite the threats, they refuse to stop campaigning.
“Someone has to pay that sacrifice. And otherwise, if everyone shuts their mouth, it is what the Chinese government wants, and also using our vulnerability to keep our mouths shut and keep doing their evil,” Tohti says.
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