Alberta Man Who Helped ‘Underground Railroad’ in China After Tiananmen Massacre Recalls Horror, Looks Ahead With Hope

Alberta Man Who Helped ‘Underground Railroad’ in China After Tiananmen Massacre Recalls Horror, Looks Ahead With Hope
Joseph Shi, a city councillor of Cremona, Alta., from 2013 to 2023, in a photo taken in 2013. (Courtesy of Joseph Shi)
Andrew Chen
6/9/2024
Updated:
6/12/2024
0:00

It was Sept. 15, 1989, just months after police opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in what the world now knows as the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre. Joseph Shi was huddled in a Cold War-era bunker in Kunming, China, along with other young people, devising a plan to smuggle student leaders out of the country through an “underground railroad.”

One night, however, police burst into the bunker and seized them as they slept. But Mr. Shi says he was strangely calm. “After the courageous things we had seen in the previous months, I wasn’t really fearing anything,” Mr. Shi, now living in Alberta, told The Epoch Times.

The Chinese regime is even more repressive now, he said, but he has hope that today’s youth will resist and that the spirit which drove the students in 1989 remains alive.

“I still see people from every generation speaking out, even though they face harsher consequences now than back then. So I haven’t lost hope. I think China is going to wake up,” Mr. Shi said.

Despite decades of propaganda from the Chinese communist regime brainwashing the Chinese people, “someday [the lies] will be proven to be all false and people will realize they have been cheated, victimized, and treated like slaves,” he said.

“When they wake up from those things, I believe China will still be a better place.”

As the world marks the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre this year, Mr. Shi reflects on his past ordeals and the future of China—a land he has left behind but which he hopes will one day be freed from communism. He also urges Canada to be vigilant as Beijing extends its long arm of interference here, the country that offered him refuge.

Since 1989, Mr. Shi has endured seven years in a Chinese jail, found belief in God in Thailand, obtained sanctuary in Canada, and served three terms as a city councillor in Alberta, where he experienced what he believes to be election interference from Beijing. His story is detailed in his autobiography, “Amazing Grace Journey,” published in January 2024.
The front and back covers of the autobiography of Joseph Shi, a former city councillor of Cremona, Alta. (Courtesy of Joseph Shi)
The front and back covers of the autobiography of Joseph Shi, a former city councillor of Cremona, Alta. (Courtesy of Joseph Shi)

Early Years

Mr. Shi was born to a peasant family in Jiangsu Province in the 1960s. He yearned for a free and just China even in his youth.

Emerging from the devastating Cultural Revolution, the Chinese communist regime’s injustice and corruption were widespread, particularly affecting the poor. Mr. Shi recalled listening to radio broadcasts such as those from Voice of America and Taiwan’s Central Broadcasting Station as a youth. He also kept a diary expressing his anti-communist thoughts, which led to punishments by the authorities.

“The news and commentaries from these broadcasts gave me a lot of inspiration, and I gained an early understanding of concepts such as human rights, equality, democracy, and freedom,” he wrote in his autobiography.

His activism grew in the late 1980s as China experienced waves of student movements calling for democratic reforms in the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In April 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang, a high-ranking politician and reformist within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ignited widespread mourning and calls for political reform in the country. Students and citizens gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand democratic change and an end to government corruption. The protests turned bloody when Party leadership deployed troops who opened fire on the protesters.

Mr. Shi wanted to join the protests in Beijing, but he and his friends were detained on April 22, 1989, while travelling to the capital. They were not released until June 5, a day after the incident.

While in custody, they were allowed to watch broadcasts by China Central Television, which showed the unfolding events in Beijing. Deeply affected by the authorities’ brutal suppression of the students, Mr. Shi later travelled to Shanghai, where he and other students devised a plan to establish an “underground railroad” to help student leaders escape the country. At the same time, the students decided to form a pro-democracy opposition party.

Reflecting on the name they chose for the party, the “China Democratic Communist Party,” Mr. Shi now considers it “naive.” “Democracy and communism could never coexist,” he said.

Exile

To advance the underground railroad idea, Mr. Shi headed to Kunming City in Yunnan Province. There, he was arrested for his activism and, in March 1990, sentenced to eight years in prison.

Released in 1997, a year early after confessing to his “crimes,” Mr. Shi still faced constant surveillance and had to regularly report to the police. He struggled to find stable work and decided to flee the country.

His exile led him to Burma (also known as Myanmar) and later Thailand, where he ultimately found courage and belief in God.

Upon arriving in Thailand, he was detained in an immigration centre for entering the country illegally. But despite the challenges, he experienced a series of miracles, obtaining United Nations refugee status in the end, with the assistance of a Canadian pastor, a Catholic church, and the U.S. diplomatic mission.

He also reunited with his girlfriend in Thailand. The couple married there in 1998 and then resettled in Canada in 2000.

‘A Duty to Give Back and Help Others’

Reflecting on his life’s journey thus far, Mr. Shi expressed gratitude for the blessings he has received, which continue to motivate him to advocate for freedom and democracy.

“I don’t think I deserve this much privilege. It is God who gave me these opportunities and blessings,” he told The Epoch Times. “I think I have a duty to give back and help others.”

After arriving in Canada, Mr. Shi eagerly engaged in the democratic process. It led to his election in 2013 as a councillor in Cremona, a village in south-central Alberta with a population of about 440.

His success as a candidate of Chinese heritage garnered attention from Chinese-language media and, subsequently, from the Chinese regime. In his autobiography, Mr. Shi recounted how his younger brother, who was still residing in China at the time, faced harassment and suppression by local authorities.

Eventually, his brother managed to flee China with his family, obtained refugee status in Thailand, and arrived in Canada in 2016.

Suspected Foreign Interference

Even in the village of Cremona, Mr. Shi himself experienced what he believed to be election interference from Beijing.

When he was first elected, Chinese-language media gave him coverage like they did other candidates. However, during his re-election campaign in 2017, the media stopped coverage at the municipal level, affecting even other candidates of Chinese descent in Alberta, he said.

Mr. Shi said he was also targeted four years later while running for re-election for a third term, including by the spread of disinformation against him. One case involved a letter that was distributed to Cremona residents in September 2021, about a month before the municipal elections that year, containing claims that Mr. Shi was a fake Christian and had abused his councillor position for personal gain.

Photos of the two-page letter was provided to The Epoch Times by a local Cremona resident, who requested anonymity due to concerns about personal safety.

A letter distributed to residents of Cremona, Alta., in September 2021, a month before that year's municipal elections, containing false allegations against then-councillor candidate Joseph Shi. The letter was provided by a local resident, who said Mr. Shi was a valued member of the village and had the support of Cremona residents. (The Epoch Times)
A letter distributed to residents of Cremona, Alta., in September 2021, a month before that year's municipal elections, containing false allegations against then-councillor candidate Joseph Shi. The letter was provided by a local resident, who said Mr. Shi was a valued member of the village and had the support of Cremona residents. (The Epoch Times)
The resident also had a video of the individual delivering the letter, captured on a security camera. Mr. Shi subsequently posted the video online. The footage shows a man who appeared to be of Asian descent, wearing a black jacket, black cap, and black mask, being dropped off from a vehicle and distributing the letter door to door.

“The person is definitely not from Cremona. We do not have a high population of Asian families in the area,” the Cremona resident told The Epoch Times. “I have also never seen that type of vehicle in the area. It looks like a Mitsubishi and no one drives that kind of vehicle out here.”

“We happily support [Joseph] as he is a valued member of our village. He has been nothing but kind to us,” the resident added.

Mr. Shi said he reported the incident to the RCMP. He said his MP also referred to his experience in Parliament in 2023, amid investigations at the time into allegations of Beijing’s interference in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Conservative MP Earl Dreeshen touched on the case during House of Commons debates on May 9, 2023, while addressing Beijing’s intimidation campaign against his fellow Tory MP Michael Chong.

“We know that there were election irregularities where members of the Chinese diaspora were being targeted and told not to vote for particular candidates during the last federal election,” Mr. Dreeshen said.

“I know an amazing entrepreneur and community advocate of Chinese descent who was targeted in the last municipal election in my riding of Red Deer—Mountain View, where lies and disinformation were commonplace. It is a real problem.”

‘We Need to Be Alert’

Mr. Shi extends a warning to Canadians to remain vigilant, touching on his realization in his youth that democracy and communism could never co-exist.

“Even in a democratic system, we need to watch out and we should never trust anybody who thinks they can save the people with socialism or communism,” he said.

“That would never be achievable. Anyone who tries to lure us down that road is just leading us with an evil purpose. So we need to be alert. We should never let that happen.”