Ottawa Citizen
Feb 23, 2019

How an obscure B.C. group came out pro-Huawei

The chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei had barely been arrested last December — triggering a diplomatic scrap of historic scale between China and Canada — when an obscure B.C.-based group called an unusual Vancouver press conference.

With most Canadians still digesting the news of Meng Wanzhou’s detention, and the U.S. extradition request behind it, the United Association of Women and Children of Canada appeared before the cameras to demand the executive’s immediate release.

“Canada should stay out of it,” a spokeswoman declared in Mandarin, her translated comments generating a number of stories in local media. “This is supposed to be a serious matter but looks like a joke between the two countries.”

Leaders of the United Association insisted they had no connection to the Chinese government, which had been making similar pronouncements.

But a closer look reveals a more complicated story, one that seems to point to Beijing’s long reach into Canadian affairs.

Behind the event were two women with clear ties to China, who had made generous donations to Canadian political parties and, in one case, with a colourful history in Canadian law and municipal politics.

Lawyer Hong Guo boasts that she was appointed as a foreign legal specialist by the People’s Republic, and while running for mayor of Richmond, B.C., last year insisted “there is no human rights abuse in China.”

Before immigrating to Canada, association founder Han Dongmei launched her investment fund in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, a Communist mecca usually reserved for august party and state functions. Her company contributed $100,000 to the B.C. Liberal party while it was still in government.

Han could not be reached for comment. Guo did not respond to telephone messages and emailed questions about the Meng event and possible co-ordination with Chinese officials. China’s embassy also did not answer emailed questions.

There is no direct evidence the women were acting at the behest of Beijing, or even just trying to curry favour with it for business reasons.

But there is mounting concern generally about China’s influence campaign in countries like Canada, much of it executed through the United Front Work Department, a secretive offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) known to work with ethnic Chinese organizations overseas.

“Establishing fake civil society NGOs is an established modus operandi” of the United Front, said Charles Burton, a Brock University professor and former Canadian diplomat in Beijing.

According to its website, the Vancouver-based United Association of Women and Children has 1,500 members, branches in several provinces and a focus on equal treatment and work opportunities for women — but it lists no contact information.

Two B.C. leaders of the non-profit sector dedicated to helping women in business — Laurel Douglas of the Women’s Enterprise Centre and Lisa Niemetscheck of WebAlliance — told the Post they had never heard of it.

The group seems to have “all the hallmarks” of a front organization to further Beijing’s interests, says Jonathan Manthorpe, whose just-published book, Claws of the Panda, documents China’s influence campaign here.

In the midst of a “political offensive by the Beijing regime,” he cautioned, people should remember that such organizations do not represent Chinese-Canadians.

“All but a tiny handful of Canadians of Chinese heritage are here because they do not wish to be ruled or controlled by the CCP,” said Manthorpe.

The group’s speakers, Guo in English and Han in Mandarin, told the news conference Canada was being used by the U.S. to attack Huawei and China, that Canadian courts had no jurisdiction over a Chinese citizen like Meng and Canada was needlessly undermining relations between the two countries.

“Their statement precisely echoes the Chinese government’s official response to Meng Wanzhou’s arrest,” notes Burton, also a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

As the CBC, CTV, local Richmond News and others reported those comments, they cited the group’s denial of links to China’s government.

What was less clear, though, is the personal ties both spokeswomen have to their home country’s power centres.

Guo immigrated from China in 1993, obtained a Master’s degree from the University of Regina and then a law degree from the University of Windsor. Her Richmond-based law firm specializes in “Sino-Canadian commercial transactions.”

From 2002 to 2005, her website says, she acted as a “foreign legal specialist” for China, appointed by the 35-member state council of the People’s Republic — the country’s chief administrative authority.

But it was when Guo decided to run for mayor in Richmond last year, campaigning in part on strengthening ties with China, that her perspective on the country came startlingly into focus.

Asked by The Breaker news website about China’s human-rights record, she insisted that reports of rights abuses were an invention of foreign media like the New York Times and CBC.

“I think China has lots of freedom of speech,” she told the site. “The Chinese media in China, they have very much freedom, to talk and to criticize and to make suggestions.”

The Han election campaign itself, conducted almost entirely in Mandarin, also raised eyebrows.

“Only Chinese people can understand what Chinese people want,” said a video played at the launch, the Richmond News reported. Chinese-Canadians should “vote for Chinese candidates to speak on our behalf,” Guo said in a speech, before finishing in fourth place.

She was likely not helped by disciplinary charges from the Law Society of British Columbia that alleged, among other breaches, that she failed to adequately safeguard trust accounts — allowing for a $7.5-million employee theft.

Cheuk Kwan, spokesman for the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said he does not know Guo, but noted generally that Beijing seems to be encouraging immigrants from mainland Chinese to run for office here, even if sometimes “they have no understanding of how democracy works in the Canadian context.”

Han appears to have immigrated in the last five years or so, heading up a firm called Huamulan Developments Inc. with an apparent goal to build student housing. According to biographies on a number of Chinese-language websites, the company was launched nine years ago in the Great Hall of the People, a landmark on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that, in the words of a government account, has hosted many “earth-shaking historical events.”

That same year, the firm organized a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the bios say.

There is little visible sign of Huamulan’s work in Canada, though it has held events attended by representatives of Vancouver’s Chinese consulate, and local politicians.

Like its founder, Huamulan has also been an active political donor. Its three contributions to the B.C. Liberal Party from 2015 to 2017 — when the Liberals were voted out of power — totalled $99,000, among the largest corporate gifts recorded by Elections B.C.

A donor with Han’s name gave $5,800 to the federal Conservatives and $2,400 to the Liberals between 2014 and 2016, according to Elections Canada.

Guo talks on her website of making contacts with various Canadian politicians, and is even pictured online with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Her one donation, $1,500 in 2017, was to the federal Liberal riding association of MP Geng Tan, a mainland China immigrant, though his seat is in another province. Tan once headed the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Toronto, an organization believed to report directly to the United Front.

As they faced the TV cameras at their December news conference, the two women had a clear message for those politicians they had earlier courted and funded. Even if, as they said, Beijing played no part in the event, it would likely have approved.

“The Chinese people would like to keep the good relationship to expand the business with Canada,” said Guo, according to a CTV report. “But this matter will damage that because people understand Canada is doing something for the benefit of America.”