Foreign Influence: China’s Attempts to Interfere With Canadian Universities

A look at a precedent-setting case involving a Chinese student passing on information about other students to the Chinese Embassy
By Limin Zhou, Epoch Times
April 3, 2019 Updated: April 12, 2019

The attempt last week by a Chinese diplomat to prevent an exiled Uyghur activist from talking at a Canadian university is the latest in a string of cases in which the Chinese communist regime tried to exert influence in Canadian universities.

It is yet one more incident in a long-trend of Chinese interference in Canadian educational institutions.

A precedent-setting court case from the late 1990s shows how Canadian laws were used by immigration officials in a case involving Chinese espionage and subversion activities on a university campus.

3 Recent Cases

According to the National Post, last week consul Wang Wenzhang from the Chinese consulate in Montreal sent an email to Kyle Matthews, the executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights at Concordia University, demanding that exiled Uyghur leader Dolkun Isa refrain from talking to students at an upcoming event at the university.

In another recent case, a University of Toronto Scarborough student was the victim of a slew of online abuse after being elected president of the student union because she had spoken out against the Chinese regime’s abuses in Tibet. Toronto police have opened an investigation into the case.

Chemi Lhamo
Chemi Lhamo, a student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, who was recently elected as the president of the student union at the university. (Facebook)

In yet another incident, this time at McMaster University, a human rights event related to Uyghur Muslims persecuted in China was disrupted by a man shouting a profanity at the speaker. Online discussions later revealed that someone had made a recording of the event and passed it on to the Chinese consulate.

Students and Scholars Association

According to the online discussions in the McMaster incident, consulate officials had asked the students to report their observations to the consulate and to get in touch with the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). The association later issued a statement condemning the human rights event, saying it had reported the event to the Chinese consulate and that it would make an objection about it to the university.

CSSAs and numerous other Chinese student associations are known to be closely linked with Chinese consulates, with the websites of many of the associations saying they were founded by the consulate. CSSAs have even been linked with espionage, as was the case with the association at a Belgian university that acted as a front for industrial espionage in the mid-2000s.

In another case in the 1990s and early 2000s, Canadian immigration officials accused Yong Jie Qu, a Chinese student association leader at Concordia University in Montreal, of engaging “in acts of espionage and subversion.” Authorities said he identified pro-democracy students and reported information about them to the Chinese Embassy.

Winnipeg-based lawyer David Matas says permanent residents or those on student visas who engage in acts considered espionage or subversion against Canada can be rendered inadmissible to the country.

CSSA Student Involved in Espionage

Matas points to the precedent-setting case of Qu, whose permanent residency request was denied by a visa officer due to his activities as a leader in a Chinese student association in Montreal.

Qu came to Montreal from mainland China in 1991 to pursue graduate studies at Concordia. Three years later he applied for permanent residency status at the Canadian consulate in Buffalo, New York.

After reviewing Qu’s case, the visa officer rejected his application due to what he said was Qu’s involvement in espionage and subversion of a democratic institution.

Qu was also interviewed by officials from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), showing that CSIS was paying attention to CSSA leaders at least as far back as in the 1990s.

After the rejection of his residency request, Qu applied for a judicial review of the case. Documents from the court, which sided with the visa officer’s findings, show that Qu regularly reported pro-democracy students who were members of the Chinese student association and their activities to the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa. Qu also sought to change the direction of the student association, using funds provided by the Embassy to support activities condoned by the Embassy, to make the association “sensitive to the Chinese government and Chinese officials,” and to conform to the policies and objectives of the Beijing regime.

The court ruled that Qu did, in fact, engage in espionage and subversion at the Concordia Chinese student association, but the court agreed with Qu that the “democratic institution” referred to in the immigration act applies narrowly to “governmental institutions or processes” only and not a student body such as the association, and ordered a review of the case.

Ottawa appealed the judgment, and as a result, the appeal court overturned the lower court’s decision by giving a broader explanation to “democratic institution” referred to in the Immigration Act to encompass institutions and processes that are non-governmental but are part and parcel of the democratic fabric of Canada.

The court sent the case back to visa officers to make the final decision based on whether the CSSA falls into the definition of a democratic organization according to the appeal court decision. Due to privacy laws, it is not clear what the visa officers ultimately decided in Qu’s case.

Matas says when it comes to the Immigration Act, student groups such as Chinese student associations should be considered democratic institutions since that is what their constitutions—based on university student union requirements—calls for.

“In my view, the federal court left it open, but judging from the English text of some CSSA branches posted on the web, they should be a democratic institution as understood in the legislation,” says Matas.

With this classification, Matas says those who are found to be in violation of the laws can be deported.

David Matas, Canadian human rights lawyer.
Winnipeg-based lawyer David Matas in a file photo. (Woody Wu/AFP/Getty Images)

“The democratic nature of that organization has been subverted. Anybody who goes about continuing to subvert it and is not a citizen can be deported.”

Subverting Student Groups

The Epoch Times spoke to J. Li, a former Chinese student association president at the California Institute of Technology. According to Li, who didn’t want his full first name used, CSSAs started to be more established on North American campuses in the early to mid-1980s.

Although the constitutions of most CSSAs follow the norms of typical student organizations to hold elections and follow democratic processes as required by universities, Li says the associations have now become directly controlled by Chinese missions. Many CSSA pamphlets, and even their websites, state that their association was founded by the Chinese consulate or that they are supported by the Chinese consulate or embassy.

However, following the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4, 1989, the control of the Chinese officials over CSSAs slipped for a period of time, as many students became sympathetic to the persecuted pro-democracy students back home. In addition, since they had been overseas for some time and some of them had obtained permanent residency, they were less scared of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) retaliating against them.

Li says this period lasted for about one or two years, and by the early 1990s the CSSAs were back to being fully controlled by the CCP.

A former executive member of the CSSA in Ottawa in the year of 1992/1993, who asked for anonymity, says that after the group held elections, the elected members were invited to the Chinese Embassy for a social event. Later that year when the student association was going to make an announcement about a June 4 memorial in front of the Chinese consulate, the association got a call from the Chinese Embassy telling them not to do so. She says the association has since slipped further under the full control of the Chinese Embassy.

According to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, CSSAs are part of China’s efforts to exert influence in academia. These organizations “alert Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line,” he said in an October 2018 speech.

A 2018 report by Foreign Policy says that many CSSAs officially describe themselves as being under the “guidance” or “leadership” of the Chinese Embassy or consulate. The report, based on interviews with CSSA heads and internal documents, says some CSSAs even vet their membership to ensure only those whose views are aligned with the CCP are included. In the case of universities in the Southwestern United States, the report adds, an umbrella group overseeing CSSAs in these universities requires all CSSA presidential candidates to have approval from the Chinese consulate before elections take place.

Following Australia’s Example

Clive Ansley, a China expert based on Vancouver Island who used to practice law in China, says Beijing has been attempting to infiltrate and exert influence in countries like Canada and Australia for decades.

Clive Ansley, the China monitor for Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada, spoke at a lunch forum on Parliament Hill Wednesday that explored the status of the Chinese judicial system. (Annie Wu/The Epoch Times)
China expert Clive Ansley in a file photo. (Annie Wu/The Epoch Times)

“The government of China has been penetrating and infiltrating the entire societies of both Canada and Australia for many, many years and the Canadian public has no perception of it at all,” he says.

Ansley says Canada should follow the example of Australia, which has recently enacted anti-interference legislation after revelations of the extent of China’s infiltration of political circles in the country.

The new laws require anyone acting on behalf of foreign powers to influence the Australian political process to publicly register their names and provide details of their relationship and activities with the foreign agent.

“Canada should be doing something along the same lines, because Canada and Australia have a similar problem,” Ansley says.

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