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Canadian mayors may have unwittingly been targets of Chinese influence campaign

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: (March 12, 2020) This story has been updated to provide Falun Gong’s response to the statement from the Chinese Consul General.

When a group of seven Vancouver-area mayors landed in Beijing in April 2007, they believed they were in China to study eco-friendly development and build trade ties for British Columbia.  

But an investigation by Global News raises questions about whether the Canadian mayors were unwittingly drawn into an influence campaign aimed at improving perceptions of China and reducing criticism of human rights abuses.

Billionaire real estate developer and former People’s Liberation Army officer Li Zhe organized the trip and approached then-Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini and invited him on the all-expenses paid trip to Beijing. Trasolini then forwarded invitations to the other mayors, former North Vancouver mayor Darrell Mussatto told Global News.

The weeklong trip was a whirlwind for the B.C. mayors, Trasolini said. Li Zhe arranged many meetings with mayors from towns and cities surrounding Beijing, and they mingled with their counterparts and enjoyed the best of Chinese cuisine.

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Mussatto said a highlight of the trip was the B.C. delegation’s introduction to Beijing vice-mayor Chen Gang — a senior Chinese Communist Party official — who made a convincing case to the B.C. mayors that China was taking climate change seriously and doing sustainable real estate development.

“I came away impressed that China gets it,” Mussatto said. “Or, at least the vice-mayor of Beijing gets it.”

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

The delegation also visited a number of Li Zhe’s buildings in Beijing, Trasolini and Mussatto told Global News, including ‘Riverside’ — a mostly unoccupied luxury condo project.

“There was never any suggestion of anything but good relations between the two countries (China and Canada),” Trasolini said.

But members of the religious group Falun Gong — which is persecuted in Mainland China — say they believe Trasolini’s participation in the junket may have influenced his position on the persecuted group. 

Falun Gong member Sue Zhang told Global News that Trasolini had been very supportive of her group from 2002 until 2007.

Zhang claimed Trasolini had also informed her once, that a visitor from the Chinese consulate in Vancouver had asked him not to support Falun Gong, but that Trasolini told Zhang he would not be pressured.

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Trasolini acknowledged that Sue Zhang is correct; as Port Moody mayor he started supporting Falun Gong starting in 2002, and the Chinese consulate wasn’t pleased. 

READ MORE: Hong Kong Canadians question alleged pro-Beijing backing for prominent Liberal candidate

“There was a call, we are talking about 2003, or 2004, from the office of the consulate, inquiring about, that I have seen Falun Gong,” Trasolini said. “I remember, definitely they were not in favour. But I wasn’t the sort of person that would be intimidated by a phone call.”

“Unfortunately, he stopped issuing us proclamations after 2007,” Zhang said. 

Trasolini denied his decision to withdraw support from Falun Gong proclamations after 2007 was connected to influence from Li Zhe or the Chinese consulate or Trasolini’s participation in the Beijing junket. And he said he wasn’t asked during the junket to withdraw support of Falun Gong. 

Trasolini drew a distinction between his “personal” support for Falun Gong, and official support for the group, as Port Moody’s mayor. Asked repeatedly why he stopped signing Falun Gong month proclamations after 2007, Trasolini said he felt he couldn’t do anymore for the group than he already had done.

“The only thing that might have happened, is there could have been questions (from Sue Zhang), of what I could do more,” Trasolini said. 

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Making friends of China

According to a profile story in the People’s Daily — which is the official news organization of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party — Li Zhe came to Canada with the intention of using his real estate business to persuade Canadian politicians to view China more favorably. 

And based on his successful “people-to-people diplomacy” in Vancouver, Li’s pro-China influence campaigns in the West had “been fully affirmed and supported by relevant Beijing authorities.”

“A few years ago, Li Zhe met a Canadian official who had never been to China, but was hostile to China,” the 2011 People’s Daily report said. “In order to change the official’s attitude towards China and give him a chance to meet a real and friendly China, Li Zhe invited him to come and visit China.

“It was that trip to China that completely changed that Canadian official’s one-sided view of China.” 

Since that initial success, Li’s plan to invite 10 foreign mayors to Beijing per year — including leaders from Canada, United States, France and Italy — was in “full swing” the report said.

The People’s Daily story didn’t indicate the Canadian official that Li was referring to, and Li could not be reached in Beijing for comment. 

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The Chinese consulate in Vancouver did not answer questions about Li Zhe.

“This individual Li Zhe, he was representing the Chinese municipalities, and he was more of a facilitator,” Trasolini said. “He was there in Beijing, and he seemed very respected. But he kind of fell out of sight, a few years later.” 

In interviews regarding the Beijing junket, Trasolini and Mussatto said that in 2007 they had no idea of the information that Global News has learned: Li Zhe is officially connected to China’s so-called “magic weapon” of foreign influence, the United Front Works Department.

‘Magic Weapon’

A Chinese government website says that Li is now vice-chair of the Beijing Overseas Chinese Federation, which according to the government webpage, is directed by elite Chinese Communist officials, and the United Front Works Department. 

Official reports from China also connect Li to high-level United Front meetings and Communist officials. However, it isn’t known whether Li was connected to the United Front in 2007, at the time of the Beijing junket.

According to the Financial Times and reports from CSIS and the United States government, the United Front Works Department is one of Beijing’s most powerful intelligence gathering and influence agencies, and the department seeks to control Chinese diaspora populations and foreign leaders.  

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The Times investigation — which cited United Front manuals — explained tactics which seem to mirror what Li Zhe aimed to achieve.

Operations in countries including Canada are directed from China’s Politburo, “to charm, co-opt or attack well-defined groups and individuals,” The Times reported, in order “to win support for China’s political agenda, accumulate influence overseas and gather key information.”

The United Front has expanded significantly under Xi Jinping in recent years, in order to press China’s policy in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Western nations, Australian academics Alex Joske and Clive Hamilton, told Global News. Hamilton said that Vancouver appears to be a top target for United Front influence operations.  

China’s government says that the United Front supports the ideological and policy goals of Xi Jinping, such as the “peaceful reunification of Taiwan” and the promotion of loyalty to the “motherland” among Chinese diaspora populations living in the West. The United Front also promotes stability in Hong Kong, Macau and Xinjiang, China’s government says. But China doesn’t acknowledge that the United Front is involved in clandestine intelligence gathering.

However, a Canadian and Security Intelligence Services source that Global News agreed not to identify said the agency is now increasing counter-intelligence agents to combat China’s influence and espionage operations as a top national security priority — which is a changed focus, after CSIS had prioritized counter-terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.

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‘It is a very serious situation’

Trasolini, in an interview, said the junket of seven Metro Vancouver mayors also visited Li’s Riverside project, in 2007.  

As for his own involvement, Mussatto said he considered the paid trip to Beijing a great chance to study China’s sustainable development goals, without Canadian taxpayers footing the bill.

Corporate reports from Chinese private wealth research company Hurun, say Li Zhe has a fortune of $2.7 billion and Riverside is his main company. 

Trasolini, who has retired from politics, said the new information that Global News has learned about Li Zhe’s background, could provide a cautionary notification to active Canadian politicians. 

“From what you have said, the naivety of the time where we were being encouraged to make connections (with China), we took that at face value. In hindsight, it seems like the people of today, need to be careful.” 

In an interview with Global News about allegations in this story, Andy Ellis, a former senior official with CSIS, said “if the allegations of these sources are true, which they may very well be, it is a very serious situation.” 

Ellis said that the People’s Republic of China “does not respect or recognize the need for sovereignty in foreign states,” and “the Chinese Government’s alleged attempts to influence and even extort local and provincial politicians is neither new, nor surprising.”  

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The Chinese Consul General in Vancouver was asked to respond to questions about Li Zhe, and answer whether the consulate had approached Joe Trasolini, and asked him to withdraw his support for a Falun Gong day proclamation.

The consulate did not answer detailed questions but provided this statement.

“Falun Gong is a cult organisation which was banned by the Chinese government by the law. They are tricksters who are deceiving everywhere, including Canada and engage in anti- China separation activities.

The Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Vancouver has been devoted to the promotion of exchanges and cooperation in all areas between B.C., Yukon and China, deepening the understanding and friendship between the two peoples.”

But members of Falun Gong say the Chinese state’s branding of the group as a “cult” is part of an ongoing propaganda campaign used to justify a brutal crackdown on practitioners in China. Falun Gong is a peaceful spiritual practice that follows the principles of compassion, truthfulness and forbearance.