Chinese authorities have jailed a couple who immigrated to Canada nearly two decades ago, accusing them of defecting with military secrets. This is the latest case to involve Canada in the geopolitical battle between the United States and China.
Peter Wang and Ruqin Zhao are Chinese-born engineers working in the Toronto area, who are described by former managers as immigrants who are looking for a better life for their daughter when they came to Canada in 2002. The couple were arrested in 2017 while returning to Canada . China visits relatives, according to state media reports.
Last month, Chinese state media said Wang and Zhao, both Canadian citizens, had become the first defection case revealed by security authorities, after they were sentenced to prison in late 2019 – three years for Wang and two for Ms. Mr. Zhao It is unclear whether Mr. Zhao has remained in prison, because it has been more than two years since his arrest.
But their conviction adds to the number of Canadians caught in the Chinese justice system operating under the control of the Communist Party, which is accused of using hostage diplomacy to enhance its political objectives.
Since December 2018, when Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was detained at Vancouver International Airport at the request of the U.S. authorities, China has arrested two Canadians and sentenced two to death.
Wang and Zhao’s sentence also once again pushed Canada into the midst of increasingly deep competition between the US and China over global influence, technological supremacy, and the recruitment of skilled workers.
China’s official news report in mid-April hinted that the couple’s arrest was China’s victory against American espionage, showing the woeful Wang admitted making a mistake “very, very seriously”. He has “walked to the brink of evil,” he said.
State television showed photos of a couple standing outside the Capitol Building in Washington and showing a video of Ms. Zhao in the banquet room with a large map of the US continent on the wall. Television reports also showed pictures of United Airlines when describing the couple’s alleged defection to an unnamed Western country.
But that country is Canada. Although the Canadian government did not make public comments about the Wang and Zhao case – in contrast to the repeated demands for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Canadians who were arrested in China in December, 2018 – the couple’s sentence underscored the risk. for educated Chinese who have immigrated to other countries in the past few decades. Many of those who have immigrated to Canada have taken important roles in state universities and in the private sector.
Wang and Zhao had worked at a military-related research institute in China before coming to Canada. They live in Edmonton and Toronto, with Wang working to renew military transport aircraft in Alberta and as a system integrator for aircraft landing equipment companies in Ontario.
The detention of the couple “will frighten many researchers to return” to China, said Ivana Karaskova, a Chinese researcher at the Prague-based International Affairs Association. Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese lawyer and human rights activist living in exile, was more forthright: “Foreigners are no longer safe in China.”
Canada’s Global Affairs said on Friday that it “strongly follows the cases of Wang and Zhao. Canadian officials already have consular access to and provide consular assistance to Wang and Zhao. “
It provides no further details, citing privacy laws, but the Canadian government has for years warned tourists that “if you previously held a position that is in any way affiliated with the Chinese government, and left your position without receiving authorization or without following formal procedure, you can be considered a defector by the Chinese authorities. “
China routinely ignores the second passport held by those who have not officially canceled their birth citizenship. In recent years, Chinese authorities have arrested scholars, writers, and even students. Some have been sentenced to lengthy imprisonment when they returned to China.
The Globe and Mail has collected details about Mr. Wang and Ms. Zhao from interviews with former colleagues in Canada, a database of internet research, posting of pairs made to social media, as well as accounts from Chinese state media and alumni of Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xi’an, where Wang studied.
The couple did not respond to requests for interviews that remained on their social media accounts, and The Globe was unable to confirm their current whereabouts.
Wang, whose Chinese first name is Pihong, was born in 1958 in China’s Shaanxi province and built a career in aviation. In 2000, he was the co-author of an academic paper identifying himself working at the Luoyang Electrolytic Instrument Research Institute, also known as the 613 Institute, a state-owned research body founded by the People’s Liberation Army and today affiliated with Aviation Industry Corporation of China , a massive national defense and aerospace conglomerate.
The paper he wrote together uses high-level mathematics to help with aircraft targeting. Wang rose to a prominent position at the institute, described in China as deputy chief designer and by a former Canadian colleague as chief engineer. Zhao also works at the institute; Wang told his colleagues that his wife was a smarter engineer.
In 2002, according to state media reports, the couple left China. In September of that year, according to his LinkedIn page, Wang began working in Edmonton at Spar Aerospace, a Canadian company that developed Canadarm and ran a sophisticated program of maintaining C-130 Hercules aircraft for the military around the world.
Before joining Spar, Wang worked for a software company in Toronto, said Scott Mitchell, an air force pilot who was a project manager who hired him for work in Edmonton. Resume Wang – an educated and experienced engineer – stands out.
Mitchell and his team helped Wang buy his first car, the Toyota Corolla, and guide him through the basics of life in Canada: changing oil, driving on snow-covered roads.
“He really appreciated what Canada offered, and we brought it under our wing to welcome him to the country,” Mitchell said. In response, Wang and Ms. Zhao “ate us to eat – authentic Chinese food.”
Chinese state media reported that the couple had worked on secret projects that had national interests in China and spent three years falsifying documents and securing passports without permission while working with immigration agents to leave China. The Globe cannot verify the details.
No one answered the phone at Luoyang Electro-Optics Instrument Research Institute. Li Junfeng, a judge at the Luoyang Intermediate Court of Justice who oversees the case against the couple, refused to answer questions, telling The Globe “there is a lot of content related to the secret in the case file.”
Wang, who did not discuss work content before with his new colleagues in Canada, told a simpler story.
“I asked him why he left China. And the answer is, ‘for my daughter,’ “said Mr Mitchell.” He wants a better life for him. He wants him free. “
In Edmonton, Wang worked as a systems engineer and airworthiness, improving avionics – electronic equipment and instrumentation – on C-130 aircraft for Canada, New Zealand and Greece. “He reviewed the design for compliance with regulations,” Mitchell said.
Those who carry out avionics upgrades on the Spar work on systems including “flight control, cockpit display, communication, weather radar, navigation. Nothing is ‘safe’. All systems are available on the open market, “said Gene Manzie, who is vice president and general manager at Spar, which was taken over by L-3 Communications.
Hercules are used for transportation and are not designed to carry missiles or bombs.
In 2005, according to Chinese state media reports, Wang and Zhao became foreign nationals. A year later, Wang moved back to Toronto to work in a facility now operated by Safran Landing Systems, a French aerospace and defense contractor. On LinkedIn, Wang said he was involved with the Bombardier business jet and Russia’s Sukhoi Superjet 100, both civilian aircraft.
“Safran does not want to make comments,” press director Catherine Malek said in an email. The company has considerable business interests in China, including partnerships to supply engines and other components for China’s domestic jet program.
On social media, Wang and Zhao posted photos of their trip to Washington (where they went to the National Air and Space Museum), to Ottawa (where they visited the Canadian Museum of Aviation and Space), and outside, sitting next to tent and drink beer around the campfire.
In March 2017, they attended an alumni event for Northwestern Polytechnic University in Toronto, where both wore the People’s Liberation Army costume for the appearance of a famous song praising the army. “Peter wants to be Canadian,” said Mr Mitchell. But “he doesn’t speak ill of China at all.”
But Chinese state media accused the couple of “dangerous” defections that “pose a major threat to our country’s military and scientific security.” The couple, according to the official report, “have many of our scientific research secrets and are involved in work in the same field after going abroad.”
Their arrests took place in an increasing scrutiny environment for Chinese researchers in other countries, due to suspicions about Beijing’s economic and military espionage. The trial for Wang and Zhao took place the same month as the US Senate hearing on China’s Thousand Talents Plan, which used a large funding offer to attract skilled researchers to work in China. John Brown, assistant director of counterintelligence for the FBI, called such plans “national security and economic threats.”
For China to arrest people like Wang and Zhao it looks like a “tit for tat,” said Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “He tried to show that the US did the same thing” in searching for Chinese secrets.
Wang and Zhao’s verdict was announced publicly on Chinese National Security Education Day. This reinforces the “constant theme of ‘hostile foreign troops’ of the Chinese Communist Party which is trying to block the inevitable rise of China – but of course it didn’t work,” said Charles Parton, who is a diplomat in China and now a senior fellow in the country. Royal United Service Institute.
But wherever Wang was born, “he is Canadian,” said Mitchell, his former manager. “He’s not a comfortable Canadian.”
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