Amid a week of raging controversy over allegations of political interference by the Chinese government in Canadian affairs, information has emerged that raises new questions about the relationship between two Quebec non-profit organizations and the Chinese state.
The RCMP announced Thursday they are investigating two more alleged Chinese “police stations” — operations located in Canada that some have claimed are being used to harass and intimidate those of Chinese descent.
The latest two entities to face scrutiny, accused of hosting the bogus police-stations, are a pair of non-profits in the Montreal area.
The administrator for both — Li Xixi, a Brossard city councillor — has reportedly told local media the sites have no connection to the Chinese Communist Party.
However, material uncovered by the Star seems to call that assertion into question.
In tracing the history of the two organizations, the Star has learned that one was designated an Overseas Chinese Service Centre by Beijing more than six years ago.
Chinese media says such “service centres” are meant to “build a network for overseas Chinese to help each other around the world.”
But, critics point out the designation comes from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, a group that has been linked to espionage in this country, and, further, the label reportedly comes with funding from the Chinese government.
The RCMP are focused on two organizations for newcomers to Canada — Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal and the Centre Sino-Québec de la Rive-Sud located in Brossard, a suburb south of Montreal.
A 2016 news story on the China News Service platform, “Overseas Chinese website,” includes a photo of Li receiving a plaque for the Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal designating it an Overseas Chinese Service Centre.
The woman in the photo giving Li the plaque is Qiu Yuanping, then the director OCAO, according to the article.
Charles Burton, a China expert with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, said OCAO’s purpose is to try to encourage people of Chinese ethnicity to show loyalty to mainland China.
“This office feels they have a mandate to engage with any persons of Chinese ethnicity regardless of their citizenship,” Burton said.
Burton said there are concerns about some of the outreach done by OCAO, such as inviting Chinese-language newspaper editors to information training sessions in China.
OCAO became part of mainland China’s United Front Work Department, a department tasked with forwarding the agenda of the Communist Party of China, in 2018.
In January 2022, a Federal Court judge agreed with an immigration officer in a court case that touched on concerns that an immigration applicant had worked for OCAO.
The applicant was seeking judicial review of a denied permanent residence visa over the concerns. The officer was concerned about OCAO conducting espionage against the United States and gathering information on Chinese Canadians in Canada among other issues, according to court documents. The judge ruled the concerns were valid and dismissed the application for judicial review.
The second location identified by RCMP this week, the Centre Sino-Quebec de la Rive-Sud in Brossard, is listed as a service centre by OCAO as well, though no similar photos of a ceremony or news story were found by the Star.
There are four such service stations listed in Canada, including the two Montreal operations.
Chinese media reports say operations designated by the Overseas Chinese Service Centre program, which began in 2014, receive funding from the Chinese government.
“The ‘Chinese Help Center’ system is (a network of) non-profit organizations funded by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) of the State Council of China,” an article in China Today reads. “Its operation relies on fundraising and promotion by local overseas Chinese community groups and overseas Chinese leaders, and some of them support the centre’s operation by setting up a foundation.”
Benjamin Fung, a professor at McGill University and a representative of Action Free Hong Kong Montreal, a pro-democracy group, said he has concerns about whether such organizations are being used to gather information on newcomers for the Chinese government.
“We often know the Chinese government is watching us,” Fung said, “we just do not know where they are.”
He said concerns about monitoring of Chinese residents in Canada have been ignored by authorities for “about the last 20 years.”
The Montreal sites are not the first to draw scrutiny for allegedly being “police station” operations. Similarly suspected operations are being investigated in Vancouver and Toronto. The Canadian operations are allegedly part of a global network.
Last fall, the Spain-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders released a report alleging China was opening covert police stations around the world. The report said the stations were being used as bases to harass people accused of crimes in China in a bid to get them to return to resolve them, but also to silence outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing has insisted the centres are used for basic tasks, such as helping Chinese residents renew driver’s licences.
Meanwhile, Brossard Mayor Doreen Assaad said she has sent messages to Li asking her to step aside while the RCMP investigation plays out, but has not heard back from the councillor. Li did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Star for this story.
On Friday, meanwhile, Beijing lashed out at Canada over the uproar.
Canada should “stop sensationalizing and hyping the matter and stop attacks and smears on China,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily briefing.
“China has been … strictly abiding by international law and respecting all countries’ judicial sovereignty,“ Mao said.
He did not comment explicitly on the allegations about police stations.
RCMP Sgt. Charles Poirier said he couldn’t comment on the investigation but did say concern throughout the Chinese community has been expressed.
“What we know, though, is that the community is afraid. … We know that the M.O. of those Chinese police stations is to put pressure and to threaten, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, some Chinese community members, either threatening them directly or people still in China — relatives or friends,” he said.
With files from The Canadian Press