'We know where your parents live': Hong Kong activists say Canadian police helpless against online threats

Activists working to defend Hong Kong's democracy say police in Canada appear to be helpless against what they call a campaign of harassment and threats against them by supporters of the Chinese state.

The committee probing Canada's relationship with China was shut down when Trudeau prorogued Parliament

A police officer watches as pro-China counter-protesters shout at Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters holding a rally in Vancouver on August 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

For Cherie Wong, the threats of rape and murder she receives on social media are only a semi-constant reminder that many supporters of the Chinese Communist Party see her as an enemy.

They're not what scares her the most.

Back in January, Wong — executive director and co-founder of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a group pressing the Canadian government to defend the former British colony's democracy — flew to Vancouver for events associated with the alliance's launch. Someone had been keeping tabs on her, she said.

"My hotel room was booked by someone else as a security measure. And two days after the launch ... I received a threatening phone call to my hotel room demanding that I leave immediately, that these people are coming to collect me," she said.

"That was something that really shocked me."

Pro-China counter-protesters, wearing red, shout down a man in a black shirt during an anti-extradition rally for Hong Kong in Vancouver on Saturday August 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Wong said she still doesn't know how her whereabouts were disclosed. She said she reported the call to the police but was told there was little they could do.

Wong's experience is one of a number of disturbing incidents reported to a new parliamentary committee tasked with looking into Canada's fraught relationship with China. The committee's proceedings were interrupted by the Trudeau government's decision to prorogue Parliament until later this month.

Doxxed in the diaspora

Wong said activists in her group had a foretaste of the impotence of Canadian police in the face of such harassment on August 17, 2019, when members of the Hong Kong diaspora rallied in 30 cities around the world to back Hong Kong's anti-extradition protests. They were met by counter-protesters waving Chinese flags.

Wong said she was one of a number of protest participants who were subsequently "doxxed" by online antagonists. "They took photos of me and started digging up my personal information, my email address, where I was living, my phone number," she said. "And [they] shared that kind of information maliciously through WeChat channels."

Hong Kong activists point to the similarities between the counter-protests that occurred in August 2019 — in almost every city that saw pro-Hong Kong demonstrations — as evidence that they are being centrally organized.

They point to the behaviour of the counter-protesters, who often arrive and leave in large groups and carry brand-new Chinese flags with the ironing creases still visible. But they know that it's hard to prove top-down coordination.

"What we saw is a pattern, whether it is in Canada, in the U.S., in Germany in Japan in Taiwan," said Wong. "The counter-protesters show up with Chinese flags singing the Chinese national anthem. Their slogans are similar: 'Hong Kong is a part of China', 'Say no to violence, say no to riots.'

"We have seen evidence of these counter-protesters being paid. We saw large scale coordination on WeChat and Weibo and I think there's more to be seen than just angry individuals."

A Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protester holds up a sign in front of pro-China counter-protesters during opposing rallies in Vancouver, on August 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian press)

While CBC News has not seen conclusive evidence that Hong Kong counter-protesters are being paid, it has spoken to Canadians who received cash payments to appear at another pro-Beijing demonstration in support of detained Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou.

Wong said that while she doesn't object to counter-protesters exercising their right to free expression, she's alarmed by the fact that some of them have been spotted photographing pro-Hong Kong demonstrators.

"These individuals who show up to protest are also saying that they are part of the Chinese Communist Party, that they are sending this information back to the consulate, to the embassy," she said. "And coming from an authoritarian regime like the Chinese Communist Party, [which] has been known to conduct surveillance operations, suppression tactics, we can't just dismiss this as just counter-protesters."

A history of harassment

Phil Gurski heads Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting in Ottawa. Before joining the private sector he spent three decades as a security intelligence analyst, much of it at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

He said Chinese-Canadian dissidents have been harassed in Canada by organs of the Chinese state "since Adam and Eve" — but the Chinese embassy would take care to avoid the appearance of direct involvement in the most provocative activities.

"Obviously the people in the embassy have to be a little more careful because they are here in Canada," he said. "And if it is found out that they are engaged in activities not consistent with a diplomatic posting, they could in fact be declared persona non grata and expelled from the country."

Gurski said China can employ more subtle forms of pressure than loud aggressive counter-protests — such as threats and warnings issued directly to dissidents in person, by phone, or through social media.

That kind of pressure from diplomatic missions in Canada "is something we've been warning about for decades," he added.

And critics of the regime say that the fact that many Chinese-Canadians still have family members in China gives Beijing durable leverage over them.

The embassy reacts

CBC News asked the Chinese embassy about some of the allegations of harassment that have emerged from the committee's hearings. The embassy didn't answer that question directly but appeared to respond to another concern that came up at the Canada-China committee: the extraterritorial nature of China's new "national security" law, which makes no distinction between pro-democracy political activity in Hong Kong and similar protests in Canada.

The law "only targets a very narrow category of acts that seriously jeopardize national security," the embassy said in a written statement.

"Hong Kong is under the rule of law, where no one has extra-judicial privilege. In any country, every right or freedom has its legal boundaries. In exercising rights or freedoms, one must abide by the requirements of law. Anyone who crosses the boundaries and limits of the law shall be brought to justice.

"Hong Kong is part of China and Hong Kong affairs are purely China's internal affairs. We urge the Canadian side to have a clear understanding of the reality and the overwhelming trend, and stop interfering in the affairs and judicial independence of Hong Kong SAR [Special Administrative Region]."

Hong Kong pro-democracy movement supporters hand out T-shirts to NBA Toronto Raptors fans in Toronto Oct. 22, 2019. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Hostages to fortune

"'We know where your parents live,'" said Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. "This is the phrase that they use all the time.

"You know, it could be just a little kind of phone call that says, 'Hey, by the way, I see your parents are doing well in ... somewhere.' You right away know that they know where your parents live.

"People would say, 'OK, I better be quiet, I better shut up or I better not do something.' And ... if you talk to people, the RCMP or CSIS, they will say, well, you can't prevent people from calling people up and saying, 'How are your parents doing?' Right?"

Gurski acknowledges that it's difficult for Canadian authorities to thwart that kind of back-channel pressure.

"I absolutely agree [that] if these are people who are engaged in activity here in Canada which the government of the People's Republic of China would see as threatening or besmirching the reputation of the PRC, they would certainly reach out to them and threaten them exactly that way," he said.

"The problem is if I call up and say, 'Hey, how's Mom and Dad?', you and I may know exactly what I'm talking about, but how do you prove that is actually a very subtle yet very direct threat against one's family, with the intended impact that you'll stop what you're doing? And if you don't ... then you may have something happen to your relatives back home?

"It may be as obvious as the nose on your face [but that's] just not the same as proving it in a court of law."

'In an authoritarian country, this kind of subtle threat is very deep in the sense that people have an awareness that you're supposed to act certain way when you receive a message like that," said Kwan.

"And I've seen a lot of people getting that – even people in the Chinese-language media or editors of TV or newspapers, who might get a phone call from the Chinese consulate or their proxies ... saying, 'Hey, we don't like what you just published. Please be careful next time.'"

Kwan said Chinese authorities can deploy even more subtle forms of coercion, such as leaning on Beijing-friendly businesses to withhold advertising spending from certain outlets seen as hostile to Beijing.

Far from home, but not from fear

In the past, said Kwan, implied threats to family members were more alarming for immigrants from mainland China than for Hong Kong ex-pats — who had reason to believe their families were safer. That's beginning to change, he added.

Davin Wong (no relation to Cherie) said he's felt that change personally. The former acting head of the Student Union of the University of Hong Kong fled the island city last year following a targeted attack. He has no family members in mainland China.

"Canada, of course, is a society with greater freedom and at least I feel more secure here than in Hong Kong," he said. "But at the same time, what I have witnessed is that other activists who are fighting for Hong Kong in Canada ... were facing harassment or maybe intimidation as well. So I would say I do not feel entirely safe here ...

"I do have family members back in Hong Kong and that is one of the concerns that has always been in the back of my mind, because what we can see is that the freedom and also autonomy of Hong Kong has been deteriorating so fast in the past two years that Hong Kong is no longer a distinctive city apart from any other cities in China.

"I think it is fair to say that having family members back in Hong Kong ... feels as the same risk of having family members in China."

Wong said he applauds the Trudeau government's decision to end Canada's extradition treaty with Hong Kong in response to China's new national security law. But he said the federal government's efforts to help Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp would be better served by recognizing that welcoming Hong Kong's dissidents to Canada while leaving their family members behind allows Beijing to maintain a hold over them.

"Activists like myself feel the same risk and the same pressure as if we hadn't left Hong Kong at all."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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