By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canada is naive in its response to corruption cases brought by China against Chinese expatriates and economic ties may be discouraging it from questioning Beijing's motives, a Canadian immigration lawyer said in an interview.
Canada is believed to be home to about a quarter of 100 expatriates China is seeking under an operation called "Sky Net," which aims to repatriate Chinese suspected of corruption. Some 5 percent of Canada's population is of Chinese descent.
Last week, Canada's ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, was quoted by China Daily as saying Ottawa was closely collaborating with Beijing on the issue and finalizing an agreement to share assets transferred to Canada by Chinese fugitives.
Attorney David Matas, 71, said many cases being brought against these people are political. He represents three Chinese expatriates facing corruption charges and possible deportation.
"The Canadian government is naive about what the Chinese government is doing, and takes these political anti-corruption drives as real," said Matas, who has been involved in a dozen corruption cases involving Chinese expatriates. "It's a very superficial and unsophisticated approach to what's going on in China."
Matas said Canada's desire to strengthen economic ties with China may also have made officials "not too curious" about Beijing's motives.
But Gordon Houlden, director of the University of Alberta's China Institute, said Saint-Jacques is not naive. "If you have no means to remove people who have committed crimes, you risk becoming a soft touch, where anyone who manages to get a foot touching Canadian soil can stay here forever, possibly with their illegal gains," Houlden said.
"We have to be vigilant to make sure the evidence is real, but to give them all a pass to me would be an abuse of our hospitality as a nation."
Matas practices refugee and immigration law in the Canadian prairie city of Winnipeg. His name, however, may be familiar to China's politically powerful because he previously locked horns with Beijing over the treatment of Falun Gong prisoners.
Matas' first Chinese corruption case, followed in China and Canada, involved businessman Lai Changxing. It ended with his client being deported from Vancouver in 2011 after a decade-long legal battle. Lai is serving a life sentence in China after having been convicted of smuggling and bribery.
His current clients include Cheng Muyang, known in Vancouver as developer Michael Ching.
Ching, son of a Chinese official removed from office for graft in 2003, sued the Canadian government for blocking his efforts to gain citizenship. The case is ongoing.
As Matas seeks to keep Ching, and other Chinese clients he declined to identify, in Canada, he plans to draw attention at their hearings to what he sees as China's real motivation.
He contends China's Sky Net operation is aimed at rooting out allies of former president Jiang Zemin.
"If I can establish that the reason they're after this guy is they're after somebody else, then that's the basis for a refugee claim," Matas said.
Anyone fighting deportation from Canada must prove he or she would face persecution or cruel and unusual treatment, said Arghavan Gerami, who practices immigration and refugee law in Ottawa.
“The court doesn’t care about speculative harm. They want some kind of evidence that supports his contention that this is going to happen. It is a high threshold."
A Canadian refugee board ruled in November that Ching did not need refugee protection. A court is due to review that decision in June.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS
Remi Lariviere, a spokesman for Canada's citizenship and immigration department, said people who have exhausted legal avenues must leave the country.
"Canadians are generous and welcoming people, but they have no tolerance for criminals and fraudsters abusing our generosity," Lariviere said.
At a Monday news briefing in China, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called corruption a "tumor in human society."
"No country is willing to become a haven for corrupt elements. So China and many other countries have a high degree of consensus about this and have good cooperation and communication on fighting cross-border crime."
But Matas said a pattern across Chinese corruption cases he has handled shows they are more about politics than wrong doing.
"I could see in case after case there's nothing there," he said. "What I see is the political drive in the Communist Party to get after somebody else, using these people as way stations."
Charles Burton, a former counselor in the Canadian embassy in Beijing, said that while political infighting appears to be a major factor, "It would be very difficult to enrich yourself in the Chinese system without having to engage in those sorts of activities."
(Reporting by Rod Nickel; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Julie Gordon in Vancouver; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Toni Reinhold)