TORONTO — Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is due in China on Tuesday for a much anticipated visit, hoping to reset what had been an up-and-down relationship under the previous government. Closer ties, Mr. Trudeau says, would release untapped prosperity at home and promote Canadian values like good governance and the rule of law in China.
But many Chinese-Canadians say the opposite is happening. They say the growing economic clout wielded in Canada by China, Canada’s largest trading partner after the United States, is leading to an erosion of their own freedom — specifically their freedom to speak openly about China’s authoritarian state. Journalists who write for the many Chinese-language publications in Canada, along with activists and others, say they are under increasing pressure to promote the interests of the Chinese government.
“It’s gotten worse and worse,” said Jonathan Fon, 67, a Toronto paralegal, freelance writer and critic of China’s Communist rulers. Mr. Fon, who emigrated from China in 1992, said publications that had once printed his opinion articles now routinely rejected them because of worries about political and financial fallout. “They will not take my contributions, even though we’re friends,” he said.
In the past decade, China has embarked on an ambitious effort to promote its image abroad, including a multibillion-dollar overseas expansion by Chinese state media and a network of Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture while disseminating the Communist Party’s viewpoints. In Western countries, analysts say, the party exerts influence over Chinese immigrants and students through embassies, consulates and community organizations, as well as business interests with the financial leverage to shape local Chinese-language media coverage.
“China is not shy about using overseas Chinese communities to advance its interests abroad,” said Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. “What’s brilliant about the Chinese government’s interest strategy is that it exploits the freedoms of Western democracies against Western democracies.”
Even some Canadian officials who are eager for closer ties have weighed in, expressing support for Beijing on human rights and trying to discourage negative coverage of China. That has provoked anger in Canada, where many see China as a threat to their way of life, and underscored the challenge faced by Mr. Trudeau, who took office in November, as he seeks more engagement after a decade of sometimes chilly ties under his predecessor.
Mr. Trudeau’s weeklong visit will culminate in a Group of 20 economic summit meeting in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. But his trip is also intended to help Canadian businesses gain greater market access to China’s growing middle class, encourage Chinese capital investment in Canada, and attract big-spending Chinese tourists and university students to Canada.
The Canadian foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, said in an interview that the government’s pursuit of closer engagement with nondemocratic countries, including China, would allow it to promote human rights while protecting Canadian interests.
“We’ll try to make sure that Canada will be part of the solution, to make these countries more free than they are today,” he said.
Asked about complaints that Beijing was putting pressure on Chinese-Canadians, Mr. Dion said he and Mr. Trudeau were “very strongly against any attempt to muzzle public opinion in Canada.” He noted that many Chinese-Canadians were clearly not afraid to criticize Beijing.
But recent events have kept the issue in the spotlight.
In June, during a news conference in Ottawa, China’s visiting foreign minister, Wang Yi, berated a Canadian reporter for asking Mr. Dion a question about human rights in China. “You have no right to speak of this,” Mr. Wang said.
A week later, Michael Chan, a Chinese-Canadian who was Ontario’s provincial minister of citizenship, immigration and international trade, defended China’s human rights practices in a column on a Canadian Chinese-language website, 51.ca. Making no mention of China’s use of torture, illegal detention or other systemic abuses, Mr. Chan argued that China’s rights record should be viewed positively, in the context of economic development.
“People are living with freedom,” he wrote, praising Beijing for improving Chinese people’s “basic livelihood,” allowing them to travel and study abroad.
Outrage soon followed both officials’ remarks — as did consequences for some writers who criticized them.
A Chinese writer said he had lost his column in the Global Chinese Press, based in British Columbia, after the newspaper was pressured over his criticism of Mr. Wang and Mr. Chan, according to a report in The Globe and Mail. A Chinese-Canadian freelancer in Toronto who uses the pen name Xin Feng received death threats online for chastising Mr. Wang in a column.
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“Be careful that your whole family doesn’t get killed,” one person posted. “Be careful when you walk outside!”
A year ago, the editor in chief of a Chinese-language newspaper in Ontario said she had been fired for publishing a commentary critical of Mr. Chan. She blamed that, in part, on complaints from the Chinese consulate in Toronto.
In Ontario, which includes Toronto and its suburbs, Chinese-language journalists and media executives say self-censorship has become widespread because of the economic pressures on their outlets. They fear boycotts by pro-Beijing advertisers and the loss of distribution deals with Chinese state media publications.
Ontario has more than 30 Chinese-language news outlets, mostly free newspapers, and the majority of them appear to avoid reporting that would anger China’s leaders.
Jack Jia, 54, the publisher of the Toronto-based Chinese News Groupnewspaper and website, said China’s influence had “grown stronger and stronger” in recent years. “They want to control everything,” Mr. Jia said.
He said China’s consul general in Toronto and her deputy had asked him several years ago to stop publishing ads from practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned as an “evil cult” in China. He refused.
Today, he said, as immigration from China has soared, Chinese officials have gained more leverage. “They can threaten, because most media employees have family back in China,” Mr. Jia said.
A Chinese-language reporter in Toronto, who asked not to be identified in order to protect her job and her relatives in China, said her editors now regularly deleted quotations that were critical of Beijing, and reviewed article ideas specifically to head off coverage that might reflect poorly on the Chinese government.
“When I came to Canada, I felt some freedom, but now there are so many restrictions,” the reporter said. “It’s everywhere now.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa declined to answer questions about China’s involvement with ethnic Chinese communities in Canada.
Political attitudes vary widely among the roughly 1.5 million ethnic Chinese living in Canada. While pride in their heritage is widespread, many bristle at what they say is mounting pressure to express loyalty to Beijing, both from local media and from other Chinese-Canadians.
“As a Canadian, you should share Canadian values — freedom, democracy and human rights,” said Harry Xu, 54, a Toronto real estate broker who emigrated from China 10 years ago. “These principles are important to us, but some Chinese immigrants are confused.”
Activists in Canada critical of Beijing have found themselves targets for intimidation. Not long after Zang Xihong(Sheng Xue), 54, a prominent Chinese human-rights activist, emigrated to Canada 27 years ago, she said, she began receiving menacing phone calls from Chinese state security agents at her home in the Toronto suburbs.
In recent years, she said, the harassment has grown more ominous. Her face and phone numbers have been digitally inserted into pornographic escort ads, she said; hackers have posted photos stolen from her computer; and articles have appeared online accusing her of embezzlement. She has also been sued by a man who claims she was responsible for his cousin’s death in China.
Ms. Zang said the Canadian authorities had told her that they could take no action because most of those activities were protected free speech, leaving her powerless, she said, to escape the long arm of the Chinese government or its supporters.
“When I fled from China, I suddenly realized they are here already,” she said. “Where else can I go?”
Emily Feng and Carolyn Zhang contributed research.