Critics of the communist government of China have been subjected to harassment and threats by Chinese government agents even while living in Canada, Global News reports.
Mehmet Tohti, shortly before attempting to give a speech raising awareness of China's ongoing genocide against Uyghurs, received a text message shortly before his rally telling him that his "f***ing mother is dead."
"And then my mother and 37 family members, close relatives, disappeared," Tohti said of his family back in China. He never heard from them again.
Tohti himself says that foreign agents have arrived at his house to ask him questions, and suspicious vehicles have occasionally been parked on his street for weeks without moving, and nobody in the neighbourhood could identify them.
"And I don't think the Canadian government understands, truly understands the struggles that Chinese dissidents have been struggling with, not only in the past year, but in the past few decades," he said.
Cherie Wong, who runs Alliance Canada Hong Kong, is another activist who has faced threats from the Chinese government while living in Canada. For years, she has faced death and rape threats for her activism, leading her to take precautions before organizing events.
While on a trip to Vancouver to launch her organization, Wong had a hotel room booked under a different name from her own. Nevertheless, while staying at the hotel, she received an anonymous and mysterious phone call.
"We're coming to get you," the caller said.
"It was a very threatening tone on the phone, telling me that 'we know where you are, this is your room number, and we’re coming to get you,'" Wong recalled. "I sat in my room and just started shaking, realizing that I could be in very real danger and not knowing what to do."
After contacting police about the threatening phone call, police told her that there was nothing they could do to help her, a common line given to anti-China activists seeking protection from threats.
"What dissidents face in Canada is often on the grey area of criminal harassment and just discomfort that you feel [in] daily life," Wong lamented. "I can assure you most of the harassment that I personally have experienced, aside from the very extreme death and rape threats, are not criminal activities. But they equally create the same threat for me and my family, whether here in Canada or in Hong Kong."
One of the biggest threats faced by anti-China activists in Canada is threats against their families back in China, as Tohti became the victim of. Wong explained that the families of those who speak out against the Chinese government often receive "tea visits" from government operatives.
"They come and knock on your door and say, 'we're coming in to talk to you about your family,'" Wong explained, noting that the Chinese government will ask them to tell their family members to cease their activities.
"How do you report that to the RCMP?" Wong asked rhetorically.
Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan-Canadian, has the same fear. While serving as student president of the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus, Lhamo often brought Hong Kong students to her office, only to begin meeting them in secrecy after people began taking pictures of the students going to meet with her.
"That means that their families back home would also be subjected to threats, so I had to meet them, actually, in secrecy," she said. "People would actually come in wearing their masks… like a full head on, sometimes clown masks and sometimes V for Vendetta-type masks, to enter my office to be able to talk to me."
After becoming student president, Lhamo says that she became the victim of a harassment campaign, often involving both direct and veiled threats of violence.
"I was attacked by these thousands and thousands, I would say over 10,000 messages and comments, which were not just hate speech. I had death threats, rape threats, and they were against me, but also targeting my family members," she said.
Some of the messages include statements such as "[you] can say whatever [you] want but [your] mom die" and "two planes sent from Chinese government will arrive will arrive right in front of your door giving [you] a 'warm' hello."
A number of the threats were directed towards her mother, a similar pattern to what was experienced by the Uyghur activist Tohti.
"That's just a peek into the life that I had to live because of the Chinese state influence, despite being born in India and raised in Toronto," she said.
According to Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS analyst who is now a professor at Carleton University, lack of laws against "clandestine foreign influence" make it difficult for Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies to respond to such threats.
"There's laws against targeted harassment. There's laws against intimidating people and uttering threats. But by and large, this becomes very, very hard to prosecute," she explained. "Sometimes CSIS will interview these individuals just to get a better picture of what’s happening. But at the end of the day, there really isn't a lot we can do unless we know that these activities are specifically linked to individuals who may be at a consulate or embassy."
Wong and Tohti agree with Carvin, and have called for the Canadian government to develop a formal registry of foreign agents. It would "bring to light that there are foreign actors active here in Canada, whether Chinese or otherwise, carrying out state sanctioned operations," Wong argued.