Former CSIS agent warns students of consequences of spying
Lingdi Zhang said she felt a chill on Sept. 26, 2005, when she opened her email inbox to find a message from an officer of a university club she belonged to.
"According to reports from some other students and the investigation done by the association's cadre, you are still a Falun Gong practitioner," read the email, warning her to "watch out" for herself.
It was a sobering moment. Countless Falun Gong adherents in mainland China had received similar threats, and hundreds—if not thousands—went on to face torture and brainwashing after being turned in by fellow students and teachers.
But Lingdi Zhang does not live in China. The then-computer science student was studying at the University of Ottawa. The email came from Chris Xu, the vice-chair of the school's Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA), who added, "The University of Ottawa Chinese Students' Association is under the direct leadership of the Education Office at the Chinese embassy in Canada."
And it's not the only one. In an article appearing in Chinese Scholars Abroad , a periodical targeting overseas Chinese students, a Chinese embassy official wrote that the embassy's education department was responsible for overseeing the Chinese students' associations in 22 universities and colleges in six Canadian provinces. Associations in other parts of the country are purportedly watched over by Chinese consulates in those regions.
For the most part, the Chinese missions' involvement in the associations appears benign enough: providing funds or tickets to student groups for special events, writing reference letters for students, awarding scholarships, and so on.
But it comes with some strings; namely, the associations are commonly called upon to act at Beijing's behest to extend policies of political repression against groups like Falun Gong – a meditation practice persecuted in China. Failure to toe the party's line, even in Canada, can have severe repercussions for Chinese students.
In April 2006, an email sent from a "Li Qin," who claimed to be a special agent for the Chinese public security bureau, warned members of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at the University of Calgary not to attend a weekly movie show organized by the university's Friends of Falun Gong club.
"Please do not attend this activity," Li warned. "Otherwise your name and photo will be submitted to Central Government."
The email scared many Chinese students away, says Jenny Yang, then-president of the University of Calgary Friends of Falun Gong Club. "A lot of my Chinese friends received the email and said they were afraid to continue coming."
Such incidents are not surprising to David Harris, the former director of strategic planning at Canada's spy agency, CSIS, but they are disturbing.
"This constitutes a profound interference in Canadian academic life–it is undesirable in the extreme," says Harris, who notes that Canadian legislation seriously restricts even CSIS's operation on university campuses.
"If you don't want your own [security agents there], you certainly don't want an influence there that is essentially alien and hostile to free expression and discourse."
The threats against University of Calgary students and U of Ottawa's Lingdi Zhang mirror a recent incident at Columbia University in New York. There, the school's chapter of the CSSA posted statements on their website advocating that Falun Gong practitioners and presumably anyone else who dared "offend" the Chinese communists be "executed."
The club's constitution notes that it has been "reviewed" by the consulate general in New York. Until a few weeks ago, its advisory board had only two members, both officials from the Chinese consulate.
Harris does not doubt that behind such statements is influence from the Chinese regime.
"Chinese missions abroad in the West try to treat Chinese student groups as marionettes. In some cases, they attempt to persuade, guide and shape the policies and activities of Chinese student groups. This is in line with many other invasive initiatives," he says. "The purpose of their interference is to spy and to influence illicitly."
Chen Yonglin, who served as first secretary of the Chinese consulate in Sydney before defecting in 2005, says nearly all the overseas Chinese students associations have been established by the education department in Chinese missions in the host countries. Along with keeping a watchful eye on ethnically Chinese students, Chen says one of the primary objectives of the associations is to lobby western governments and institutions to support the Communist Party's policies, such as its repression of groups like Tibetans and Falun Gong.
"Often, it is not convenient for the Chinese mission to do certain things. So to use student organizations, with a neutral name, is more effective," explains Chen. "Such groups are in fact controlled by the Chinese mission and are an extension of the Chinese communist regime overseas."
New Tang Dynasty Television's application for a license to broadcast in Canada was a case in point. A leaked Chinese embassy document obtained by The Epoch Times revealed the embassy's intention to derail the network's application. NTDTV has earned a reputation for reporting prominently on the Chinese regime's human rights abuses. The embassy report, dated March 17, 2005, was penned by the embassy's culture section head, Chen Pengshan, and signed off by then-ambassador Lu Sumin. It discussed rallying Chinese student groups, among others, to write to Canada's media watchdog, CRTC, to oppose the application.
Not long after that, the president of the Chinese Students Association at the University of Ottawa wrote to CRTC urging the watchdog "not to allow the channel to be listed and further distributed to the local communities." Nearly identical letters were sent from other groups close to the Chinese regime, including the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, profiled recently in another Epoch Times report.
In 2004, the University of Toronto Chinese Students and Scholars Association (UTCSSA) wrote to the City of Toronto council urging them not to pass a motion that would have recognized a Falun Gong Day in the city, again after the Chinese consulate had sent a similar letter.
Evidence of the ties between the Chinese missions and student groups, many of which are called Chinese Students and Scholar Associations (CSSA), is often not hard to find.
Reached last week, Michael Huang, a prominent former leader of the CSSA at the University of Toronto and an organizer of pro-Beijing activities there, did not deny that the student groups receive embassy and consulate funding when asked. "You should talk to the current heads of the student organizations," said Huang, who is now an advisor in the office of Ontario Citizenship and Immigration Minister Mike Colle.
But many Chinese student groups are more candid.
The first sentence in the introduction of Lakehead University's CSSA on its website says: "LUCSSA is the only Chinese students association that is recognized by the Chinese embassy."
In its recruitment ad, the CSSA at University of Waterloo openly states it operates under the supervision of the Chinese embassy in Canada.
The University of Toronto's CSSA states on its website that it receives funding from the Chinese consulate in Toronto. The equivalent organization at the University of Western Ontario expresses repeated thanks on its website to the Chinese embassy for the provision of funds.
At Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the CSSA lists the local Chinese consulate as its main sponsor and lists the primary task of the association's president as soliciting funds from the consulate.
According to Chen, students are drawn to the associations with the prospects of favourable reference letters from the consulate or embassy about their behaviour overseas, funding for activities, as well as perks like scholarships and tickets to entertainment events. In exchange, the Chinese missions direct the associations to create a favourable impression of the regime overseas.
Ahead of Chinese leader Hu Jintao's visit to Canada in Sept. 2005, the CSSA at Simon Fraser University called on members to join in lining the streets to welcome the Communist leader in what it called a "grand holiday with special meaning."
"This is a very important assignment, as well as an extremely noble glory," the notice read.
After Hu's trip, the students who joined the welcome group were invited to a dinner reception at the Chinese consulate in Vancouver where they were thanked. A leaked Chinese consulate document also suggested each participant had been paid $30.
Members of the University of Toronto Chinese Students and Scholars Association were flown to mainland China in July 2005 where they toured communist party landmarks. The trip was sponsored by the Toronto Chinese consulate, the Communist Party Youth League of two Chinese universities, and the communist party's official media, Xinhua and the People's Daily.
After the students returned to Toronto, UTCSSA expressed thanks for the consulate's "great support" and held a forum at the University of Toronto to share what they'd learned with "all interested students and scholars."
But while advocating for the Chinese communist regime in Canada may garner premiums, it also has consequences.
Chinese students caught spying can be expelled, while citizens can be prosecuted, a CSIS spokesperson told The Epoch Times.
In November, The Epoch Times reported that Wang Pengfei, the second secretary in the Education Office of the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, had been forced to leave Canada after he was caught spying on Falun Gong practitioners here. His application for visa renewal was denied, according to our report. The essence of the story was later confirmed to a Canadian Press reporter by staff at the Prime Minister's Office.
A source connected to the Chinese embassy later told The Epoch Times that Wang had in fact been declared persona non grata and expelled, a penalty that would make it difficult for Wang to work in another Chinese mission overseas.
Harris warns Chinese student leaders that involvement in spying activities could lead to more than just expulsion.
Once they involved illegal activities, they could be blackmailed for their life into further and more extensive activities by the Chinese government," says Harris.
Referring to the examples of communist regimes that collapsed seemingly overnight in Eastern Europe, Harris said, "this regime's days might be numbered. This could mean that one day Chinese intelligence reports spill out with the collapse of the government and expose former Chinese agents to prosecution and disgrace."
Additional reporting by Anna Yang. With files from Matt Gnaizda and Madalina Hubert.