Former B.C. politician claims Chinese accused him of ‘endangering national security’

A former deputy speaker of the B.C. government claims Chinese authorities accused him of “endangering national security” before ordering him out of the country in 2015 after detaining him for eight hours at a Shanghai airport.

Richard Lee served as a Liberal MLA from 2001 until 2017 and was also parliamentary secretary for the Asia-Pacific in the previous Liberal provincial government.

In a letter first sent to former foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland he claimed he was isolated and questioned by Chinese authorities, who also examined his B.C. government phone.

The alleged incident occurred at the start of what was supposed to be a 30th wedding anniversary trip.

Lee claims he didn’t go public at the time for fear of damaging relations between Canada and China but felt compelled to reveal it in the wake of tensions arising from the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in 2018.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office sent Lee a letter this week assuring him his “comments have been carefully reviewed” and sent to Freeland’s successor, Francois-Phillipe Champagne.

‘You know what you did’

Lee — a proponent of increased trade with China — told the CBC he was puzzled as to why the Chinese might see him as a threat, but noted that he has repeatedly honoured the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

“They said ‘You know what you did. You know what you have done is considered endangering national security,'” Lee told the CBC.

“At that point, I said ‘How can I endanger security?’ They said ‘You know what you did.'”

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks near Tiananmen Square in 1989. Richard Lee believes his support for victims of the massacre has angered the Chinese government. (Jeff Widener/AP)

Lee’s allegations land at a tense time in the relationship between China and Canada.

This week, the Union of B.C. Municipalities announced a ban on foreign government sponsorship at its annual convention, largely in response to backlash over the Chinese government paying $6,000 in exchange for a sponsored reception.

And lawyers for both Meng and the Canadian Department of Justice appeared in court to oppose a media application to broadcast her extradition hearing next January in order to satisfy widespread public and political interest in the case.

‘Endangering national security’

Lee first wrote to Freeland and Lu Shaye, the former Chinese ambassador to China, last December after the arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Canadians accused of spying who remain in Chinese custody.

Their arrests have been widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s role in arresting Meng on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018, sending relations between Canada and China into a tailspin. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Lee claims he was struck by the Chinese contention that the two men were suspected of endangering national security.

He claims those were the same words he heard as he sat under guard in 2015. He said he was detained immediately after stepping off the plane and kept apart from his wife for eight hours. 

He was then ordered to return to Vancouver immediately.

“‘Endangering national security’ in China is at times a vague accusation with some administrative arbitrariness to people with different opinions on Chinese government policies, including human rights activists and dissidents,” Lee wrote in his letter to Freeland and Lu.

“I can attest that I was being accused in such a situation.”

Passwords provided

Lee, who was born in China, is a Canadian citizen. He says he travelled to China at least 10 times as both a politician and a private citizen in the decade prior to being denied entry.

He claims he had both a personal phone and a government Blackberry he was issued as an MLA. Lee says he provided the passwords for both to the Chinese authorities.

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, were taken into custody shortly after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. The Chinese government has accused both men of spying. (Associated Press/International Crisis Group/Canadian Press)

He says he told the B.C. Liberal caucus about his detention and the fact that his government phone was examined. It is unclear what if any actions the Liberals took.

After getting no response to the initial letter, Lee said he resent his concerns to the federal government last week. The prime minister’s office wrote back this week.

Lee says he is in favour of increased trade and engagement between China and Canada and believes Meng should not be extradited to the U.S..

But he says Canadians should be clear-eyed about Chinese objectives and attempts to influence Canadian politicians. He said they should also speak out about human rights abuses.

Information transferred to Chinese government?

Current NDP B.C. Attorney General David Eby told the CBC that he has asked the federal government to investigate Lee’s allegations.

He said he is disappointed it took Lee four years to raise the issue and pointed to protocols warning politicians and government employees from taking electronic devices used for work across borders on private trips where diplomatic immunity may not apply.

Eby, the former executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Union, said many British Columbians are not aware of the fact that they have no privacy rights when crossing the U.S. border.

In fact, the seizure of Meng’s phones along with their passwords by the Canada Border Services Agency has been at the heart of Meng’s allegations that her charter rights were violated when she arrived in Canada.

“The dominant concern I had on reading the allegations from Mr. Lee were about what information was on his phone and whether the information belonged to British Columbians and what information may have been transferred to the Chinese government,” Eby said.

“It seems to me that this issue raises matters of concern for both [the province and Ottawa] and particularly for the federal government. It involves our international relationship with China and I’ll be pledging British Columbia’s support with whatever steps the federal government will be taking with this.”