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Canadians who say they were targeted by Beijing slam David Johnston: ‘Another day of being unheard’

By Joanna Chiu Staff Reporter

May 23, 2023

Canadians who say they have been targeted by China expressed anger at Tuesday’s decision by former governor general David Johnston to reject a formal inquiry into foreign interference, saying that “toothless” public hearings will be unlikely to lead to action.

Johnston rejected calls for a public inquiry, saying it would be impeded by the need to keep classified intelligence a secret.

“I have concluded it would not serve a useful purpose to enhance trust,” Johnston said, but added he would use his mandate to hold public hearings on how Ottawa can best respond to foreign interference activities in Canada.

Activists expressed frustration that Canada seems to be no closer to putting forward concrete legislation to counter foreign interference or tools to increase transparency, such as a foreign agent registry.

It has been more than four months since Chinese police in Xinjiang called Mehmet Tohti, a Canadian Uyghur human rights advocate, out of the blue.

“They told me that my mother died, and my two sisters are dead and it’s time for my cousin to pay the price. The message was basically that my family paid a heavy price (for my advocacy) and if I don’t stop, my cousin will be in danger,” Tohti told the Star.

He says it was one of numerous “menacing” calls he has received and dozens of his family members in Xinjiang have disappeared since 2017, likely to the Chinese state’s internment camps in the northwest China territory. He worries that his advocacy in Canada meant they suffered more than they would have.

Tohti called Johnston’s decision “a mistake,” and argues the existence of a special rapporteur for foreign interference in the first place reflects government inaction and “incompetence.”

“When something comes up at this level that threatens our national security, a responsible government should take a stance and take tough measures immediately to address the situation,” Tohti told the Star.

“I’m afraid that Johnston’s decision (to reject a public inquiry) will now be used as an excuse for the government to push the issues aside,” Tohti said.

Other Canadians who say they have been threatened by the Chinese state echoed Tohti’s disappointment.

Chemi Lhamo, steering committee member of the International Tibet Network, said she became the target of thousands of hateful comments including death threats before she became the first Tibetan-Canadian president of the U of T Scarborough campus student’s union in 2019. She says she continues to be subject to surveillance and intimidation tactics, including when she sought political office in last year’s Toronto municipal elections.

Lhamo said a public inquiry would have been a “step in the right direction and an opportunity to truly hold perpetrators accountable,” while public hearings are likely to be “toothless.”

“For decades, we’ve been calling out the CCP’s long arm in our homes here, where Canada’s silence thus far has only emboldened their repression. As someone who has been subject to transnational repression and had several close friends who have had ties to their families cut or getting threatening phone calls to disengage in advocacy, the inquiry would have helped gain the trust of our communities.”

“This is another day in our lives of being unheard.”

The interim recommendations Johnston released Tuesday came just over two months since he was named special rapporteur for foreign interference, a post created by the Liberals this year in lieu of a direct response to demands that they call a public inquiry.

Those demands were driven by a run of media reports based on leaked security documents which outlined the extent to which Chinese state officials were seeking influence over the electoral processes, including engaging in candidate nomination contests and mapping out plans to keep the Liberals in a minority government position.

Experts in national security fields have told the Star that a public inquiry could have addressed the fact that Canada doesn’t have concrete laws on foreign influence or a legal definition of “foreign agent,” and instead has a “patchwork of different laws relating to elections, security of information and lobbying.”

Sheng Xue, a journalist who fled to Canada from Beijing following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and established the Canadian chapter of the Federation for a Democratic China, earlier told the Star that Beijing’s efforts to stifle critical narratives internationally has been an “open secret” among the Chinese diaspora for decades.

Sheng expressed skepticism that without promises of greater government transparency and concrete policies to protect Canadians, vulnerable groups are unlikely to feel safe contributing to a public hearing.

“People of Chinese heritage who support democratic values have lost platforms to express themselves openly, fearing punishment from the Chinese Communist Party. If they don’t think the Canadian government is sincere and would pass policies to protect them, I don’t think they will speak out.”

Sheng said that when immigrants and refugees from China formed organizations and publications in Canada to advocate for human rights in China in the 1990s, their parents and relatives back home were harassed and threatened.

While many of her peers dropped out of public advocacy, she did not bow to this pressure. In 1996, she was arrested by Chinese police when she tried to visit her mother in Beijing, interrogated by more than a dozen officers for 24 hours, and then deported back to Canada.

Since 2014, the Toronto-based writer said she has faced a relentless online smear campaign. , including fake nude photos. She went to police all over North America to plead for help, but none offered assistance.

Jody Chan, an organizer with advocacy group Alliance Canada Hong Kong, whose members have cut ties with family members in Hong Kong, welcomed acknowledgments in Johnston’s report that there are foreign influence threats to Canada’s democratic institutions.

“But we hope everyone understands that public processes are not going to have true participation from those who are most affected. People will not come forward because it is not safe.”


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