Bezmenov: USSR Then, China Now

Commentary, Government, Lee Harding

If Canadians believe the threat of a Communist superpower expired decades ago, they’re wrong. The Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics (USSR) may be long dead, but the Chinese dragon is alive and well. In 1970, KGB disinformation agent Yuri Bezmenov defected from the USSR and became a Canadian citizen with the adopted name Tomas Schumann. What is remarkable is that the Soviet tactics he disclosed years ago are much like those used by the Chinese Communist Party today. Canada should beware.

Before his defection, Bezmenov worked with Novosti Press Agency, a KGB front organization that sought to undermine the West and keep its citizens propagandized through the misuse of journalism. Bezmenov worked out of the Soviet embassy in India before he made his bold escape to the West.

After the CIA arranged a home for Bezmenov in Canada, he was very much on his own—as was his choice. After he arrived in Canada and took the name Tomas Schumann, he was a student, worked on a farm, drove a laundry truck, became a language instructor and finally became the voice of CBC’s Russian-language broadcast to the USSR. After the Russians realized that Schumann was Bezmenov, KGB agents tried to intimidate him. He shared this tale in a 1984 interview with author G. Edward Griffin:

They would say something like, “Please cross the street carefully because you know traffic is very heavy in Quebec.” And fortunately I know about the psychology and the logic of activity of the KGB and I never allowed myself to be intimidated. This is the worst thing. This is what they expect: a person, a defector to be intimidated. Once they spot that you are scared they keep on developing that line and then eventually you either have to give up entirely and work for them or they neutralize you. They would definitely stop all kind of political activity, which they fail to do in my case, because I was starting already working for the Canadian Broadcasting. And in response to their intimidations I said that, look this is a free country and I am as free as you are. And I also can drive very fast. And gun control is not yet established in Canada so I had a couple of good shotguns in my basement. So, you’re welcome to visit me someday with your Kalashnikov machine guns.

Contemporary accounts in Canada sound similar. In recent years, Canadians who were Chinese or Uighur activists have testified to House of Commons committees that they face threats of rape or death if they keep speaking out against violations committed by China. These intimidation campaigns were co-ordinated by the Chinese embassy in Ottawa and its consulates in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

The 2020 report “Harassment & Intimidation of Individuals in Canada Working on China-related Human Rights Concerns” by the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China (CCHRC) and Amnesty International, documented “continuing reports of individuals in Canada being subjected to rights violations further to a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation that is often clearly linked to or backed by Chinese state authorities,” including at universities.

Cherie Wong, executive director of the Alliance Canada HK, told the CCHRC that harassment and intimidation ramped up after she became a vocal supporter of the protest movement in Hong Kong. Wong said she was the victim of “coordinated social media attacks” that included death threats and rape threats. While Wong stayed at a Vancouver hotel in January 2020 to talk to the media about her cause, she received a call on the hotel landline. A man demanded she leave her hotel room and said he was sending people to collect her. However, no one came. 

Gloria Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, told CCHRC she also suffered phone harassment and intimidation and major cyber-attacks. Hackers have made multiple phishing attempts to get into the computers of Hong Kong civil society organizations and their members within Canada. Fung and Wong are just two of the many individuals mentioned in the 52-page report.

Anastasia Lin, a Falun Gong practitioner, has also been harassed for her advocacy work for human rights in China. The Chinese refused to allow the Miss World Canada winner to attend the Miss World pageant in their country. Lin’s father and grandparents received warnings from Chinese state agents that if she continued human rights work, the family might turn on each other. She faced ostracism from fellow Chinese in Canada as they stopped inviting her to events linked to the Chinese embassy or consulate. Australia’s public broadcaster cancelled an interview with her because of unspecified “affiliations.” The Chinese embassy in London attempted to cancel one of her speaking engagements at Durham University because she was “not being friendly to the Chinese government.” Lin says the Canadian government said they would only “monitor” the situation and told her they had no responsibility to intervene.

Bezmenov claimed the KGB kept extensive lists of journalists, academics and elected officials. They would help promote those to whom they were friendly; the others would suffer character assassination. Remarkably, Bezmenov said that after personal intimidation failed to stop him, the Soviets successfully applied pressure to turn the prime minister and the nation’s public broadcaster against him:

The Soviet ambassador Alexander Yakovlev made it his personal effort to discredit me. He complained to Pierre Trudeau who is known to be a little bit soft on socialism. And the management of CBC behaved in a very strange, cowardly way, unbecoming to representatives of an independent country like Canada. They listened to every suggestion that Soviet ambassador gave and they started shameful investigation analyzing content of my broadcasts to USSR. Sure enough, they discovered that some of my statements… would be offending to the Soviet Politburo. So I had to leave my job.

China has used similar intimidation tactics against Canadian journalists in recent years, including both personal threats and attacks on character. 

In 2016, Canadian Foreign Affairs minister Stephane Dion and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi held a joint press conference. Amanda Connolly of iPolitics prefaced a question to Dion by stating, “There are no shortage of concerns about China’s treatment of human rights advocates.” Chinese media posed the next question to Wang, but she started her comments by attacking Connolly. “I want to respond to the question from this reporter about China,” she said. “I have to say that your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogance where I have heard that come from and this is totally unacceptable…So I would like to suggest to you please don’t ask questions in such an irresponsible manner and though we welcome goodwill suggestions, we reject groundless or unwarranted accusations.”

The fallout did not end there. Following the incident, an Ontario cabinet minister argued that Chinese human rights had improved over 40 years when seen through the perspective of economic livelihood. Journalist Gao Bingchen mocked the minister’s response and so did Wang in two social media posts. Bingchen had spent 10 years writing for the Global Chinese Press, a Chinese-language newspaper based out of Burnaby, B.C. that was also delivered to the Chinese consulate in Vancouver. Bingchen lost his column as a result of his comments. The reason his deputy editor gave was: “Some people don’t want to see your name in the newspaper.”

Toronto-area journalist Xin Feng also faced a backlash after his column on 51.ca criticized Wang. He wrote: “In the eyes of Foreign Minister Wang and many other Chinese government officials, the most important human right in China is the right to eat…If the purpose of human life is understood as nothing more than the right to eat, then people would be no different to pigs.” 

Although most responses were positive, two were unnerving. One post under the column read: “Be careful that your whole family doesn’t get killed, be careful when you walk outside!” Another read: “Butcher this pig. He’s an animal, not a human.” Xin complained to the Toronto Police Service and one of the commenters later apologized.

At a press conference, Gao faulted Canadian politicians for “ignoring the fact that Chinese immigrants have come from a Communist country” and some brought communist values with them. He said he fled to Canada to seek escape from such oppression but found the system he tried to escape was spreading its influence in his new home. Fellow journalist Jonathan Fon similarly warned: “Canadian values will be swallowed up step by step” and “If it happens in this community, it can happen in other communities too.”

Perhaps the blindness is intentional. In 2010, then-CSIS director Richard Fadden suggested his agency had concerns that two provincial Crown ministers were under the influence of the Chinese government. He later retracted the comments, but privately stood by them. According to a 2015 article in the Globe and Mail, the aforementioned Ontario minister was one of them and Fadden informed the Ontario government about it in 2010. The integrity commissioner cleared the minister at the time, saying his regular meetings with the Chinese consul-general were part of his job. By the time of the Globe and Mail article, the minister had moved to the portfolio of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade. He sued the paper over the article.

At the Chinese Canadian Post, chief editor Helen Wang tried to write an article critical of the minister to balance what was otherwise favourable coverage. She told the Epoch Times she was fired for doing so, though the publication denied it. The Chinese Canadian Post was once a four-page wrapper with the Toronto edition of the People’s Daily, which was a Chinese state-owned publication. The People’s Daily was registered under David Lim, executive secretary of the National Congress of Chinese-Canadians (NCCC), who was also an executive with the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations (CTCCO). Former CSIS senior manager Michel Juneau-Katsuya cited the CTCCO as an “agent of influence” for the Chinese regime in Canada. Before her firing, Wang’s boss made her cancel an interview with award-winning journalist and rights and democracy activist Sheng Xue. After Wang was fired, they ran weekly articles penned by the minister himself.

Like Fon, Sheng suggests that many Chinese don’t integrate. “Sometimes when you talk to Chinese immigrants, they don’t even know what [are] the universal values of Canada—this is very sad,” Sheng says. “A lot of people, even though they have lived in Canada for many years, still have the same communist mentality. This is not good for Canada, it is not good for those people, and it is not good for the Chinese community.” 

In 1984, Bezmenov warned that the communist threat to the United States, and by extension all Western democracies, had to be taken seriously. He suggested the head of the USSR was not its instigator, but the communist system was itself the enemy. By inference, that meant the fall of the USSR would not end the threat:

[E]ducate yourself, [and] understand what’s going on around you. You are not living at [a] time of peace. You are in a state of war and you have precious little time to save yourself…

And the initiator of this war is not Comrade Andropov, of course. It’s the system. However ridiculous it may sound, [it is] the world Communist system or the world Communist conspiracy. Whether I scare some people or not, I don’t give a hoot. If you are not scared by now, nothing can scare you.

The threat seems to be ramping up in our time. The CCHRC report warned that “the situation is worsening, as Chinese actors have arguably become emboldened by the inadequate response from Canadian officials (and other governments).” Victims “face a lack of a kind of coordinated, comprehensive approach on the part of Canadian authorities.” Affected individuals don’t know where to turn, and are afraid that reporting the incidents might make things worse.

The coalition urged the Canadian government to appoint a point person or a centralized point within the government to act as the front-line contact for people and groups facing harassment, interference and intimidation for their advocacy on human rights with regard to China. The coalition also advised effective multilateral diplomacy on human rights issues in China. Finally, the coalition advised an independent public inquiry or investigation into the incidents described in the report, and especially those facing the education sector and the alleged use of Chinese students by Chinese consular officials. 

Will these things happen? In May 2020, the Foreign Affairs minister said he welcomed the CCHRC report and that, “Reports of harassment and intimidation of individuals in Canada are deeply troubling.” He also promised that “Canada will continue to use every opportunity to call on China to uphold its international human rights obligations.” At the time, unbeknownst to the public, he held two mortgages with the state-owned Bank of China valued at a total of $1.2 million. The financial liability became a political one after a Globe and Mail report made the mortgages public. By June 2020, the minister had repaid the mortgages and refinanced them with a Canadian bank. Regardless of the minister’s situation, the days still seem far off when human rights activists can offer a toast to a Canadian government that has their back.

 

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

 

See Part I: KGB Propagandist Finds New Audience (Oct. 6, 2020)

      Part II: Marxist Media Management (Oct. 24, 2020)

     Part III: (forthcoming)

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.