The federal government last year denied a 68-year-old Chinese citizen permanent residency after he claimed he had trained Chinese spies — and might be one himself.
But a recent Federal Court ruling says that the information used by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) in its assessment of Liping Geng’s past was “questionable” and “overwhelming,” raising questions about the credibility of the intelligence division of the CBSA.
A federal court judge has now overturned the CBSA’s decision in the Liping Geng case and ordered another immigration officer to review his case.
Geng taught English at a school in China that — as Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley wrote in a June 2 decision — trained linguists employed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intelligence arm, known as the Third Branch or “3/PLA .”
According to Mosley’s ruling, he was tasked with sifting through intelligence analyzes to determine whether Geng’s work teaching English students — some of whom may have been employed by one of China’s spy agencies — meant he was a member of an organization that “that on reasonable grounds to believe is, has been or will be engaged in espionage against Canada, or which is contrary to Canada’s interests.”
“There is clearly a lot of interest in making these kinds of decisions and assessments, to protect the safety of Canada and Canadians and everyone who is in Canada,” said Geng’s attorney Athena Portokalidis.
“But I think that needs to be balanced against making these findings based on credible and reasonable evidence.”
According to the Statement of Agreed Facts filed in the Federal Court, as a young man, Geng was a member of the People’s Liberation Army. While serving, he earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Chinese, English, Mathematics and Current Affairs from the Luoyang Foreign Languages Institutes (LFLI).
From 1975 to 1987 he worked as a teacher and assistant teacher of English at the institute.
According to the statement of facts, Geng was allowed to come and go to Canada for a while, and even once held citizenship.
In 1989, he was accepted to the University of Toronto, where he spent nine years studying and earning a PhD in English literature before teaching the subject at both U of T and Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador.
He became a Canadian citizen in 1995, the statement of facts says. Deciding that his full-time employment prospects were better in China, Geng returned in 2007 and renounced his Canadian citizenship (China does not recognize dual citizenship).
Geng continued to receive a visa each year to return to Canada to visit his family, including a ten-year multiple-entry visa.
CBSA claimed ‘reasonable grounds’ for espionage claim
Things got complicated for him when his wife applied to sponsor him for permanent residency after his retirement in 2019 so he could reunite with the family.
Behind the scenes, two Canadian intelligence agencies had collected reports on him. One was written by the security research arm of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and another came from the CBSA’s national security research division (NSSD).
The October 2020 CSIS report stated that the language institute where Geng taught is “a military training institute where officers and foreign affairs officials receive language training, including to be assigned to listening posts”.
A CBSA security review in April 2021 cited the CSIS report and other documents found on the internet to conclude that the language school falls within the organizational structure of China’s spy agency “and that many graduates are assigned to 3/PLA surveillance and control stations , including those aimed at the United States and Canada.”
The CBSA report argued that “as a result of his employment as a teacher with the LFLI, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the applicant is a member of an organization, the 3/PLA, which has engaged in acts of espionage perpetrated against Canada and contrary to Canada’s interests.”
“There are also reasonable grounds to believe that the applicant has engaged in espionage himself,” said the CBSA report, cited in Mosely’s decision.
The CBSA assessment was also based on a statement Geng made during an interview at Toronto’s Pearson Airport in the summer of 2017 — that he held the rank of “deputy commander” in the Chinese military between 1969 and 1987, before moving to Canada moved.
Geng argued that he said that when he was pressured by the interviewer to suggest an equivalence between his status as a professor and a military rank.
“The applicant states that he has never been a deputy commander in the PLA and could have provided more evidence had he been made aware of these concerns,” the Federal Court decision said.
Consequences ‘are particularly harsh’: judge
In late 2021, Geng received a letter from an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada official expressing concerns about whether his work at the language institute meant he was a member of China’s third branch.
On January 17, 2022, his application for permanent residence was rejected.
Geng appealed, arguing that a Hong Kong immigration officer “made baseless inferences and ignored critical evidence”.
He argued that it was “unreasonable of the officer to claim that the LFLI is an espionage organization simply because a few reports claim that former LFLI students have pursued careers in 3/PLA.”
The Office of the Attorney General of Canada argued on behalf of the Secretary of Immigration that the evidence showed that “everyone who attended the institution where the applicant taught was in or connected with Chinese military intelligence” and that the “teachers were actively engaged in espionage.”
Mosley didn’t buy it.
“The applicant is a 68-year-old retired language professor who was once accepted as a land immigrant and granted citizenship in Canada and now wishes to return here to share his retirement years with his wife and daughter, who are both Canadian citizens.” He wrote.
“The consequences of the decision to deny him entry under these circumstances are particularly harsh. In my opinion, the officer has not sufficiently processed those considerations.”
Mosley ruled that the conclusions of both the CBSA’s national security investigation division and immigration officials were not supported by evidence.
“In my opinion, both the NSSD assessment and the reasons for the officer’s decision demonstrate an overzealous attempt to determine that the applicant was a member of the 3/PLA and as such was inadmissible,” he wrote.
The judge relied on the CBSA unit’s conclusion that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that Geng himself was a spy. Mosley called that an act of overreach.
“This claim is based on a dubious analysis of the concept of facilitation in the context of espionage,” he wrote.
“In my opinion, there is no basis for the idea that the applicant engaged in espionage by merely teaching English to members of the 3/PLA who were later assigned to monitor intercepted communications at listening posts in China or abroad. “
Jacqueline Roby, a spokesperson for the CBSA, said the agency will not comment on a Federal Court judge’s decision.
She said security screening reviews go through two layers of internal review by senior national security screening analysts before arriving at a formal recommendation.
“Our National Security Investigations Analysts have extensive knowledge in the security investigation field, which is regularly enhanced through skilled training and ongoing professional development,” she wrote.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada said that department was also unable to comment “due to privacy laws.”
“Applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” department spokesman Jeffrey MacDonald added. “Decisions are made by highly trained officials who carefully and systematically review each application against the criteria set out in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) and its associated regulations.”
CBSA Intelligence Issues
Portokalidis said she is hearing more and more colleagues report the use of questionable intelligence in immigration cases.
“Fortunately, there are solutions if clients hire legal representatives or lawyers who can help them navigate this process. You can get a solution. But for people who just don’t have or don’t have those resources, it can be very be devastating,” she said.
Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, said CBSA officials “clearly struggled to conduct research.”
“Open source research conducted by CBSA has been very limited and unprofessional,” he said.
“CBSA is not itself an intelligence organization, but is a consumer of intelligence from other departments and agencies. It has little internal knowledge of intelligence practices of foreign states.”
Wark said the Geng case is similar to that of Elena Crenna, a former Russian translator who was accused by the CBSA war crimes investigation unit of being a post-Cold War spy.
In 2020, the Liberal government quietly dropped its case against it after a federal court judge essentially challenged Justice Department lawyers and border agency officials to read the legal and dictionary definition of espionage.
“It is remarkable to me how similar the errors CBSA made in its assessment of the Liping Geng case were to those made in the Elena Crenna case, which also revolved around ‘membership’ in an espionage organization and the facilitation of espionage.” Wark said.
“Of course, officials involved in immigration decisions today will tend to focus on any dimension of a case that suggests a connection to Chinese espionage, however marginal. Failure to do so would be considered serious.
“But in such cases it is also necessary to be extra careful, to avoid politicization and overzealousness.”