Caught in China’s spy web
MAN ‘SHOCKED’ THAT CANADA IS TRYING TO THROW HIM OUT
It is, in many ways, a classic immigrant success story. Leaving China to study at college and university in Toronto, Yang Wang decided to stay in Canada after his schooling ended, started a family and helped build a business that now earns him more than $100,000 a year.
But in 2006 — the same year Wang became a permanent resident — his new life took a disturbing turn. On a trip to visit his parents in Nanjing he was scooped up by Chinese intelligence, held for two weeks and interrogated relentlessly.
In a case that offers a fascinating glimpse at the unique way Chinese spies try to extend their tentacles into Canada, what government lawyers call “the vacuum- cleaner approach,” Ministry of State Security (MSS) operatives accused Wang of selling information to a Taiwanese spy — a friend at Toronto’s York University. They said they would jail him and ruin his family if he didn’t co-operate. Among his assignments was to report back on Chinese pro- democracy groups and Falun Gong members in Canada.
He denies he carried out those tasks, but in 2014 the Canada Border Services Agency — learning from Wang himself of his relationship with China’s international spy agency — deemed him inadmissible to Canada for allegedly having worked for foreign intelligence. It meant that he could be deported, leaving his wife and two children behind.
The Immigration and Refugee Board ( IRB) later overturned the CBSA decision, citing, in part, testimony from two U. S. experts. But the government is appealing that decision, convinced the 39- year- old is or was a spy for Beijing.
“While he was a student at York University, Mr. Wang made a decision that he regrets to this day,” say written arguments CBSA lawyers filed earlier in the case. “Mr. Wang entered the world of espionage.”
But the IRB said Wang’s conversations under duress with Chinese intelligence were “more small talk than spying” and no bar to his living in Canada.
Wang himself thought Canadian authorities would be sympathetic when he told them about his grilling at the hands of the MSS, and is “shocked” they’re seeking to throw him out of the country, said his lawyer, Hadayt Nazami.
“It’s all rather bizarre for him,” Nazami said. “There was never any intelligence exchanged, he doesn’t have any intelligence to exchange … I don’t even know how it became an issue.”
The appeal is set to resume soon, and a Federal Court judge last month upheld a ruling compelling Wang to testify, again.
The MSS is a “very unusual intelligence agency,” distinct from Western counterparts like the CIA and MI6, said Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and intelligence expert.
China’s use of computer hacking and other methods to steal military- industrial secrets is well documented, with a Canadian Security Intelligence Service brief- ing note last year saying it remains a major intelligence threat.
But Wark said the MSS also casts a wide net, co-opting members of the Chinese diaspora who could one day land in key jobs, or could simply provide information on what China perceives as overseas threats. Those would include the Falun Gong, supporters of Taiwan independence and advocates of democracy in China.
“They do really engage in mass collection, using as many instruments to gather as much information as they can,” Wark said. “It poses a huge challenge for countries like Canada in terms of their counter- intelligence activities … You can’t cast the whole Chinese Canadian community under suspicion.”
Wang arrived in Canada in 1998, studying first at Seneca College, then at York, where he earned an administrative-studies degree, according to court documents based largely on statements he made to the CBSA and at an immigration hearing.
It was at university he became friends with Mak Zenj, a student from Taiwan, who asked him for information on his homeland, and then offered him $3,000 for documents about China, CBSA submissions say. Wang obliged, getting paid a number of times for turning over open- source information he had simply gleaned from the Internet.
He had already concluded “Mak” worked for Taiwan’s Military Intelligence Bureau (MIB), though Wark says it is also possible the friend was really a false- flag operative for China, designed to place Wang in a compromising position. Regardless, Mak left Canada in 2003 while Wang put down roots and started Reach Max Enterprises, a plastics recycling firm with a plant in China that pays him an average of $100,000 a year in dividends.
He was standing outside his parents’ house during that 2006 visit when three or f our security officers hustled him into a car and took him away. Wang wasn’t freed for another two weeks.
MSS agents who called themselves “Mr. Chang and Mr. Chong” revealed they knew about his relationship with Mak, and threatened to throw him in prison indefinitely and ruin his parents, a doctor and university professor. Wang was terrified, believing he might even die, says the 2015 IRB decision in his favour.
He signed a document of some kind, provided extensive information on friends and acquaintances in Canada and pledged to help the security service in future. He met with Chang and Chong on two later visits to China, and kept the same phone number so he could field their calls. Wang followed through on instructions to renew contacts with Mak, though he garnered little useful information.
But when the spies asked him to join Chinese- Canadian associations in Canada, and to report on the activities of Falun Gong, Wang says he told them he was “too busy.” The agents ended contact with him entirely after 2010.
Government lawyers argue it “defies the bounds of credibility” that he could have so easily sloughed off the request to spy within Canada, and suggest that even if Wang has not been in touch with the MSS recently, he could be a sleeper agent – a “fish at the bottom of the ocean” in Chinese spy parlance – who will be activated later.
His l awyers cited two experts on Chinese spying – Peter Mattis of the Jamestown Foundation in Washi ngton, D. C., and Joseph Fitsanakis of Coastal Carolina University – who said there is no evidence Wang was anything more than an involuntary “contact” of the agency.
“This case has little to do with Canada, other than the fact that it partly took place on Canadian soil,” Wang’s lawyers wrote.
A Chinese- Canadian businessman is fighting government allegations that he spied for China, in a case that illustrates the Chinese “vacuum cleaner” approach to intelligence gathering.