In “China Unbound: A New World Disorder,” Toronto Star reporter Joanna Chiu examines China’s growing influence around the world, including in western countries, and its surveillance and human rights abuses that increasingly extend beyond its borders.
Dear Joanna Chiu,
I am (Dan). I am from China. I just graduated from (a Quebec university). I hesitated for a whole night before deciding to write this email …
Now I am living in Canada, but I am living with fear from the Chinese government.
Dan, whose name I’ve changed to protect his identity, hails from one of China’s picturesque and relatively laidback southwestern provinces. He studied English diligently and was elated when a top Canadian university accepted his application to study law.
About a month before the start of the September 2017 session, when Dan was still in China, the university issued his student credentials, and with them he received access to a virtual private network (VPN). The tool allowed him — for the first time in his life — to scale the “Great Firewall of China” and access an uncensored internet.
Curious, the 21-year-old thought he might check out some overseas social media sites, connect with future classmates, and read world news; that way, he wouldn’t seem so out of touch once he arrived. He would be joining a cohort of Chinese international students in Canada totalling around 140,000 that year.
He decided to take a few basic precautions, since he hadn’t left China yet. He signed up for Twitter using a fake name and fake location, and even set his gender to female.
To his amazement, the platform was already full of Chinese-language users. A whole network of bloggers, artists, independent journalists and scholars were engaging in a level of dialogue on Chinese politics he had never seen.
Once Dan arrived in Canada and began adjusting to a new city and a new university, he continued to browse Twitter in his dorm room. He was too nervous to actually join in any conversations. He retweeted only three posts: the news that Nobel laureate and Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo had died, a short satirical video about President Xi Jinping, and a chart on levels of Chinese government corruption.
With only two followers, he wasn’t making a splash — but sharing those posts still gave him a thrill. His undergraduate studies did offer some opportunities to discuss international political systems, and the problem of lower-level government corruption wasn’t a completely taboo topic, but virtually all Chinese people know that publicly supporting high-profile dissidents or satirizing top leaders is strictly forbidden.
Months passed. Life got busy, and Dan didn’t have time to keep up his exploration of social media. He never got involved in any political activities on campus either. Rather, he focused on learning about the Canadian legal system in hopes of staying and working in the country.
Then his father called him out of the blue, clearly disturbed. “Son, did you say something about the Chinese government on the internet? The public security bureau called us twice.”
China’s public security bureaus are police stations that also oversee some migration matters. They sometimes work with the United Front Work Department to monitor Chinese nationals living abroad, though the Ministry of State Security secret police typically handle higher-profile cases.
The year before, in 2016, the CCP had added a new bureau to the United Front Work Department to ensure that certain professionals and returning overseas Chinese students acted in accordance with CCP objectives.
Announcing the new unit — called the New Social Classes Work Bureau — the United Front’s chairwoman, Sun Chunlan, said the initiative would target professionals in private and foreign-owned enterprises; people working in NGOs, including lawyers and accountants; “new media” professionals (those working for online news sources); and returning Chinese overseas students. “The new social classes are highly mobile, scattered, active in thinking and diverse in ideas …[They] are the new focus as well as an innovative aspect of United Front work. They can be a highlight if the work is done well,” she wrote.
The United Front seeks to turn potential threats into allies. As both an overseas student and a future lawyer studying at a Canadian university, Dan was an ideal target to coerce into someone who would support the motherland rather than become a detractor. “Diversity” and “active” thinking are positive attributes in the eyes of Chinese officials only as long as people don’t develop critical views of the Party.
Soon after Dan got the warning from his father, a police officer contacted him on the WeChat social media app. Dan hadn’t accepted a new friend request, but the officer was able to send him messages and call him anyway.
“I told him maybe they found the wrong person,” Dan told me over a video call in mid-2019.
His email to me earlier that week contained a detailed timeline of what happened, along with screenshots and audio recordings of his conversations with the public security agent. I was impressed by his detailed documentation.
On our video call, I could see a large library atrium behind him with floor-to-ceiling windows. Dan was dressed neatly in a white polo shirt and spoke precise and nearly fluent English.
“The police told me the Ministry of Public Security (China’s internal policing department) tracked me by my IP address and knows where I live in Canada. They have evidence the Twitter account belongs to me,” Dan said, his voice dropping to a whisper. Police never spelled out what Dan had done wrong, exactly, such as whether he violated any Chinese internet regulations or committed any crime.
Making use of his law school training, Dan had subtly tried to glean information from the police officer while not admitting to anything. But the officer only offered cryptic replies about a “classified” investigation and ordered Dan to immediately delete the offensive posts.
The officer never raised his voice, but his tone became sterner as the conversation went on. When Dan asked what would happen if he refused to accept responsibility for the Twitter account, the agent told him in Mandarin, “You will face trouble.”
“Trouble” is a well-known euphemism in China for state persecution. It can range from repeated visits and phone calls all the way to travel bans, rejection for jobs and house arrest. Chinese authorities also routinely threaten relatives in China to silence dissidents abroad. In a report on the topic by the international NGO Human Rights Watch, a Vancouver technology consultant explained, “If I criticize the (CCP) publicly, my parents’ retirement benefits, their health insurance benefits could all be taken away.”
“To be honest, I’m terrified,” Dan whispered to me, so students in the library wouldn’t hear him.
Dan had confided in one of his professors, who expressed alarm about the threatening call and urged him to report it to Quebec police. But when the student showed up with all his files, police officers said they couldn’t do anything about activities that happened in China.
“You can delete the posts, but you don’t have to,” an officer said, shrugging.
That was never the question; Dan knew he had freedom of speech on Canadian soil. But while he hadn’t been sure what police could do to help his parents in China, he’d thought they would at least accept his report so that, if something ever happened to him or his family, they would have something on file.
Crestfallen, Dan removed the retweets.
Back in his dorm room, he was left to wonder how Chinese authorities were able to track him overseas, why they would care about his influence on an audience of two — and how a democratic country like Canada could do so little to protect him.