EDITORS NOTE: Since this story was published all charges against suspect Wei Wei have been withdrawn, York Regional Police confirmed in May 2021. Wei’s counsel has raised questions about whether evidence seized from Wei in the investigation, including expensive watches, was misappropriated by police.
B.C. real estate developer Yongtao Chen stepped onto the podium in a Vancouver hotel ballroom and enthusiastically waved a red flag to a loud round of applause.
He had just accepted a new role as chairman of the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations (CACA) and was displaying their banner at an August 2018 political gala in Vancouver.
The alliance is a pro-Beijing umbrella group that says it represents about 100 Chinese community associations across Canada and works with Chinese state officials to build mutually beneficial ties between the two nations.
But Canadian intelligence sources suspect the organization is part of a network directed from Beijing to undertake both legal and illegal tasks abroad.
Some 400 people were in the crowd at the gala, decked out in tailored suits and evening gowns. The guests included China’s top consular officials in B.C. and Canadian politicians from all levels of government.
Chen pledged to build ties between community groups in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and “unite entrepreneurs” under the alliance’s banner.
One of the entrepreneurs in the room was Yongtao Chen’s business partner, a Toronto real estate tycoon named Wei Wei.
But two years later, Wei is facing multiple criminal charges in relation to allegations that he was running illegal gambling operations out of his massive marble-floored 53-room mansion in Markham, Ont.
And according to law enforcement sources, the business and political ties of some CACA leaders like Wei and Yongtao Chen are of increasing concern for Canada’s national security as RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service investigators probe networks they believe may involve the hidden hand of the Chinese state and organized crime.
The sources say they see many “mind-blowing” links between China-based transnational cartels operating in Vancouver and Toronto, and numerous decadent underground casinos believed to be laundering drug cash in sprawling mansions with imposing column-style architecture, in the suburbs of Richmond and Markham.
Alleged criminal activities in both cities have come into focus in recent weeks following a targeted shooting at a trendy restaurant in Richmond on Sept. 18. The Richmond shooting came two months after York Regional Police raided Wei’s Markham mansion, making 45 arrests and seizing 11 weapons with ammunition and $1 million in cash.
York police revealed some details of their Markham investigation in September, explaining that a guns, gangs and drug probe into illegal casinos across the city eventually led to the mansion at 5 DeCourcy Court, a $10-million property believed to be Canada’s largest-ever illegal casino.
Police also announced a list of illegal gambling and weapons charges against Wei, the operation’s alleged mastermind, and illegal gambling charges against his wife Xing Yue Chen.
Det. Sgt. Ahmad Salhia of York’s organized crime bureau told Global News that police were surprised by the scale of what they found at Wei’s mansion.
He described it as a sophisticated operation with $20,000 per hand baccarat betting limits that may have used cryptocurrency as well as cash.
A high-end restaurant with a maitre ‘d appeared to be serving families with children in a landscaped courtyard while police believe that alleged gambling and potential sex trafficking occurred in all 53 mansion rooms.
The police allegations against Wei and his wife haven’t been proven, and Wei’s first court date is in November.
Canadian corporate records reviewed by Global News show that Wei Wei and his wife control many companies and properties in Canada.
The records also show that Wei, Xing Yue Chen and CACA’s chairman Yongtao Chen are directors of an Ontario numbered company that bought two Toronto-area hotels in December 2017, for $75-million.
The corporate managers of the two Toronto-area hotels, including the Edward Hotel in Markham, did not respond to requests for comment from Global News.
There is no allegation in York police’s ongoing investigation that funds invested in the hotels are connected to the alleged illegal casino in Markham.
But a federal police source with knowledge of the Wei investigation said the charges against Wei and his wife raise questions about large-scale money laundering.
And Det. Sgt. Salhia of York police said Wei has “many properties” and that the continuing investigation — which is also looking at potential human trafficking and prostitution allegations — could target these properties as proceeds of crime.
York police also said that high-stakes illegal gambling generates tremendous profits to fund drug trafficking and prostitution businesses and leads to “gun violence, armed robberies, kidnappings, extortion and other serious violent offences,” in the region.
Meanwhile, several intelligence sources have told Global News that key players involved in the Markham network have met this year in Richmond with Paul King Jin, a notorious alleged loan shark and illegal casino operator targeted in the Sept. 18 shooting at Manzo restaurant.
In addition, Global News has found numerous photos and online reports showing that Yongtao Chen and a number of other CACA leaders have been associating with Jin repeatedly in recent years, at locations including a Richmond business linked to illegal casino and money laundering allegations.
The connections of CACA leaders with alleged illegal casino operators including Jin and Wei appear to be in keeping with the practices utilized by Beijing’s so-called United Front, intelligence sources said. And the fact that alleged criminals and leaders from CACA frequently attend meetings endorsed by China’s official United Front Work Department supports this allegation, the sources say.
President Xi Jinping has called the United Front a “magic weapon” to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s influence abroad and to support Beijing’s policy in jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Chinese officials deny the United Front is involved in illegal activity and interference.
But experts such as David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador to China, say the Party uses organized crime in United Front networks to infiltrate Western governments.
“There is a very tight, incestuous relationship between organized crime in China and within diaspora communities, and the United Front,” Mulroney said in an interview. “Co-opting criminal networks is one of the Party’s preferred tools for the infiltration of target organizations and communities for foreign interference operations.”
And a number of Canadian intelligence sources interviewed by Global News say it is suspected Beijing mobilizes leaders in business and politics in the United Front, while clandestinely using organized crime agents for illegal tasks including human smuggling and money laundering.
In an interview, Scott McGregor, a former intelligence expert for the RCMP who also advised B.C.’s Attorney General David Eby on casino money laundering intelligence, said “the connectivity between the United Front and transnational organized crime” has been observed by police for years in Canada.
Trends in intelligence show that “utilizing transnational crime to move people and money, is an area that the United Front would be interested in,” McGregor said.
And he believes B.C.’s upcoming Commission of Inquiry into money laundering should consider the United Front’s alleged usage of criminal agents active in both illegal and government casinos across Canada.
“Transnational organized crime includes having a centre of gravity in the host nation, so they can conduct threat financing or money laundering, and the activity we are seeing in Canada, touches on those things,” McGregor said.
“What they are talking about (in B.C.) is not low-level money laundering gangs that are trying to move their money through businesses. We are talking about international organizations, and their connections to nation states operating in Canada. So, it would be very difficult not to have those considerations scrutinized in the (Cullen Commission) Inquiry.”
According to current and former Canadian intelligence officers, China has been very effective at using real estate and casino tycoons and their political donations to facilitate meetings between their government representatives and Canadian officials. One of the sources told Global News that Canada has failed to counter this increasing threat of ‘elite capture.’
In 2016 and 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participated in at least a handful of fundraising events in the Toronto and Vancouver regions that featured wealthy entrepreneurs such as Wei. A media report in the National Post also revealed that Trudeau met twice with Wei, including at a Toronto-area Liberal fundraiser in 2016.
Also with Wei at these meetings was a Chinese billionaire and member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Bin Zhang, who later made a $1-million donation to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, the Globe and Mail previously reported.
A former CSIS intelligence officer told Global News that he was concerned about donations to the Trudeau foundation from a Chinese tycoon.
In response to questions for this story Foundation spokesperson Thomas Ledwell stated: “The Foundation is an apolitical charity that, apart from our relationship with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, is completely independent from the government. Our mission is, and always has been, to support doctoral researchers to have meaningful impact through their work.”
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Trudeau received donations in 2016 from a Chinese national named Rongxiang ‘Tiger’ Yuan.
Yuan was never charged with wrongdoing, but was identified as “Suspect 2” in RCMP’s investigations into activities in Richmond which probed “VIP” gamblers and suspected loan sharks allegedly involved in “transnational money laundering” at Richmond’s River Rock Casino, according to B.C. Lottery Corp. investigation records obtained by Global News.
And a collection of separate confidential RCMP documents show that some of these suspects have also been targeted by law enforcement in weapons, human trafficking and illegal hunting junket investigations.
Election financing records indicate that Yuan donated at least two times to the Liberal Party in 2016 at events in Richmond, including $1,500 to Trudeau’s Papineau Federal Liberal Association, and $1,414 to the Liberal Party of Canada. Another of Yuan’s registered donations of $1,384 to the Liberal Party of Canada, could have been the result of a clerical error, a Liberal Party spokesman said.
Photographs documenting one 2017 gala meeting where Yuan and suspects identified in RCMP documents obtained by Global News met with CACA leaders show a large framed photograph with Yuan and Trudeau shaking hands in front of a Canadian flag. The photograph, which is not part of RCMP files reviewed by Global News, appears to document a personal meeting in 2016 between Yuan and Trudeau.
In addition, confidential RCMP and also confidential B.C. Lottery Corp. records obtained by Global News indicate that Yuan is a close associate of Paul King Jin — who is identified as “Suspect 22” in the RCMP document that names Yuan and other B.C. Lottery casino high-rollers.
Jin, who allegedly operates numerous Richmond illegal casinos, was the person who survived a hail of bullets on Sept. 18 at Richmond’s Manzo sushi restaurant, that left Jin’s associate Jian Jun Zhu dead.
And Yuan’s alleged associations to Jin and other casino money laundering suspects as well as Chinese officials is a concern for Canadian criminal intelligence, several sources said.
But in response to questions from Global News for this story, Yuan’s Vancouver lawyer Daniel Reid stated: “Mr. Yuan has no information beyond what has been publicly reported concerning the shooting involving Mr. Jin, and is not a party to any of the legal proceedings involving Mr. Jin or Mr. Jun (sic) … Mr. Yuan is a successful businessman who has been an active member of the Chinese-Canadian community for many years, during which time he has met many individuals.”
And previously, one of Yuan’s lawyers stated that Yuan: “has no connection to the alleged money laundering or drug transactions. He is aware of no RCMP investigation into his actions.”
Yuan is currently suing for defamation over various publications.
In response to questions about Prime Minister Trudeau’s repeated meetings with Wei and Yuan and related donations, the Liberal party stated: “The two individuals that you have referenced do not have any role with the Liberal Party of Canada. (And) The Liberal Party of Canada fully complies with the Canada Elections Act and all Elections Canada’s strict regulations for fundraising.”
The party didn’t respond to questions about its former Vancouver area MPs, including Jody Wilson-Raybould and Joe Peschisolido, attending the CACA gala in 2018 with Yongtao Chen and Wei Wei.
Wilson-Raybould didn’t respond to an interview request, but her constituency office stated: “Ms. Wilson-Raybould, along with many other local politicians, was in attendance at a dinner to congratulate the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Association on their 10th anniversary and the 7th inauguration of the Executive council.”
Rapid growth in underground casinos
Several intelligence sources interviewed by Global News say that police believe underground casinos connected to Chinese transnational crime networks have multiplied on the west coast and also in the Toronto region because the B.C. government cracked down on massive cash transactions in B.C. Lottery casinos.
The crackdown followed media reports in late 2017 of the RCMP’s E-Pirate investigation, which targeted the network of the survivor of the recent shooting, Paul King Jin. The E-Pirate investigation focused on an alleged underground bank in Richmond that RCMP believed was linked to more than 600 bank accounts in China and Hong Kong, in an operation that laundered at least $1-billion annually for drug cartels based in China, Latin America, and the Middle East.
As Global News reported previously, charges in E-Pirate were stayed weeks before a trial was set in January 2019, because prosecutors inadvertently exposed the identity of a police source in evidence disclosure errors, and the authorities feared the source would be killed.
RCMP sources say the Richmond underground bank enabled some so-called whale gamblers from China — men that allegedly used bags of drug cash provided by Paul Jin’s network to bet up to $1-million per night in B.C. Lottery casinos — to move money between China and Vancouver, some of which is suspected to fund fentanyl imports into B.C.
Rongxiang Yuan is identified, in confidential B.C. lottery documents obtained by Global News, on a list of 10 whale gamblers who allegedly used cash from Jin to gamble at Richmond’s River Rock Casino. While Yuan was targeted in E-Pirate according to multiple sources with knowledge of the probe, he was never charged.
The sources say while suspicious cash transactions in B.C. casinos have dropped, the drug transactions linked to international crime networks involved in E-Pirate have not slowed down at all.
“The drug cash has to go somewhere,” a source said. “And that is what led to these illegal casino investigations in Markham.”
The RCMP already recognized many connections between China-based crime networks in Richmond and Markham, including international drug import and export schemes, a source said. But these connections have solidified further in 2020 because illegal casino operators in both cities have forged criminal ties, with elite suspects and gambling patrons observed travelling between respective large-scale underground casinos in Ontario and B.C., a source said.
Some of the “freaky connectivity” was first observed in 2015 — one source said — when Australian federal police notified the RCMP’s top criminal intelligence officers in Ottawa of a powerful international cartel based in Markham, with kingpins that had immigrated from southern China in the 1980s and had long-established drug-trafficking networks in Richmond and Markham.
Several sources also say that a top-tier suspect targeted in the investigation of illegal casinos in Markham had also recently met with Paul King Jin and his associates in Richmond.
In addition, high-level Chinese state officials and business leaders have reportedly traveled to Canada to visit the underground casino mansion operation allegedly run by Wei Wei, a source said.
Chinese officials known to be whale gamblers in Australian casinos, have also been investigated over massive suspicious cash transactions in B.C. government casinos, according to criminal intelligence sources and B.C. Lottery Corp. documents reviewed by Global News.
CACA ties to alleged casino criminals in B.C. and Ontario
While corporate records and reports on United Front events posted on websites that are connected to the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations bond Yongtao Chen to Wei Wei in business and political relationships, similarly, a Global News review of corporate, legal and United Front event reports in B.C., shows that Yongtao Chen and many CACA leaders that frequently meet with China’s consulate leaders in Vancouver, have attended and reportedly sponsored events at Warrior Fighting Dream, a multi-million-dollar Richmond boxing facility run by Paul King Jin.
The Warrior Fighting Dream business was purchased by Paul Jin and others with illegal casino proceeds and was also used to launder criminal funds, according to disputed allegations in an August 2020 B.C. Civil Forfeiture claim that cites E-Pirate investigation evidence.
Yongtao Chen and Rongxiang Yuan and Paul Jin have also appeared side-by-side with Chinese consulate officials, Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido and various Richmond politicians at a private CACA event in Vancouver in 2018, photos show.
Peschisolido told Global News he doesn’t know Yuan and Jin, although he has posed with them at multiple meetings.
These lower-profile meetings have occurred against a backdrop of CACA’s high-profile pro-Beijing activity. For example, in 2016, CACA leaders succeeded in securing a People’s Republic of China flag raising at Vancouver City Hall.
More recently under Yongtao Chen’s leadership, dozens of CACA groups have denounced pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while Chen and CACA leaders also lobbied on Parliament Hill for Chinese “Nanjing massacre” war memorials in Canada.
Yongtao Chen and the CACA did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent to CACA’s official contact portal and an email address used by CACA leaders. Global News also tried unsuccessfully to reach Chen and the CACA through Vancouver’s Chinese consulate. Wei Wei and the Hefei Friendship association did not respond to requests for comment made to the association’s email contacts.
In a series of email answers Richmond Coun. Chak Au — who was among many politicians that attended the 2018 CACA gala — said he did not know Wei and has had no contact with Wei at the meeting or after.
Au said that “because one individual with a criminal background” attends an event, does not mean that event is associated with criminal activity. Au added he has spoken out against China’s new national security laws in Hong Kong, while the CACA has advocated for these controversial new laws.
Au said he is concerned about organized crime and aware of the views expressed by experts like David Mulroney, who say Beijing’s United Front works with gangs in Hong Kong and diaspora communities.
“While I obviously can’t confirm anything about the United Front (let me be clear – I am not a member, not been approached, not working for them), for example, the original ‘white shirt’ beatings at Yuen Long MTR in Hong Kong were widely suspected to be from contracted organized crime gang(s),” Au wrote.
“Here in Richmond is my own concern, and when you consider that Richmond and Metro Vancouver is the home of immigrants from China of well over a hundred thousand people, I can say the vast majority of these people are here to make a better life for themselves in a very ‘Canadian’ manner.”
China’s consul general in Vancouver Tong Xiaoling, who spoke at Yongtao Chen’s 2018 CACA inauguration and has been observed sitting beside Rongxiang Yuan and his CACA associates at events and meetings in B.C., did not respond to requests for comment. Detailed questions sent by Global News to a number of Chinese officials in Canada, were not acknowledged or responded to.