RICHMOND, B.C.—Across the street from a strip mall lined with restaurants and hair salons, the shield of the Wenzhou Friendship Society hangs above a gated entry.
What has gone on behind those doors is part of a Canadian national security investigation into the aggressive foreign interference tactics of the Chinese government.
The RCMP is probing allegations China has been operating covert centres in Canada that use threats, intimidation and corruption to suppress local opposition and sway policy.
No charges have been laid in relation to the Wenzhou society, a registered charity that benefits from federal tax advantages and says it supports new immigrants and helps them repay Canada.
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Emails requesting interviews went unanswered. Ringing the doorbell on a recent weekday likewise garnered no response. A society director has denied any wrongdoing. The others could not be reached.
But the group’s website, social media and tax returns suggest a charity that engages in local fundraising while sending delegates to events featuring Chinese Communist Party officials.
Representatives of the B.C. society have taken part in gatherings along with members of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO), the website said.
The Canadian government alleges the UFWD and OCAO are key parts of the Chinese Communist Party’s covert efforts to pressure and manipulate Chinese communities outside China.
China uses the UFWD “to stifle criticism, infiltrate foreign political parties, diaspora communities, universities and multinational corporations,” according to the Public Safety Canada website.
The OCAO, meanwhile, is tasked with influencing what it calls Overseas Chinese or OC — a term that refers to the Chinese diaspora — to make it more favourable to China, another Canadian government report said.
“Conversely, in its relationships with OC communities that are unfavourable towards the regime, the OCAO uses coercive tactics to maintain a powerful means of social control,” the report said.
“This involves intimidation of OC at every level of society; the managing of their behaviour is accomplished through incentive and disincentive, as well as intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and subversion against OC communities.”
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In addition to references to UFAW and OCAO, visitors to the Wenzhou Society website can find a message from the Chinese embassy praising President Xi Jinping’s “strong leadership,” as well as a letter from Xi calling children a force for a “powerful socialist country.”
“It is hoped that the children and young people will study hard, strengthen their ideals and beliefs, hone their willpower, exercise their physique, and be ready for the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” it read.
Fenella Sung, a leader of Vancouver’s Hong Kong community, said the website was consistent with groups aligned with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi.
“Their use of the patriotic language, their leaders’ visits to important political CCP meetings in China and the citation of the CCP documents, as well as Xi’s writings, all show the similarities the Wenzhou Society shared with the party cells established by CCP members overseas,” she said.
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The Canada Revenue Agency, which regulates charities, declined to comment on the group, which has been registered federally under the name Wen Zhou Friendship Society since 2002.
After the RCMP Integrated National Security Enforcement Team showed up at the Wenzhou society clubhouse last month, the police force said that “Chinese Canadians are victims of the activity we are investigating.”
“There will be no tolerance for this or any other form of intimidation, harassment, or harmful targeting of diaspora communities or individuals in Canada,” said RCMP Cpl. Kim Chamberland.
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Similar police action took place in the Toronto area, where two so-called “overseas police service stations” have been identified by the Spanish non-profit group Safeguard Defenders.
“These stations appear to have been an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to exert influence over members of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, possibly in support of some of China’s broader domestic and international objectives,” intelligence analyst Jessica Davis wrote on her blog.
“These police stations appear to also support efforts by China to repatriate dissidents living abroad, or ‘persuasion to return’ operations where individuals who committed crimes in China are ‘persuaded’ to go back to China to face criminal proceedings.”
Western countries have grown increasingly alarmed at Beijing’s efforts to use foreign interference networks to silence dissent and advance China’s strategic interests on issues such as Taiwan’s independence.
In Canada, police are just beginning to untangle what they suspect is a state-security apparatus operating out of a handful of centres and targeting Chinese community members.
The Wenzhou society is part of the 130-member Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations, an umbrella group formed in 2008. The alliance did not respond to emails.
According to its tax returns, the Wenzhou society runs the Richmond Senior Chinese Association. No other activities are listed.
Its revenue stream is inconsistent: in 2017, it took in $530,000 in donations for which it issued tax receipts. But in 2018, donations dropped to 210,000, then to just $34,000 in 2019, before rebounding to $314,000 in 2020 and $84,000 in 2021, the last year for which figures are publicly available.
Over the past five years, it has donated to the Canadian Red Cross, Vancouver Food Bank, Kwantlen Polytechnic University and B.C. Wild Fires.
But while its website chronicles its fundraising activities, it also highlights the Chinese Communist Party, Xi’s statements and the role of the diaspora in his ambitions.
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“The party has a call, and the overseas Chinese have actions,” reads an item on the website that describes the participation of Wenzhou Society vice-president Wu Dengjin in a gathering to mark the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary.
Society president Jian Gun Zhu took part in a subsequent meeting that “placed expectations on the vast number of overseas Chinese to participate in the construction of the motherland in the new era,” the website said.
Following the society’s 2021 Chinese New Year reception, held in Wenzhou, the website published a post listing three United Front officials who attended.
“The directors and members of the association will continue to work hand-in-hand to draw concentric circles for the sons and daughters of China at home and abroad!” the article read.
“For the prosperity of the motherland and the rise of the Chinese nation, we should better make China’s voice and tell Chinese stories well!”
A May 20, 2021, entry on the Wenzhou website said its vice-president Wu attended the opening ceremony of the Overseas Chinese Heart to the Party Re-Starting Again event. A United Front official was also there, it said.
“Every one of our overseas Chinese living abroad is a walking Chinese brand,” Wu was quoted as saying. “We are proud of our strong mother country, and we must also represent the Chinese people and establish a good image of China in Canada.”
That July, a student selected by the society attended a seminar organized by the United Front, “to learn the importance” of a speech given by President Xi, the website said.
On Jan. 16, 2022, the Canadian Wenzhou society hosted a Chinese New Year event organized partly by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of Zhejiang province, the website said. The society president read a letter from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the website said.
“No matter how far we go, we can’t get out of the care of the motherland,” read the article about the event.
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The society’s YouTube channel shows events held inside the Richmond, B.C. clubhouse, in a room with “unite as one” on the wall. Beijing uses the same slogan to advance its case for making Taiwan part of mainland China.
Another video shows B.C. Liberal MLA Michael Lee in the room two weeks before the 2021 federal election, giving a non-partisan speech explaining the levels of government in Canada.
His office said an invitation to speak about voting had been sent to his constituency office, and he was unaware of any alleged connections between the society and the Chinese government.
According to a government website in China, prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau both met with Miaofei Pan , a former president of the Wenzhou Friendship Society, in 2011 and 2016, respectively. The website lists Pan as an honorary president of the Canadian Wenzhou Council.