Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing run by Chinese police

Getting a fair amount of attention and concern. Comments by former Canadian Ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques of note:

Chinese police own a company that collects details of people applying for visas to Canada and numerous other countries, giving Beijing security services a direct stake in the processing of private information provided by people planning travel outside China.

Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, which operates the Canadian visa-application centre in the Chinese capital, is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, a Globe and Mail investigation has found. And at least some of the people working inside the centre are members of the Communist Party, recruited from a school that trains the next generation of party elite.

Beijing Shuangxiong is a subcontractor for VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai that holds a wide-reaching contract to provide visa-processing services around the globe for the Canadian government. VFS offices collect personal and biometric information that is then forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who shall be granted visas.

In China, VFS relies on subcontractors to operate its 11 Canadian visa centre locations. The company, which provides visa services for 34 countries in China, says it has strict processes in place to safeguard personal data.

However, the police ownership of the Beijing centre raises questions about the extent to which it is possible for VFS to shield people’s private and confidential information from authorities in a country such as China, which maintains a sweeping and invasive surveillance apparatus, and restricts international travel for some officials and ethnic groups.

Chinese security services “obviously have a huge interest in mining visa data,” said Robert Potter, a cybersecurity consultant in Australia who has worked as an adviser to the Canadian government.

Knowledge of what happens inside a visa centre could have high-level intelligence value. “If you can see who is getting declined and who is getting approved, it gives you a better chance of getting your agent through,” Mr. Potter said.

It could also be used to bar people from leaving China. For some people, like the country’s Muslims, “even applying for a visa to get out of China is enough to get flagged as a terrorist,” he said. “If you’re a Uyghur and you’re applying for a visa to Canada on humanitarian grounds, giving that information to the security service is really dangerous.”

Ward Elcock, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said the fact that companies connected to China’s security forces or its government are playing a part in the Canada visa-application process “represents a lazy abdication of our standards to those of a police state.”

VFS Global said in a statement that neither individuals nor operators of the local companies with which it partners are able to gain access to visa-application data.

Other Western countries also use Beijing Shuangxiong, including Britain, Italy, Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand.

VFS Global handles visa services for Canada in at least 83 countries.

The Globe has previously reported that China Investment Corp., one of the biggest state-run financial institutions in the world, is a backer of an investment fund that is VFS’s majority owner. VFS says investors do not have a say in how the company operates.

In Ottawa, opposition parties have urged the federal government to reconsider its contract with VFS. NDP MPs have written to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Public Services Minister Anita Anand to express “serious concerns around the security of information handled by VFS Global.”

VFS, which operates in 144 countries, has said the investment fund “doesn’t have access to any data from VFS Global nor any of its other portfolio companies.”

But the company has developed much closer operational ties with Chinese state-backed companies inside China, The Globe has discovered.

The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission owns 30 per cent of the Canadian visa office in that city. China Travel Services, a large centrally owned company, owns the majority of the centre in Guangzhou. In Jinan, the 93.55-per-cent owner of the subcontracting company is Pei Zhongyi, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a key part of China’s ruling apparatus. People who answered the phone at those locations declined to answer questions.

But the Beijing centre stands out for its proximity to China’s security and political establishment.

Chinese corporate records show that Beijing Shuangxiong is wholly owned by Beijing Tongda Asset Management Group, which is a subsidiary of Beijing Sifu Enterprise Management Office. Corporate records list Beijing Sifu as an arm of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, the city’s police. A 2017 city of Beijing document describes Beijing Sifu as a work unit of the city’s police.

Asked if police or security services had access to visa-application information, a woman who answered the phone at the Canada Visa Centre in Beijing said she could only discuss visas. Beijing Shuangxiong did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. A receptionist at Beijing Sifu provided a fax number to the Beijing police, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Peter Brun, chief communications officer for VFS Global, said that like many foreign companies, VFS operates with locally owned “facility management companies” to provide visa-application services on the ground. “Individuals or local companies having a stake in the facility management companies you describe have no access to visa-application data. They cannot influence the visa-application process set by the Canadian government,” the VFS official said.

Mr. Brun said all application data are encrypted upon entry and then transferred “securely and directly to servers located in Canada only.” He said only Canadian government officials can gain access to this data.

He said no data are stored in China and the servers processing the applications are located in Canada. Mr. Brun said VFS conducts thorough “credit and criminal record checks on all employees before they are hired” and staff’s e-mail and telecommunications are monitored “for security risks.”

He said the Canadian government either installs or supervises the Immigration department data servers and biometric equipment at the visa-application centres.

Mr. Brun said it has 64 governments as clients around the world including the U.S., Britain and nearly all European Union countries.

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said it’s best to assume there is no privacy for visa applications made in China.

“You can bet the Chinese government is interested in knowing who is going to study where abroad, who is going as a tourist and who wants to leave and immigrate,” he said.

Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration is defending the visa-application arrangements it has made in Beijing and throughout China.

“For any foreign company to operate in China, they must be partnered with a local Chinese company, and Canadian contractors are not exempted from this,” department spokesman Rémi Larivière said in a statement. “Canadian officials closely monitor the activities of visa-application centres (VACs) around the world to ensure that our stringent privacy standards are met.”

He said applications are handled “according to Canada’s privacy laws” and the service providers have pledged not to interfere with visa applications. “As set out in the contract, VACs are expressly forbidden from providing any visa-related advice to applicants or from making any type of determination on their application.”

Beijing Shuangxiong dates back to 1993, and describes itself as among the first agencies approved by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau to provide entry and exit services.

It also has close ties with China’s ruling party.

You Xiangdong, the company’s legal representative and general manager, serves as secretary of its Communist Party branch, and the company has cultivated close ties to Beijing Youth Politics College, a school that has for decades played a foundational role in training new generations of Communist Party leadership.

The college’s English study students have become coveted workers for Beijing Shuangxiong, which has brought many in to work in its visa centres. In a report on the partnership, the company said it valued the political reliability of students from the school.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-canadas-visa-application-centre-in-beijing-run-by-chinese-police/

Chinese state-owned fund among backers of company handling Canadian visa applications

Worrisome. Of note, however, according to their website TT Services lists Australia, New Zealand and the USA as clients, so the issue is broader than just Canada:

One of China’s largest state-owned investment funds is among the biggest backers of a company the Canadian government uses to collect and process personal information from visa applicants around the world.

The ownership structure has prompted some of Canada’s former foreign intelligence leaders to warn that Ottawa should think carefully about trusting sensitive information to a company partly owned by the Chinese state.

Documents filed with Britain’s corporate registry, Companies House, show Chengdong Investment Corp. as one of the most significant contributing partners to the parent company of TT Services, which runs visa application centres for the Canadian government in 24 countries. Its services include collecting fingerprints, photos, biographical information and other personal data.

Chengdong is a subsidiary of China Investment Corp., a Chinese state-run giant with more than US$1-trillion in assets.

TT Services is owned by VFS Global, which calls itself the “world’s largest visa outsourcing and technology services specialist.” Headquartered in Dubai, VFS operates in 144 countries.

Immigration consultants in Canada have raised concerns about the contract with VFS since 2008, when the company began processing visas in China, where police can access corporate offices. Chinese national law also requires any organization operating inside the country to co-operate with intelligence services.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, said the amount of personal information VFS handles is immense.

“Passing through their hands are the family trees of applicants,” Mr. Kurland said. “The VFS organization may have more personal information on applicants for immigrant services than entire countries do.”

VFS was founded in 2001 by Zubin Karkaria, an Indian entrepreneur who remains its chief executive officer. But today, its majority owner is EQT VII (No. 1) Limited Partnership, whose registered office is in Edinburgh. That company, British documents show, has numerous partners.

Two of the largest are Eight Finance Investment Co. Ltd., which belongs to the Hong Kong sovereign wealth fund, and Chengdong Investment Corp.

The records show that both Eight and Chengdong made €25,000 ($39,000) in capital contributions, considerably more than other investors, which include pension funds and banks – some of whom contributed as little as €20.

The small figures belie the importance of those investments. In limited partnerships, investments are often made as loans, the size of which can far outstrip the capital contributions. Larger contributions usually entitle investors to a larger share of profits.

In general, “if you contribute more, you get more out of the investment,” said Bobby Reddy, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law.

VFS and the Canadian government say their agreement includes privacy safeguards. And under British law, limited partners such as Chengdong are meant to be “passive or silent investors,” Mr. Reddy said.

But Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) who served as national security adviser to two prime ministers, said he does not think it is appropriate for a company with Chinese state-enterprise ownership to handle visa applications for the Canadian government.

He said that Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne recently ordered a review of a deal in which a Chinese state-owned company would provide new X-ray security equipment for Canadian embassies.

“It seems to me that if there are concerns in Ottawa about a company that is owned by the Chinese company operating X-ray machines in Canadian embassies, then there should be an equal amount of concern about the possibility that a Chinese company might have access to all sorts of information about foreigners wanting to come to Canada,” Mr. Fadden said.

“This is information that might be just as useful to the Chinese state, especially, if and when, they reach Canada.”

In a statement to The Globe, EQT spokesman Daniel Ketema confirmed that EQT VII (No. 1) holds majority ownership of VFS, but declined comment on the role of Chengdong.

“We are not allowed to disclose names of investors or their stakes in EQT’s funds,” Mr. Ketema wrote in an e-mail.

VFS chief communications officer Peter Brun said “VFS Global does not store any personal data related to a visa application. All data is purged from its systems in accordance with regulations set out by client governments.”

“The EQT VII fund doesn’t have access to any data from VFS Global nor any of its other portfolio companies,” he said.

The Chinese government has in recent years asserted more intensive control of companies inside its borders, both state-controlled and private entities alike. In September, the Communist Party urged privately owned companies to employ “politically sensible people” who will “firmly listen to the party and follow the party.”

State-owned firms also form a key pillar of Chinese foreign policy, and the country has sought to boost the overseas reach of its financial institutions.

Ward Elcock, a former director of CSIS, said the connections of a Chinese state-owned firm and the Hong Kong sovereign wealth fund to VFS Global need to be investigated further to determine whether the threat is serious.

“I think that the role that Chengdong plays ought to raise a few eyebrows, even if it is as part of a limited partnership,” Mr. Elcock said. “Visas and the associated applications would, I suspect, be of interest to the Chinese, so there is at least the risk that they would want to find some way to obtain access.”

“In the current environment, it would be less than wise to ignore the potential risks,” he said. “As to the Hong Kong sovereign wealth fund, we would not have thought of them as a problem until recently, but increasingly it is clear that the Hong Kong of the past will not be the Hong Kong of the future. Instead, it will simply be an extension of the regime in Beijing with a few bells and whistles retained … so, again reason for more enquiries.”

In Canada, the Liberal government has said it wants to bring in 1.2 million immigrants over the next three years, including 401,000 new permanent residents in 2021.

In other countries, VFS shares revenues with governments. Canada’s government “does not receive a portion of revenues from VFS for premium services nor does it collect any revenues from VFS Global,” Béatrice Fénelon, spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said in a statement.

“Safeguards governing the protection of personal information are built into the terms of the contract between the VACs and the government of Canada,” Ms. Fénelon said.

She declined comment on the VFS ownership structure, but said using the company allows the Canadian government to “offer extended hours of operation and more points of service that make it convenient and accessible for applicants to submit their application and provide their biometrics.”

The contract with VFS will remain in place until Oct. 31, 2023. It can be extended for up to three years, but late this summer, Ottawa began a process to replace current contracts.

The government is seeking input on what visa application centres might look like in the future, including promotion of Canada as a destination of choice; collection of biometric information; premium services that would be offered for a fee; and tighter links with the government through provision of “interview facilitation, interview rooms, and videoconferencing.”

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-chinese-state-owned-fund-among-backers-of-company-handling-canadian/

Former Canadian ambassador suggests registry to help identify foreign agents

Hard to disagree:

A veteran of Canada’s diplomatic corps is urging the creation of a federal registry, modelled on one in Australia, to shed light on the work Canadians, including former senior public officials, are doing on behalf of foreign governments.

David Mulroney, who worked for 32 years in the Canadian foreign service, including as Canada’s ambassador to China, said there’s an increasing risk today that foreign governments are using Canadians to mould public opinion and lawmaking here.

“It is not being alarmist to suggest that foreign countries continue to seek influence in Canada and that some are even willing to interfere covertly in Canadian affairs. If anything, the threat is growing,” Mr. Mulroney said in an interview.

What he’s proposing is that Canadians paid to lobby or communicate political messages on behalf of foreign states or enterprises owned by a foreign government would be required to disclose their activities in a federal registry. He said his proposal goes far beyond the scope of the existing federal lobbyists registry, which he says has loopholes that do not capture all activity he believes should be brought to light.

Mr. Mulroney said the rise of China as an economic and geopolitical power has added urgency to the question of foreign interference and influence. “China’s Communist Party has well-developed mechanisms for influencing political opinion in foreign countries,” he said.

He said he was unwilling to comment on individual cases, but stated that, under his proposal, virtually any work undertaken by former Canadian officials for China’s state-owned corporations would need to be disclosed in a registry.

New foreign-influence transparency laws took effect recently in Australia. The rules came in response to concerns about Chinese government influence in Australian politics.

Under Mr. Mulroney’s proposal, former cabinet ministers would be required to register almost all work – not just lobbying – that they are doing for foreign governments or related entities. Mr. Mulroney argues that international work promoting Canadian values and interests – such as humanitarian work – would remain exempt, but all other employment in which a foreign state is seeking to benefit from the knowledge, experience or contacts a former minister gained while serving Canada would need to be reported. The obligation would last their lifetime.

Former senior public servants, including deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers and ambassadors, would face the same high bar for registration, but only for 15 years.

Mr. Mulroney is publishing his proposal in a paper through the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank.

Ward Elcock, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and former deputy minister of National Defence, said he supports Mr. Mulroney’s proposed registry.

“There are foreign governments who did have an interest in influencing Canadian public policy in one way or another and, yes, I think transparency is required,” he said.

However, Mr. Elcock said a registry won’t help if former politicians or senior bureaucrats attempt to hide their affiliation with foreign governments or state-owned enterprises.

Richard Fadden, another former director of CSIS, said he broadly supports Mr. Mulroney’s proposal.

Mr. Fadden, who was also national security adviser to prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, said he thinks however that China is “far from the only country for us to worry about” and would like to see the registration requirements also apply to Canadian military ranks down to the Canadian Armed Forces equivalent of an assistant deputy minister.

Mr. Mulroney is proposing two extra measures on top of what Australia has done.

Any Canadians serving on federal government boards, agencies, foundations or councils in Canada would be prohibited from working for foreign governments or related entities for the duration of their appointment. It would also require Canadians to relinquish membership in what is called the Queen’s Privy Council, which is a lifetime designation granted to prime ministers, cabinet ministers and chief justices of Canada.

Mr. Fadden doesn’t support requiring Canadians in the Queen’s Privy Council to relinquish membership if they work for a foreign government.

He said if a former senior public official is, for instance, working for Britain to help promote a bilateral trade deal with Canada they shouldn’t be forced to give up the P.C. designation.

Stockwell Day, a former Conservative cabinet minister and vice-chair of the Canada China Business Council, a lobby group, said the proposed registry is not needed given existing rules against lobbying that remain in place for half a decade after leaving office.

Mr. Day said he could see the registry becoming a “nightmarish bureaucratic overburden trying to report working arrangements of individuals 15 years after they have been in office” and predicted the law would almost certainly also be challenged in court “as an unconstitutional restriction on the right to work.”

Mr. Mulroney said however that existing lobbying registry rules do not cover the sort of disclosure he’s proposing. “Think about the possibility of a former, or even a current politician taking talking points from a foreign government. … If you are speaking or disseminating information on behalf of a foreign entity, you need to be clear about your sources. Otherwise you mislead Canadians.”

Source:   Politics Former Canadian ambassador suggests registry to help identify foreign agents Subscriber content Steven Chase September 23