Amid the dragon dances, toasts and presentation of letters of congratulations, a new Tibetan-Canadian organization had some surprising messages for the audience at its lavish launch party earlier this month.
As a member of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government and a Toronto city councillor looked on, the new head of the Tibetan Association of Canada explained how China had improved Tibetans’ lives and bolstered their religious freedoms during “60 years of democratic reform.”
Those six decades date from when the People’s Liberation Army put down a Tibetan rebellion in 1959, beginning decades of what human-rights groups have called widespread oppression.
Established Tibetan organizations and activists — who consistently decry China’s actions in Tibet — charge that the new group is a front for the People’s Republic government, though they have no direct evidence of Beijing’s involvement. Regardless, it has already managed to attract politicians from three levels of Canadian government.
Letters of congratulations the group has touted from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen are not authentic, officials in the prime minister’s office and Hussen’s office told the National Post.
But a representative of Liberal MP Shaun Chen was at the Tibetan Association’s launch event, according to Chinese-language reports, and both Vincent Ke, a Conservative member of the Ontario legislature, and Jim Karygiannis, a Toronto city councillor and ex-Liberal MP made personal appearances.
The association is a threat, as it will now muddy the water for politicians and others who do not look closely at what it really represents, says Tsering Shakya, a University of British Columbia professor and expert on Tibet.
“It’s very disruptive,” said Shakya. “People are not able to distinguish between which is a genuine community-based organization, and which is a foreign-government-funded organization who’s lobbying on behalf of another government.”
The new group emerged just two months after Tibetan Chemi Lhamo faced an organized campaign of opposition from thousands of Chinese students at the University of Toronto, where she was elected president of the Scarborough campus’s students union.
Toronto police are investigating the deluge of abusive texts she received, some of which threatened violence against Lhamo.
“This is definitely another propaganda tool by the Chinese state,” she said in an interview about the new association. “I see it as a threat to me personally. I will not know about my Tibetan history if these entities gain power and start to influence our academic institutions and other cultural spaces.”
Representatives of the organization — also referred to on Chinese-language websites as the Tibetan Canadian Friendship Association — could not be reached for comment.
The Toronto Confederation of Chinese Canadian Organizations, which helped set up the group and co-hosted a news conference for Chinese-Canadian media, also could not be reached.
The confederation itself has a history of close relations with Beijing. It worked with the local Chinese consulate in 2001 to put on a pro-China exhibit about Tibet at city hall, supported China’s push to establish a branch of the Confucius Institute at the Toronto school board, and has been lavishly praised by Beijing’s Overseas Affairs Office.
Ke, who is parliamentary assistant to Tourism, Sport and Culture minister Sylvia Jones, said by email the association’s launch party was one of many such events he attends, adding that he enjoys the opportunity to “get out and meet with the people, to hear their concerns.”