United Front groups in Canada helped Beijing stockpile coronavirus safety supplies
By Sam Cooper Global News Canada
April 30th, 2020
In mid-January, Chinese consulates in Canada and worldwide issued an urgent call. China was concerned that the new coronavirus raging in Wuhan was so deadly and infectious that its nurses and doctors would run out of safety supplies.
It needed personal protective equipment (PPE).
In just six weeks, China imported 2.5 billion pieces of epidemic safety equipment, including over two billion safety masks, Chinese government data shows.
And this raises big concerns on a number of fronts, say critics, including Conservative MP Erin O’Toole.
China was evidently hiding the extent of a pandemic that endangered the world while covertly securing PPE at low prices. This “surreptitious” operation left “the world naked with no supply of PPE,” Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to Beijing, told Global News.
The result: starting in March, after COVID-19 had circled the globe, countries that provided masks to China in January and February were forced to compete for China’s supply.
By late January, sources in manufacturing and military circles were warning western governments that China seemed to be covertly seizing global PPE supply, O’Toole and Guajardo said.
But leaders in Canada didn’t act, according to O’Toole.
“One source told me in January it became well-known amongst military and emergency services that China was stockpiling masks and basically buying out as many quantities as it could,” he said in an interview with Global News. “And we know, … that senior officials, in the end of January and the early days of February, are equally aware at Public Works Canada, with respect to a run on PPEs.”
An investigation by Global News examines the troubling methods and underground actors used by Beijing to quietly corner the world’s supply of PPE in a state-level operation.
China used diplomatic channels, state-owned businesses and Chinese diaspora community associations that are thought to be increasingly under the influence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s powerful United Front Work Department (UFWD).
And through clandestine United Front networks run out of Chinese consulates in cities from Vancouver to Toronto to New York to Melbourne to Tokyo, the Communist Party urged millions of “overseas Chinese” to bulk-buy N95 masks in order to ship “back batches of scarce supplies for the motherland.”
As troubling as China’s methods were, the operation looks even worse under a magnifying glass because some organizations seemingly involved in the United Front’s efforts in Canada include members that have previously been monitored or investigated by the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), according to RCMP and CSIS sources.
Under the radar
Some United Front group members in Vancouver have caught the attention of Canadian law enforcement.
China’s PPE import operation was portrayed by its state media as a warlike effort. And it was a dramatic success.
According to a U.S. congressional report released in April, from Jan. 24 to Feb. 29, China ramped up its production of masks and slapped export restrictions on China-based foreign companies such as Canadian mask maker Medicom and U.S. mask maker 3M.
At the same time, China imported 2.02 billion safety masks, according to Beijing’s March 2020 customs records.
“To ensure sufficient domestic supplies to counter COVID-19 (Beijing directed) regional offices in China and overseas to work with PRC industry associations to prioritize securing supplies from global sources,” the report says.
The global callout for masks was posted to UFWD websites and sent to Chinese consulates where United Front officials are embedded.
The requests occurred around Jan. 14 and 15, when Chinese officials received confidential instructions from Xi, and all regions were warned to “prepare for and respond to a pandemic,” according to leaked documents cited in an Associated Press investigation. Hospital staff were ordered to don protective gear.
Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to Beijing, told Global News that by Jan. 23, when China locked down Wuhan, he had recognized Beijing was involved in massive PPE imports.
Guajardo, who now works in a Washington, D.C., consultancy, said in mid-January, he was contacted by a source in Mexican supply chain logistics.
“They said, you know a funny thing, I’m being swamped by orders to send all the N95 I can find to China.”
He said he completed some checks in the United States and judged PPE stock was vanishing from retail locations through “under the radar” methods.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, they are buying all the N95 supply in the world,’” Guajardo told Global News.
He was so convinced that he sent an ominous tweet on Jan. 27 forecasting an impending shortage of PPE in North America.
In March, the masks sold to China in January and February were being sold back to Mexico at 20 to 30 times the price, according to Guajardo.
And the Washington Post and CNN reported in April that PPE is sometimes costing more than 1,000 percent the prices seen in early January.
“This pandemic got complicated because of China’s coverup at the start,” Guajardo said. “And now it is further complicated by China leaving the world naked with no supply of PPE.
“They started the pandemic and now they are profiting from it.”
Guajardo added that in his experience with China, the masks being sold back now will not only come at exorbitant prices and with potential quality defects but with longer-term political demands.
The U.S. congressional report released in April similarly concludes: “The Chinese government may selectively release some medical supplies for overseas delivery, with designated countries selected, according to political calculations.”
China ramped up PPE production while barring exports and increasing imports, U.S. congressional report finds.
In an interview, O’Toole, the Conservative MP, said that in Canada, he was hearing the same PPE warnings from his sources in January that Guajardo was getting from sources in Mexico and the United States.
O’Toole said he knows “for a fact” that senior Canadian bureaucrats in January were alerted that China was hoarding PPE. But instead of responding to the threat, Canada’s government shipped 16 tonnes of PPE to China.
O’Toole says he believes the methods Beijing used to secure PPE and Canada’s response need to be investigated in a broad national inquiry when coronavirus health risks finally recede.
“The Communist Party of China willfully withheld information on an outbreak for at least weeks, if not months,” O’Toole said. “It not only gave the world less time to respond, it downplayed the potential severity of the threat. Countries did not make decisions with respect to flight bans and (protecting) PPE stores.”
Asked by Global News to respond to O’Toole’s assertion, a spokesperson for Public Health Canada said that in January, officials started to monitor the coronavirus in China and “initiated work with Public Services and Procurement Canada to procure supplies needed to respond to a possible outbreak in Canada.”
Internal Public Health Canada emails indicate that on Jan. 31 Minister Patty Hajdu approved a donation of PPE to China from Canada’s emergency stockpile including “stuff that (would be) expiring in Feb. and March.” The ministry believed this donation would not compromise Canada’s PPE supply, the emails say.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that two planes from Canada sent to purchase PPE in China have now returned empty.
Trudeau cited congestion at Chinese airports and restrictions that only allow planes to wait for cargo for short periods. But China called Trudeau’s claim “inaccurate.”
After this story was published Global News asked Trudeau whether he was aware in January that China was engaged in a global operation to secure PPE, and if his government was aware, why no action was taken to protect Canada’s supply.
“As of Jan. 2 our chief public health officer convened a group of provincial public health officers to advise that there were reports of a new virus present in China,” Trudeau said Thursday. “Our intelligence services were tracking and aware of the issues and we got regular updates through the month of January. Further than that, I don’t have anything to add.”
Chinese consulates and community associations named in this story have not yet responded to questions from Global News.
‘Every overseas Chinese is a warrior’
A review of official reports from state media such as Xinhua as well as UFWD web pages in China and reports from associated Chinese-Canadian community groups, record massive PPE shipments of at least 100 tonnes from Canada to China in January and February.
The efforts were organized through consulates in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. In Vancouver and Toronto, business associations officially tied to the UFWD appear to have taken the lead in the global drive for N95 masks, also securing and shipping PPE from other countries into China.[read more in PDF(7.22MB)]