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B.C. politician breaks silence: China detained me, is interfering ‘in our democracy’

Veteran Chinese-Canadian politician says he was improperly detained in China

A veteran Chinese-Canadian politician is coming forward to reveal that upon landing at the Shanghai airport in November 2015, Chinese authorities improperly detained him, separated him from his wife for eight hours, confiscated and searched his B.C. government phone and accused him of “endangering national security” before cancelling his visa and ordering him to fly back to Canada.

And since his detention, he said, China’s interference in Canadian society has increased in myriad ways, including aggressive attempts to influence our political system and elected leaders, control Chinese-Canadian immigrants, and silence all criticism of Beijing’s policies. 

Richard Lee, the B.C. Liberal MLA for Burnaby from 2001 to 2017, provided Global News with a letter outlining his allegations, sent on Jan. 1, 2019, to then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Ex-B.C. MLA says he was improperly detained in Shanghai
Ex-B.C. MLA says he was improperly detained in Shanghai

Lee’s letter says he had planned to go public with his story after returning to Vancouver from Shanghai, but decided not to “in consideration of the potential damage to the relationship between China and Canada.”

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“I was deputy speaker of B.C. government, so if I call a press conference, at that time the relationship [between Canada and China], things are going well,” Lee said in an interview. “So a situation like this could cause a lot of problems.”

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Former B.C. politician Richard Lee warns Canadians about China travel
Former B.C. politician Richard Lee warns Canadians about China travel

But since 2015, Lee claims he has seen increasing interference in Canada’s political system by China’s government, including private warnings from consular officials that Canadian politicians refrain from speaking out on issues that might anger China.

And after China jailed Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on vague national security grounds in late 2018, Lee says he felt reminded of the injustice in his own case.

“I was accused of endangering China’s national security,” Lee said.

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“So my point is, it could happen to anyone. If someone in Canada does something not to China’s liking, your visa will be cancelled. It’s a serious situation.”

He decided to put his case on the record with his letter emailed to China’s then-ambassador Lu Shaye and Freeland, and ‘CCed to Trudeau, and Canada’s then-justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

About a year later, Lee had not received any response from Canada’s government, until Global News started to investigate his story. Finally on Wednesday, the day after Global News forwarded a copy of Lee’s complaint to China’s embassy in Vancouver along with questions for this story, Trudeau’s office emailed Lee “to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence.”

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Leaked documents reveal China’s surveillance of minority Uighurs
Leaked documents reveal China’s surveillance of minority Uighurs

But Lee says China’s interference in Canadian politics is already deeply ingrained, and he believes China’s Consulate General in Vancouver is pressuring Chinese-Canadian community groups to ostracize him. 

“I have freedom of speech and association, but (the Chinese consulate) said I could not do that in Canada,” Lee said. “There is many Chinese-Canadian associations that don’t consider themselves to be free, to speak against this interference.”

So Lee has decided now, the Canadian public should hear his story.

Tiananmen Square

30 years after Tiananmen Square massacre, China’s restrictions on freedom remain
30 years after Tiananmen Square massacre, China’s restrictions on freedom remain

Since being elected for the B.C. Liberals in 2001, Lee says he has promoted good relations and trade with China. But he also believed in vocally supporting democracy and made a habit of commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre every June 4 by joining candle-lighting services in front of China’s embassy in Vancouver.

This is the kind of activity — along with publicly supporting Taiwan’s independence or democracy protesters in Hong Kong, or speaking out on China’s persecution of religious groups or mass detentions of Uighurs — that China’s foreign services are increasingly suppressing internationally, according to Lee and other community leaders interviewed by Global News.

Lee said he was aware some of his statements displeased China but didn’t see any danger in late 2015, when he and his wife decided to celebrate their 30th anniversary with a trip to Shanghai. When they landed in Shanghai, Lee says, he was separated from his wife and placed in a room with two officials.

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“My wife was scared, because she didn’t know what was happening to me,” Lee said.

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“We could not communicate.”

The officials took Lee’s personal phone and his B.C. government Blackberry, Lee said. They returned and demanded access to Lee’s password-protected Blackberry, which required Lee to reveal his passcode. 

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Lee says he knew this could give the Chinese officials access to confidential Canadian government information, but he thought the Chinese officials were more interested in looking into his personal activities in Canada, as a Chinese community leader. 

Also, he was afraid he would be separated from his wife for days, or worse.

So Lee gave them his passcode, and he believes the officials examined his B.C. legislative assembly account emails, while he was made to wait for about eight hours.

“I was watched by one of the people, and sometimes I was left alone sitting there,” Lee said. “When I went to the washroom, I was accompanied by two people.”

As the phone examination continued, Lee says he asked: “Why I’m here? And they said, what you did, is considered endangering China’s national security. They did not specify the reasons at all, of the allegations against me.”

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He says he also asked to speak to the Canadian Consulate General in Shanghai and the ambassador of Canada, but was refused.

Finally, the officials returned his phone, and demanded that he and his family leave China immediately. Lee says he asked if they could fly to Hong Kong instead, but was told to return to Vancouver.

U.S. Senator says Americans should ‘go to bat’ for detained Canadians in China
U.S. Senator says Americans should ‘go to bat’ for detained Canadians in China

When he arrived in British Columbia, Lee says he disclosed the circumstances of his detention, and the examination of his B.C. government Blackberry, to his B.C. Liberal caucus. Lee says he does not know whether B.C. Liberal leaders ever informed the RCMP about his Shanghai detention, and the possibility that the Chinese government obtained confidential B.C. government information by examining Lee’s Blackberry. The party has not answered questions from Global News on Lee’s allegations.

In the absence of any explanation of China’s action against him, Lee says he believed he must have been blacklisted by the PRC, for ignoring repeated warnings about commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The warnings had come directly — according to Lee — from Liu Fei, China’s then-consul general in Vancouver. But the consulate’s warnings were also relayed, Lee said, through the B.C. Liberal party.

“On one occasion the consul general, Liu Fei, she told me directly I should not attend the commemoration of the June 4 services,” Lee said. “And she complained to some of my colleagues that I should not (attend June 4 services). Inside the party, they informed me that they had been told by the consul general, I should not do this.”  

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Lee told Global News that he’s reluctant to name the B.C. Liberals that relayed the Chinese consulate’s warnings to him. But he pointed to a senior B.C. Liberal government minister, and said the party caucus had a number of meetings regarding Liu’s statement.

The senior B.C. Liberal leader could not be reached by deadline to answer questions for this story.

The B.C. Liberal party has been forwarded a number of questions for this story and has yet to respond to the allegations made by Lee.

Carlie Pochynok, director of communications for the B.C. Liberal caucus, provided this statement.

“In regards to Richard Lee reporting his phone confiscation to the Party and whether or not anyone did anything with that info, I don’t know,” the statement says. “I don’t know who he reported this to and as this was almost five years ago, a large portion of leadership from that time is no longer part of this organization and I can’t speak on their behalf.”

Liu left her post in 2017 and was replaced as consul general by Tong Xiaoling. The consulate in Vancouver has not yet responded to questions from Global News regarding allegations in this story.

Global News asked B.C. Attorney General David Eby if he is concerned that confidential B.C. government information may now be in the hands of the Chinese government.

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“It’s a concerning and disturbing story on a number of levels, about what may have been on (Lee’s) phone,” Eby said. “It’s a story that has international implications for Canada and our relationship with China, and that is why I will be writing to the federal attorney general, and asking the federal government to look into this, and offering B.C.’s assistance, to get to the bottom of whatever happened.”

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Global News forwarded Lee’s letter to the Chinese consulate on Tuesday at 3:40 p.m. and requested interviews with Chinese officials in Canada by Wednesday afternoon. The Chinese government has not responded.

But on Wednesday afternoon, Lee received an email from Trudeau’s office that is ‘CCed to Canada’s new foreign affairs minister, Francois-Phillipe Champagne.

“On behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I would like to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence,” the letter says. “Please be assured your comments have been carefully reviewed. In your correspondence, you raise an issue that falls within the portfolio of (Champagne.)”

“I haven’t talked to them yet,” Lee said on Wednesday. “If they call me, I will answer any questions.”

According to Vancouver journalist Gao Bingchen, founder of a B.C. pro-democracy group, he knows at least one other Chinese-Canadian has been detained while others may be blacklisted by the PRC for their activities in Canada, and face, threats and pressure when they return to China.

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In an interview with Global News, Gao said that one member of his pro-democracy group described such a detention.

“The member returned to Anhui province in China, and the national security representatives held her. They released her and they asked her to continue the relationship with our democracy group, but they wanted her to report back to national security (about the group members in Vancouver.),” Gao said.

  • with files from Ina Mitchell