The City of Vancouver will again face Chinese dissident group Falun Gong in court over a controversial protest bylaw, in a case that raises questions about China’s influence in B.C. municipal politics, according to some espionage experts.
On Monday, Falun Gong asked a B.C. Supreme Court judge to declare Vancouver’s bylaw unconstitutional for the second time in four years. The spiritual group wants to renew the round-the-clock vigil it started in 2001 in front of the grandiose Chinese Consulate on Granville Street, just south of 16th Avenue. The embarrassing optics of the practitioners’ silent protest — mostly elderly women meditating in front of banners proclaiming brutal persecution and bloody torture in China — irked Beijing and reportedly became an irritant in relations with Vancouver and Victoria.
China has banned Falun Gong and calls it one of the “five poisons” that endanger the state. The regime’s foreign service targets Falun Gong in overt and covert operations, according to intelligence and court documents obtained by The Province.
But the Granville Street case is not just about a foreign spiritual group’s freedom to protest under the laws that protect Canadian citizens. On one level, this case seems to highlight China’s growing economic might and potential impacts on Canadian governments. And if you believe experts like Michel Juneau-Katsuya, former Asia-Pacific bureau chief for Canadian Security Intelligence Service, this could be about China trying to infiltrate B.C. politics, while CSIS spies monitor local politicians for any signs of “foreign interference.”
Furthermore, it’s possible, several intelligence experts including Juneau-Katsuya said, that the Granville Street case is the type of scenario that Canada’s former top spy, Richard Fadden, infamously referred to in 2010. Juneau-Katsuya told The Province it is a certainty that Fadden was monitoring Vancouver politicians in connection to the Falun Gong protest and the spy agency will continue to watch local councillors under new director Michel Coulombe.
A HISTORY OF PROTESTS
Former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan ordered Falun Gong to dismantle their protest hut on Granville in 2006, and the case went to court. Falun Gong argued that China had pressured Vancouver to enforce its bylaw in efforts to suppress the protest. A B.C. Supreme Court judge in 2009 supported the city. But in 2010 Vancouver Island lawyer Clive Ansley — who practised for years in China and speaks Mandarin — won an appeal for Falun Gong. The judge ordered the city to rewrite its bylaw on constitutional grounds, giving council six months to draft rules that would allow for public protest huts on city streets. The judge said it was clear China used “its considerable resources” to oppose Falun Gong, but the group’s lawyers did not prove the city was politically or economically pressured to enforce its bylaw by China.
Questions about China’s influence didn’t end there, though. City staff admitted in a 2011 council meeting that the Chinese consulate was consulted as a “stakeholder” in the new bylaw’s drafting, in confidential discussions. Ansley recalls how he reacted to that stunning revelation.
“I told Mayor Robertson this is about the degree of freedom Canadian citizens are to be allowed protesting in the streets, and the Chinese government is not a stakeholder in that,” Ansely said. “I said it is absolutely indefensible and disgraceful.”
Fast forward to September 2014. Vancouver’s rewritten protest bylaw — with limits on the times and durations the Falun Gong protest hut can stand in front of the Chinese Consulate — is “no better than the old one,” according to Ansley.
“Vancouver city council has tried to do an end run and evade the clear intent of the Court of Appeal,” Ansley said in an interview. “They have just imposed totally arbitrary conditions that they can’t defend.”
“We think they deliberately disallowed our continued vigil,” said Vancouver Falun Gong practitioner Sue Zhang, 68. “We do think that the city is being either pressured by the Chinese consulate, or is trying to please the Chinese regime.”
Ansley said that for health reasons he is not arguing the current case, and Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward represented Falun Gong in court on Monday. Ward said he will not comment for this story. The city also would not comment on the court case.
Although Ansley says he strongly believes in Falun Gong’s evidence of Chinese influence on Vancouver council, it is not clear if Ward will renew those arguments, or present new evidence. In the first court battle with Vancouver, Falun Gong’s legal team presented a timeline of former mayor Sam Sullivan’s meeting with Chinese consulate staff and trips to China, and alleged that his position on the Falun Gong protest was related to his visits with regime officials. Ansley’s co-counsel Joseph Arvay spoke of the relationship between Sullivan — who is reportedly a fluent Mandarin speaker — and the former Chinese Consular General Yang Qiang. In cross-examination, Sullivan reportedly said he and his parents were guests for a private dinner at Yang’s residence in which the protest was discussed. Sullivan has maintained he was not politically influenced.
'IMPOSSIBLE' NOT TO BE PRESSURED
But an affidavit from Chen Yonglin — a diplomat who in 2005 defected from the Chinese Consulate in Sydney, Australia — said it would be impossible that any Vancouver mayor would not be pressured by China in this case.
Chinese embassies around the world were aware of Falun Gong’s seven-year vigil in front of the Chinese Consulate on Granville, and it was a “major embarrassment to the Chinese government,” Chen’s 2008 sworn statement says. Chen’s affidavit includes documents outlining overt and covert operations that he was involved in against Falun Gong in Sydney. Such actions are common around the world, wherever the Chinese government confronts Falun Gong and the “five poisons” Chen stated. He added that in performing his duties he learned the most effective way “to develop influence over Australian political leaders is to provide them with all-expenses-paid travel to China, and with lavish entertainment while they are there. This method is common to all Chinese foreign missions in the west.”
The Sydney consulate regularly promoted the private business ties of Australian leaders, and members of local councils, and regularly hosted dinners for them, “in the name of bilateral cultural exchange,” Chen’s 2008 sworn statement says.
“It would be absolutely impossible that in (the Granville Falun Gong protest case) the mayor of the city in which the Consulate General and the vigil are located would receive no pressure from the Consulate-General,” Chen concluded.
Sam Sullivan, now an MLA in the B.C. Liberal government, and Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson would not be interviewed for this story and chose not to answer a specific set of questions emailed to each by The Province, including questions about Fadden’s controversial claims about municipal politicians in B.C. Questions also covered the potential for Chinese influence in B.C. politics, whether Sullivan and Robertson had been offered or accepted paid trips on their travels in China, and whether CSIS is known to have monitored or questioned Vancouver mayors in connection to the Falun Gong protest case.
In an interview with The Province, Juneau-Katsuya said that the Vancouver Falun Gong case is likely the type of scenario Fadden was alluding to in 2010, when he outraged B.C. politicians by publicly singling the province out.
According to CSIS documents obtained by The Province in a freedom of information request, Fadden accused China of foreign interference and spying in connection with B.C. in a speech to the Royal Canadian Military Institute in March 2010. Fadden said Chinese authorities were organizing demonstrations against the “five poisons” including Falun Gong, and apparently recruiting agents through the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-funded school located on campuses across Canada, including BCIT. Confucius Institutes continue to be investigated by CSIS, but directors have always denied they are run as spy outlets through Chinese consulates. In his speech — directly after claiming a small number of Confucius Institute students have been “kept on the books” and Chinese authorities “kept up contacts” with some students after they left the BCIT Confucius Institute — Fadden added “there are several municipal politicians in B.C. and at least two provinces, there are ministers of the Crown, whom we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government. They have no idea. It’s just a long-standing relationship.”
In a June 2010 CBC interview Fadden clarified his comments about Canadian politicians under suspicion, saying: “We can monitor anyone. In the case of these individuals ... they haven’t really hidden their association, but what surprised us is that it’s been so extensive over the years, and we’re now seeing in a couple of cases indications that they are, in fact, shifting their public policies as a reflection of that involvement with that particular country.”
The mystery as to what politicians Fadden was referring has never been revealed. One former Canadian diplomat with knowledge of Chinese espionage told The Province, CSIS apparently ditched Fadden’s strategy of warning the public about foreign spies because the political heat was too great. A number of B.C. politicians including then premier Gordon Campbell bristled at Fadden’s unproven allegations.
In response to the backlash, in heavily redacted “Top Secret” documents obtained by The Province, Fadden explained his controversial claims to Canada’s former public safety minister, Vic Toews.
In documents Fadden says ‘foreign interference’ is an effort to influence the political process and public policy in another country, and to control and monitor diaspora communities abroad. In Canada ethnic communities are manipulated to gain information on dissidents and solicit community support, Fadden writes, which can be used to promote targeted politicians or electoral candidates.
“Politicians are targeted to solicit support for policies and positions that favour the interests of the foreign state … interference and influence involving politicians and public servants are, in some cases, conducted subtly and involve a long period of cultivation,” Fadden writes, adding that targets can become subject to threats, coercion and blackmail.
The documents are redacted to conceal who Fadden is pointing the finger at.
In an Aug. 3 2010 report to Toews about “persons truly under suspicion” all information is blacked out, except Fadden’s conclusion that “we believe that provincial authorities should be advised.”
CSIS and the public safety ministry would not answer questions for this story.
In an interview, Clive Ansley said he was surprised at the reaction to Fadden’s comments, and he believes that China’s ability to gain “soft power” and influence with foreign politicians and businessmen is massive, effective, and extremely subtle. In fact the communist regime is so good at charming targets, from Ansley’s experience doing business in China, that nothing illegal needs to occur for the state to achieve its goals.
Ansley says he doesn’t know what politicians Fadden was referring to.
“My overwhelming feeling was that Fadden was talking about agents of influence, and not saying these people were spies for the Chinese government or even consciously acting as agents,” Ansley said. “In the Beijing government today they try to recruit, what used to be called in the Soviet Union, ‘useful idiots.’ You don’t have to reward them with anything but a lot of flattery, but they adopt a very favourable attitude toward you.”
Juneau-Katsuya said that if CSIS is watching Vancouver councillors, they are definitely not the only municipal politicians under the spy agency’s gaze. He said CSIS found evidence that the Chinese Consulate in Toronto was directly interfering in elections, by sending Chinese students into the homes of Chinese-language-only households and telling residents which candidate the Consulate wanted voters to choose.
“There are a lot of members of council in Toronto, for example, who were on CSIS’s watchlist,” Juneau-Katsuya said. “Some have been able to move up to the provincial and federal level, and remain a great source of concern.” Canadians should be uncomfortable about CSIS monitoring the country’s politicians, but it is seen in the world of spies as a necessary evil according to Juneau-Katsuya.
“We are watchers. We try to get evidence but we will never bring a politician into court unless there is a flagrant, outrageous fraud,” he said. “The people that can influence policy, counter to the interests of Canadians and the Canadian government, need to be kept under close watch.”
It is important to understand that diplomatic pressure is one thing — such as the case of the former Chinese Consular General Yang Qiang visiting Port Alberni in 2008 to explore economic and trade opportunities and then following up with letters urging councillors to cancel its previous support of a Falun Gong human rights month — but under Canadian law CSIS will only investigate clandestine influence.
While not commenting on the Vancouver Falun Gong case or Chinese espionage, prominent human rights lawyer David Matas said that the bottomless pools of money coming from China can make people forget their morals, and that China has leaned on more than one council in Canada, over Falun Gong.
The Vancouver Chinese Consulate was called for comment on this story, but did not respond.
The letter from Yang told Port Alberni councillors: “If passed, (the pro-Falun Gong) motion will have a very negative effect on our future beneficial exchanges and co-operation.”
Pat Deacon, Port Alberni’s director of economic development, told The Province three local businesses have been bought by Chinese immigrant investors and several deals have been inked since 2008. Deacon says Port Alberni officials now conduct regular visits to the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver, and the city’s new mayor has visited China. Deacon says he believes business pitches made through a provincial program that accelerates immigration for Chinese investors are the most likely reason for Port Alberni’s new level of co-operation with China.
“I don’t think there has been any relationship,” between the new deals and Yang’s trade visit and anti-Falun Gong letter to council in 2008, Deacon said.