Douglas Todd: Why some Canadians born in Iran and China watch their backs

Of note:

Many of the thousands of demonstrators who lined Lions Gate Bridge last month to oppose Iran’s brutal regime expressed anxiety in the presence of photographers and videographers.

Some Iranian Canadians in Vancouver’s Human Life Chain, who were joining worldwide protests against the death of teenager Mahsa Amini after she was detained by Iran’s morality police, pointed fingers at strangers recording their public defiance.

“People were very brave to come out and show their unity,” said Farid Rohani, a leader in the Iranian Canadian community. “But many were fearful of people taking photos. They were pointing and saying, ‘You’re an agent of the regime.’ Some fights broke out.”

Rohani, a member of the B.C. government’s committee on diversity and policing, has himself been subjected to slander by people aligned with Iran’s regime. And an acquaintance was detained last year at Tehran airport, shown a photo of him sitting beside “Iran-hating, Israel-loving” Rohani, and warned to stay away from him.

Rohani feels relatively safe speaking out because he came to Canada in the 1970s and no longer has family in his theocratic homeland. But there is always a risk for Canadian opponents, including Soushiant Zanganehpour, organizer of the Vancouver protest. He called on Ottawa to do more to prevent Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and affiliates from threatening Iranians who protest.

“There are a lot of regime officials and their families who systematically come here, some are even citizens,” said Zanganehpour. “We are facing threats against our families, our lives, with people that drive by our houses at nighttime. I’m calling for stricter immigration policies, not just sanctions, but more investigations into who is here and why.”

Similar concerns arise from Persian podcaster Ramin Seyed-Emami of Vancouver, who was recently informed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that Iran maintains a list of Iranians abroad who it deems a threat. The officer suggested Seyed-Emami take safety precautions, including being wary of “honey traps” — attractive female spies.

And these are just stories of pressure applied to Canadians born in Iran, of which there are more than 213,000.

Also being intimidated are Chinese Canadians, of which there are 1.7 million, including 820,000 born in the People’s Republic of China.

Last week, Amnesty International Canada reported its computer system was hacked after it had raised alarms about China’s harassment of people in Canada with Uyghur and Tibetan roots, as well as those connected to Hong Kong and the spiritual group Falun Gong. Their events are often recorded by suspected agents of China.

There are countless stories. The parents of Vancouver-raised human rights activist Anastasia Lin, Canada’s former Miss World, have been hounded by security agents and others who demand they make their daughter stop accusing the leaders of China of being a danger.

And when Cherie Wong came to Vancouver in 2020 to start Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a pro-democracy group, she received threats by phone in her hotel room, despite checking in under another name. The person said, “We know where you are. We’re coming to get you.”

What Lin and Wong undergo echo new reports by the Spanish human rights organization, Safeguard Defenders, which says China has set up 103 unofficial “police stations” around the world, including in Toronto and Vancouver, to monitor the Chinese diaspora. The regime, it says, has already put the squeeze on 220,000 “fugitives” to return to China.

“These reports are scary. The Chinese Canadian community has known the overreaching claws of the Chinese Communist Party for decades. We have witnessed their agents of influence,” said Fenella Sung, a Vancouver-based pro-democracy activist. 

Sung describes so-called “Little Pinkies” (jingoistic nationalists) in Vancouver “disrupting Tiananmen Massacre candle vigils, shouting down protesters at public areas such as SkyTrain stations, taking photos of church-goers who prayed for Hong Kong, and the like.”

Further, pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong have “even noticed the signal of their cellphones cut off when they were around Chinese consulates. Their ability at surveillance and infringement of our freedoms have been much strengthened in recent years. It severely violates rights on Canadian soil.”

Such chilling incidents all add up to illegal infiltration of Canada by foreign governments, says Charles Burton, a senior fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute who worked in the Canadian embassy in China. Canada, he said, must do more to stop it.

Canada currently shows minimal resistance to hostile foreign governments, said Burton, who just returned from a conference in Berlin, where 240 global participants discussed how to combat interference by Chinese agents.

The often-public intimidation is in part designed to create the impression that China’s authorities have a long reach, said Burton. But even while China has more diplomats in Canada than any other nation, and diplomats often serve as spies, it is difficult to know the extent of their power.

Chinese and Iranian agents especially target opinion leaders. They interfere with their speech and often make sure they know they are being monitored, said Burton, which is especially hard on university students.

While not particularly worried about himself, Burton said he is also frequently targeted, including by attractive Chinese women who claim they are “very interested in seniors,” something he finds almost comical.

Still, Burton calls on Ottawa to do much more.

“The RCMP have recently said they are intending to put more resources into protecting Canadians who are subject to menace and harassment by agents of a foreign power,” he said. “But up to now we haven’t seen arrests of any of these people. Nor have we heard of any people declared persona non grata for engaging in activities not compatible with their diplomatic status.”

CSIS, Burton said, has set up a website where people who have experienced foreign interference and espionage can report online. But it stipulates it is not a law enforcement agency, only an information gatherer.

Nevertheless, Burton says it is useful to see more public talk these days echoing his long-held admonition that Ottawa combat the foreign harassment of citizens.

“And if that results in Chinese government retaliation, then I think we simply have to accept that. I think it’s more important to protect our freedoms, democracy, security and sovereignty than it is to protect market access for Canadian commodities that might go to China.”

Heightened vigilance would also earn Canada greater respect from China and Iran, Burton said. The more exposure that governments, educators and the media give to such infiltration, the better things will be for all Canadians.

“It will shed some sunshine on this thing. And sunshine is an excellent disinfectant.”

Source: Douglas Todd: Why some Canadians born in Iran and China watch their backs

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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