Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing run by Chinese police

Chinese police patrol in front of the Canadian embassy in Beijing on Dec. 14, 2018. GREG BAKER/AFP

Chinese police own a company that collects details of people applying for visas to Canada and numerous other countries, giving Beijing security services a direct stake in the processing of private information provided by people planning travel outside China.

Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, which operates the Canadian visa-application centre in the Chinese capital, is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, a Globe and Mail investigation has found. And at least some of the people working inside the centre are members of the Communist Party, recruited from a school that trains the next generation of party elite.

Beijing Shuangxiong is a subcontractor for VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai that holds a wide-reaching contract to provide visa-processing services around the globe for the Canadian government. VFS offices collect personal and biometric information that is then forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who shall be granted visas.

In China, VFS relies on subcontractors to operate its 11 Canadian visa centre locations. The company, which provides visa services for 34 countries in China, says it has strict processes in place to safeguard personal data.

However, the police ownership of the Beijing centre raises questions about the extent to which it is possible for VFS to shield people’s private and confidential information from authorities in a country such as China, which maintains a sweeping and invasive surveillance apparatus, and restricts international travel for some officials and ethnic groups.

Chinese security services “obviously have a huge interest in mining visa data,” said Robert Potter, a cybersecurity consultant in Australia who has worked as an adviser to the Canadian government.

Knowledge of what happens inside a visa centre could have high-level intelligence value. “If you can see who is getting declined and who is getting approved, it gives you a better chance of getting your agent through,” Mr. Potter said.

It could also be used to bar people from leaving China. For some people, like the country’s Muslims, “even applying for a visa to get out of China is enough to get flagged as a terrorist,” he said. “If you’re a Uyghur and you’re applying for a visa to Canada on humanitarian grounds, giving that information to the security service is really dangerous.”

Ward Elcock, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said the fact that companies connected to China’s security forces or its government are playing a part in the Canada visa-application process “represents a lazy abdication of our standards to those of a police state.”

VFS Global said in a statement that neither individuals nor operators of the local companies with which it partners are able to gain access to visa-application data.

Other Western countries also use Beijing Shuangxiong, including Britain, Italy, Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand.

VFS Global handles visa services for Canada in at least 83 countries.

The Globe has previously reported that China Investment Corp., one of the biggest state-run financial institutions in the world, is a backer of an investment fund that is VFS’s majority owner. VFS says investors do not have a say in how the company operates.

In Ottawa, opposition parties have urged the federal government to reconsider its contract with VFS. NDP MPs have written to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Public Services Minister Anita Anand to express “serious concerns around the security of information handled by VFS Global.”

VFS, which operates in 144 countries, has said the investment fund “doesn’t have access to any data from VFS Global nor any of its other portfolio companies.”

But the company has developed much closer operational ties with Chinese state-backed companies inside China, The Globe has discovered.

The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission owns 30 per cent of the Canadian visa office in that city. China Travel Services, a large centrally owned company, owns the majority of the centre in Guangzhou. In Jinan, the 93.55-per-cent owner of the subcontracting company is Pei Zhongyi, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a key part of China’s ruling apparatus. People who answered the phone at those locations declined to answer questions.

But the Beijing centre stands out for its proximity to China’s security and political establishment.

Chinese corporate records show that Beijing Shuangxiong is wholly owned by Beijing Tongda Asset Management Group, which is a subsidiary of Beijing Sifu Enterprise Management Office. Corporate records list Beijing Sifu as an arm of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, the city’s police. A 2017 city of Beijing document describes Beijing Sifu as a work unit of the city’s police.

Asked if police or security services had access to visa-application information, a woman who answered the phone at the Canada Visa Centre in Beijing said she could only discuss visas. Beijing Shuangxiong did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. A receptionist at Beijing Sifu provided a fax number to the Beijing police, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Peter Brun, chief communications officer for VFS Global, said that like many foreign companies, VFS operates with locally owned “facility management companies” to provide visa-application services on the ground. “Individuals or local companies having a stake in the facility management companies you describe have no access to visa-application data. They cannot influence the visa-application process set by the Canadian government,” the VFS official said.

Mr. Brun said all application data are encrypted upon entry and then transferred “securely and directly to servers located in Canada only.” He said only Canadian government officials can gain access to this data.

He said no data are stored in China and the servers processing the applications are located in Canada. Mr. Brun said VFS conducts thorough “credit and criminal record checks on all employees before they are hired” and staff’s e-mail and telecommunications are monitored “for security risks.”

He said the Canadian government either installs or supervises the Immigration department data servers and biometric equipment at the visa-application centres.

Mr. Brun said it has 64 governments as clients around the world including the U.S., Britain and nearly all European Union countries.

Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China between 2012 and 2016, said it’s best to assume there is no privacy for visa applications made in China.

“You can bet the Chinese government is interested in knowing who is going to study where abroad, who is going as a tourist and who wants to leave and immigrate,” he said.

Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration is defending the visa-application arrangements it has made in Beijing and throughout China.

“For any foreign company to operate in China, they must be partnered with a local Chinese company, and Canadian contractors are not exempted from this,” department spokesman Rémi Larivière said in a statement. “Canadian officials closely monitor the activities of visa-application centres (VACs) around the world to ensure that our stringent privacy standards are met.”

He said applications are handled “according to Canada’s privacy laws” and the service providers have pledged not to interfere with visa applications. “As set out in the contract, VACs are expressly forbidden from providing any visa-related advice to applicants or from making any type of determination on their application.”

Beijing Shuangxiong dates back to 1993, and describes itself as among the first agencies approved by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau to provide entry and exit services.

It also has close ties with China’s ruling party.

You Xiangdong, the company’s legal representative and general manager, serves as secretary of its Communist Party branch, and the company has cultivated close ties to Beijing Youth Politics College, a school that has for decades played a foundational role in training new generations of Communist Party leadership.

The college’s English study students have become coveted workers for Beijing Shuangxiong, which has brought many in to work in its visa centres. In a report on the partnership, the company said it valued the political reliability of students from the school.