National Security

The Scientists Who Came in From the Cold:
Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory Scandal, Part I

Peter Shawn Taylor
May 9, 2024
In a breathless 1999 article on the opening of Canada’s top-security National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, the Canadian Medical Association Journal described the facility as “the place where science fiction movies would be shot.” The writer was fascinated by the various containment devices and security measures designed to keep “the bad boys from the world of virology: Ebola, Marburg, Lassa” from escaping. But what if insiders could easily evade all those sci-fi features in order to help Canada’s enemies? In the first of a two-part series, Peter Shawn Taylor looks into the trove of newly-unclassified evidence regarding the role of NML scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng in aiding China’s expanding quest for the study – and potential military use – of those virus bad boys.
National Security

The Scientists Who Came in From the Cold:
Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory Scandal, Part I

Peter Shawn Taylor
May 9, 2024
In a breathless 1999 article on the opening of Canada’s top-security National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, the Canadian Medical Association Journal described the facility as “the place where science fiction movies would be shot.” The writer was fascinated by the various containment devices and security measures designed to keep “the bad boys from the world of virology: Ebola, Marburg, Lassa” from escaping. But what if insiders could easily evade all those sci-fi features in order to help Canada’s enemies? In the first of a two-part series, Peter Shawn Taylor looks into the trove of newly-unclassified evidence regarding the role of NML scientists Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng in aiding China’s expanding quest for the study – and potential military use – of those virus bad boys.
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Acclaimed spy novelist John Le Carré established his reputation with 1963’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Set at the height of the Cold War, it describes an attempt by washed-up British spy Alec Leamas to infiltrate East German intelligence as a double agent. It’s a grim tale of hidden identities, uncertain alliances and spymasters prepared to sacrifice their own men in pursuit of bigger game. “We are witnessing the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation,” Leamas snaps when he realizes how he’s been deceived by his own agency. According to Le Carré – who worked for Britain’s MI6 in Germany while writing the book – the world of espionage is unpleasant, unglamourous and devoid of loyalty. Unhappy endings are inevitable.

Despite its much-lauded air of verisimilitude, however, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold remains a work of fiction set in a now-distant past. And based on recent events in Canada, the current world of international espionage appears at sharp odds with Le Carré’s downbeat perspective. In fact, newly-unclassified documents tied to one of Canada’s biggest intelligence scandals suggest modern-day spies can live very happily ever-after.

No happy endings here: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, spy novelist John Le Carré’s masterwork, depicts a gritty and amoral vision of modern espionage. Shown, a scene from the 1965 movie adaptation starring Richard Burton.

This trove of once-secret material concerns the case of Xiangguo Qiu, an internationally-recognized scientist at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML), Canada’s highest-security biohazard facility, and her husband and fellow NML biologist Keding Cheng. Made public only after an unprecedented political struggle, the documents suggest Qiu had been doing the bidding of organizations linked to China’s military, possibly since 2016.

Using her security clearance, position and knowledge, Qiu transferred valuable information and materials out of the country – serving China’s interests while undermining those of Canada. The now-public material further suggests Qiu and Cheng took care to cover their tracks. As suspicions were raised about their activities, both lied and dissembled. And when their subterfuge was finally and fully revealed – but before Canada could be bothered to arrest them – they quietly escaped to China. Today they’re apparently living comfortably under new names while working in their preferred occupations. Here at home, the RCMP says it’s still investigating.

Qiu and Cheng, in other words, appear to have pulled off every spy’s dream: to accomplish their mission and get home safely while authorities sputter and fume comically on the other side of the border. As a recruiting ad for would-be agents, their tale succeeds brilliantly. If there is an unhappy ending to be found, it’s in the impact all this will have on Canada’s reputation as a vigilant and reliable ally. 

A Curious Incident at the Lab

The NML is Canada’s only Level 4 Biosafety Lab (BSL4) and hence the only location in the country where deadly viruses such as Ebola, Henipah and Marburg along with other dangerous biological materials can be stored and studied. When the CBC first broke the story in July 2019 that RCMP officers had escorted Qiu, Cheng and their foreign research students out of the building and cancelled their security clearances, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which oversees the NML, dismissed it as merely an “administrative matter” involving a breach of internal policy by staff.

Internationally-renowned virologist Xiangguo Qiu (top left) and her husband, biologist Keding Cheng (top right), both worked at Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) until they were escorted off the premises in July 2019 for what was initially described as an “administrative matter”. (Sources of photos: (top left) Public Policy Forum, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0; (top right) Governor General’s Innovation Awards; (bottom) Trevor Brine/CBC)

At the time, Qiu was Head of Vaccines and Antivirals in the Zoonotic Diseases and Special Pathogens division of NML and internationally renowned for her work on Ebola. In 2018 she won a Governor General’s Innovation Award for co-developing a breakthrough treatment for the deadly virus. Cheng held a more junior position as a biologist at NML. Both were born in China and came to Canada to work in the 1990s; both are naturalized Canadian citizens.

A few weeks after Qiu and Cheng were removed from the NML, the Winnipeg Free Press reported on a mysterious March 2019 shipment of Ebola and Henipah virus samples from the NML to China. It had been organized by Qiu, and appeared to violate standard transfer protocols. In response, the PHAC again said there was nothing to be alarmed about. “The NML routinely shares samples of pathogens and toxins with laboratory partners in Canada and in other countries,” was the boilerplate response to all media inquiries. Further, the PHAC stated the virus shipment was “in response to a request” from an institute in China and that Qiu and Cheng’s “administrative investigation is not related to the shipment of virus samples to China.” There was, PHAC repeated, no connection between the two incidents.

Yet the possibility that Qiu and Cheng were involved in something other than an administrative matter piqued the interest of both media and opposition parties. Dogged investigative reporting turned up numerous problems inside the NML going back many years. The Winnipeg Free Press, for example, revealed significant security and safety concerns at the lab, including a petri dish containing tuberculosis culture that fell behind a work desk and lay undiscovered for a year; in 2009 a former NML researcher was caught at the U.S. border with 22 vials of biological material stolen from the lab – including some Ebola virus genes – hidden in a glove in his trunk.

As pressure mounted to explain what was really going on at the NML, in March 2021 the House of Commons’ Special Committee on the Canada-People’s Republic of China Relationship demanded evidence to support the contention that the case of Qiu and Cheng had no connection to national security matters. The Justin Trudeau government responded with a heavily-censored, 290-page collection of documents. Unhelpfully, whole pages were blacked out and many files were missing entirely. Of the legible material, most were media briefing notes and internal emails regarding the most mundane aspects of the 2019 virus shipment to China. (The declared value of 30 vials of some of the deadliest viruses in existence: $2.50 each.) Anything directly connected to Qiu and Cheng was redacted. The committee, comprised of an equal number of Liberal and opposition MPs, made a subsequent request, and when that didn’t work the House of Commons passed its own a motion demanding to see the full slate of uncensored documents.

Battle royale: The political struggle over releasing the NML documents triggered many unusual events, including the appearance of Iain Stewart (top), head of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), before the bar of Parliament to be formally admonished by the Liberal-appointed Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota (bottom), something that hadn’t happened to a federal civil servant since 1913. (Sources of photos: (top) The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick; (bottom) The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

Pressed hard to disclose the information, the federal Liberals dug in their heels, declaring it to be a matter of national security. In response, the House declared the government in contempt of Parliament. Iain Stewart, head of PHAC, was brought before the bar of Parliament and admonished for his refusal to release the requested documents, something that hadn’t happened to a federal civil servant in over a century. Stewart’s boss, Health Minister Patty Hadju, also refused to hand over any further documents, telling the Canada-China Committee “the information requested has both privacy and national security implications.” She also repeated the now-standard line that “there is no connection between the transfer of viruses…and the subsequent departure of these employees.”

Remarkably, even the Liberal-appointed Speaker of the House of Commons, Anthony Rota, took up the case, arguing that Parliament has an unfettered right to demand whatever it needs to do its job of holding the government to account. The Prime Minister’s Office in turn threatened to sue the Speaker in federal court, an unprecedented turn of events that prompted Rota to declare that the “Federal Court has no jurisdiction to restrict the House’s power to request documents.” What was shaping up to be a fascinating constitutional battle royale between the legislative and executive branches of government was rendered moot by the snap federal election of 2021.

After their re-election to another minority government, the Liberals had an apparent change of heart, perhaps due to legal advice that Rota’s position was unquestionable correct or, alternatively, a shift in personnel. Mark Holland, Hajdu’s replacement as health minister, agreed to make the documents available to an ad hoc committee consisting of one MP from each of the four main federal parties. Together with a panel of judges, the MPs were sworn to secrecy and allowed to examine the complete file in order to decide what documents were in the public’s interest to see and what should remain secret for national security reasons. The end result was a ground-breaking 623-page document released this past February.

A look behind the curtain: Made public in February 2024, the 623-page collection of formerly-classified documents includes (from left to right) a third-party investigation into Qiu and Cheng, secret “Canadian Eyes Only” reports from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the pair’s own response to accusations made against them.

The package constitutes a remarkable collection of sensitive government files. It includes confidential internal investigations by the PHAC, secret “Canadian Eyes Only” reports by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), Qiu and Cheng’s own responses to the accusations made against them, the official letters firing them and the government’s timeline of the entire saga. The level of disclosure is wide-ranging, although the names of most individuals are obscured. And while this cache of material still leaves many important questions unanswered, it provides a coherent – and deeply troubling – narrative for one of the most consequential breaches of Canada’s national security to have ever become public.

“Scientists need to do what scientists do”

John Williamson had a front-row seat to the entire Qiu-Cheng affair. As a member of the House of Commons’ Canada-China Committee prior to the 2021 election, the Conservative MP from New Brunswick was a participant in the raucous hearings and subsequent constitutional dust-up. “It was such a highly, highly unusual situation,” recalls Williamson in an interview. “For the RCMP to go into the lab and remove the scientists didn’t fit with initial government statements minimizing the situation. It had to be more than a personnel matter.”

As time passed and suspicions grew the government’s reasons for keeping the documents secret kept changing. “First it was privacy, then it was national security,” Williamson says. “The excuses were increasingly unconvincing.” The Canada-China Committee’s ultimate success in prying the documents out of a reluctant government’s hands is evidence, he says, that Parliament remains relevant despite the vast centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Last year Williamson was selected as the Conservative representative to the ad hoc committee reviewing the classified material. Ensconced in a windowless room in a nondescript office building in downtown Ottawa under the watchful eye of Privy Council security guards, Williamson experienced the frisson of being among the first to read the documents once considered so dangerous the Liberals were prepared to sue the Speaker to avoid making them public.

“We were presented with the documents in chronological order,” Williamson recalls. “And as I read them, my understanding of the situation progressed in stages.” In the beginning, he wondered whether all the hoopla had been worth it. “My first impression,” he says, “was that this was a simply a badly-run laboratory.”

“For the RCMP to go into the lab and remove the scientists…it had to be more than a personnel matter,” says John Williamson, a Conservative MP from New Brunswick. Williamson was the only Conservative member on the ad hoc committee of four MPs given access to the entire file of classified documents ahead of their public release. (Source of photo: John Williamson)

The initial entries explain that in August 2018 CSIS staff met with NML Scientific Director General Matthew Gilmour to discuss potential vulnerabilities. All federal high-security facilities regularly receive such “insider threat briefings.” At that meeting Qiu and Cheng were mentioned as possible subjects for further investigation. A preliminary review quickly revealed Qiu’s name on a Chinese-registered patent, in apparent violation of Canadian law; Cheng was also involved in several minor violations of security protocols. A more detailed investigation was ordered, including the clandestine “mirroring” (a form of external monitoring) of Qiu and Cheng’s computers and electronic devices, as well as formal interviews with the pair and their co-workers.

This process revealed that Qiu and Cheng shared a surprisingly carefree attitude towards rules, an obvious problem given that they worked at Canada’s highest-level biosafety research lab. Cheng deliberately mislabelled sensitive biological material as “kitchen utensils” to circumvent necessary transportation precautions. He also improperly downloaded data onto removable storage devices and was involved in several curious incidents at the building’s front desk involving the comings and goings of his research students, most of whom had links to China.

In an interview with a third-party investigator hired by the PHAC, Qiu’s standard reply to any security concerns was that she was solely focused on research and considered excessive rule-following to be an impediment to her work. “Scientists need to do what scientists do,” was her common refrain. At other times she pointed a finger at the PHAC’s poor training practices. Cheng met bothersome security requirements with a similar shrug.

“Scientists need to do what scientists do”: Initial investigations by the PHAC and CSIS revealed that Qiu and Cheng shared a surprisingly carefree attitude towards security rules, despite working in Canada’s only Level 4 Biosafety Laboratory. Shown, Qiu at work in her Winnipeg lab. (Source of photo: CBC)

Initially taking this evidence at face-value, Williamson recalls thinking it “looked to be a made-in-Canada problem concerning public servants not following the rules. Management seemed quite lax and there was no effective oversight.” An obvious problem, he thought, but not one with major national security implications.

Following the third-party investigation of Qiu and Cheng, CSIS weighed in with its own report on the two scientists dated April 9, 2020. This includes observations that Qiu was involved in joint research with officials from China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) top medical research institution. As a matter of national security, CSIS makes specific note of the PLA’s plans for improving its chemical and biological warfare capabilities. Another item of concern was an NML researcher – identified as “Individual 2” in the documents – who attempted to remove ten vials of material from the NML lab. Individual 2 would later be revealed to be a senior technician from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) working in partnership with Qiu.

The plot unfolds: The first CSIS investigation revealed that Qiu had conducted joint research with scientists at China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences (shown). Despite this worrisome connection, CSIS was initially reluctant to categorize Qiu as a security risk. (Source of photo: N509FZ, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

“As you dig deeper into the documents, you begin to realize mainland China military officials may have infiltrated the lab,” recalls Williamson. “Now it looks like we could have a clandestine espionage operation meant to remove information and Canadian lab officials are just missing it. Now we have a national security problem.”

Despite these initial warning signs, CSIS was initially reluctant to accuse Qiu of anything nefarious. While observing she had a flexible concept of loyalty towards Canada and seemed unconcerned about security procedures, the report states, “The Service does not have a reason to suggest that Ms. QIU would willingly cooperate with a foreign power knowing harm would come to Canada.” Here the matter nearly ended.

According to the federal timeline of events on April 13, 2020 – nearly a year-and-a-half after concerns were first raised about Qiu and Cheng – PHAC management was preparing to close the investigation. Reprimand letters for the pair were drafted. Sanctions against the pair were to include “disciplinary measures and training”, but they would keep their jobs and security clearances. A week later, however, this reprimand process was “paused due to new information related to external investigation.”

Complete Collapse of Canada’s National Security Interests

On April 20, 2020, CSIS reopened its files on Qiu and Cheng as a result of “newly discovered information”. Where this information came from is not revealed, and has likely been kept hidden by the ad hoc committee. It could be the result of continuing CSIS investigations, or it could have been provided by the intelligence service of an allied country. Regardless of its provenance, CSIS immediately lost confidence in Qiu’s loyalty to Canada due to her “close and clandestine relationships with a variety of entities of the People’s Republic of China.”

“When you get to the later CSIS documents, you begin to realize how huge the issue really is,” says Williamson. “Now not only do you have People’s Republic of China people in the labs, but Canadian citizens are working as agents for mainland China. At this point I realized I was looking at a complete collapse of Canada’s national security interests – this is why the government didn’t want to release the documents.”

CSIS reopened its investigation into Qiu and Cheng after “newly discovered information” cast doubt on Qiu’s loyalty to Canada due to her “close and clandestine relationships with a variety of entities of the People’s Republic of China.”

The additional information comprises the meat of the unredacted material and contains many alarming subplots. The most damning is the existence of numerous applications filled out in the name of Qiu and Cheng for China’s notorious “talent” programs. In accordance with China’s ambitions to globally dominate certain technologies and scientific fields, talent programs offer generous rewards to Chinese researchers in western countries who can bring that knowledge home by whatever means. There are hundreds of talent programs throughout China operating at all levels of government, the most famous being the national Thousand Talents Program (TTP). According to FBI research, “talent programs usually involve undisclosed and illegal transfers of information, technology, or intellectual property.” They are, in other words, thinly-veiled espionage operations.

Applications for talent programs originate with Chinese institutions and are then offered to targeted individuals before being approved by the “foreign expert affairs bureau” of the requisite level of government. One TTP application made out in Qiu’s name offered to provide up to $1 million in research funding plus preferential health care and taxation benefits. Another offered her a salary of $15,000 per month for time spent in China, plus $30,000 per year while she was outside the country. This income would be in addition to her day job with the Government of Canada. Cheng was also named in applications for regional talent programs. To be clear, the documents do not conclusively prove Qiu or Cheng were participants in any talent programs, just that there were application forms filled out in their names by various Chinese institutions. And that both Qiu and Cheng knew about this.

A talent for espionage: According to the FBI, China’s many “talent” programs usually involve “undisclosed and illegal transfers of information, technology, or intellectual property” from western countries to China.

What is crystal clear is that Qiu’s skills and position were very attractive to Chinese institutions making talent applications in her name. One particularly eager suitor was the WIV. This facility is now infamous for its proximity to the epicentre of the global outbreak of Covid-19 and its possible role as the source of the SARS CoV-2 virus. The WIV also has a long track record of collaboration with Chinese military researchers, as a 2023 report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence explains. Back in 2018, however, the WIV had just become China’s first BSL4 lab (also referred to as P4) and needed someone with experience to help it develop protocols befitting its new status and to get some new research projects up and running.

According to documents summarized in a June 30, 2020 CSIS report, the WIV said it considered Qiu to be “the only highly experienced Chinese expert available internationally, who is still fighting on the front lines for a P4 laboratory.” Beyond Qiu’s much-needed experience and know-how, the WIV also wanted her help in gaining access to a supply of deadly viruses necessary for its future research plans. At the time, U.S. export restrictions denied China easy access to these materials and, according to the CSIS summary, Qiu’s participation with the WIV was considered “beneficial for…importing the P4 virus research resources from abroad.”

It was these comments, Williamson says, that brought his reading of the classified material to a full stop as the problems at the NML came into sharp focus. “Here was a Chinese institution stating plainly that Qiu was the only Chinese scientist available who could feed their ambitions. She was Beijing’s greatest asset in a Level 4 lab in any western nation.”

Qiu made five trips to China in 2017 and 2018. In October 2018 she visited Wuhan and made a side trip to the WIV to lead a workshop on biosafety for 30 staff scientists. This event was not recorded in the official itinerary she filed with her Canadian employer. The same month the WIV formally requested the transfer of 30 vials of Ebola and other deadly viruses from the NML, a transaction overseen by Qiu. Recall that both PHAC and former federal Health Minister Hajdu repeatedly declared this shipment to be unrelated to the “administrative matter” of Qiu and Cheng being escorted off the premises of NML. Given what we now know, that seems very unlikely.

Based on the document dump, it appears Qiu was aggressively recruited by the Wuhan lab, possibly with the encouragement of a TTP, to participate in several sensitive and potentially-controversial research projects. What is referred to as WIV Project 1 included developing “mouse-adapted and guinea pig-adapted Ebola viruses”. Key to this project was a selection of virus samples identical to those ultimately provided by the NML in March 2019 through Qiu’s efforts. Reinforcing the secretive nature of the relationship between Qiu and the WIV, the project’s plan states: “We are in the process of applying for the official permit to transfer BSL4 pathogens from Canada to China. To avoid confusing the leaders, it is better not to let National Microbiology Laboratory know about this project.” Qiu seems to have done as she was told. CSIS reports “PHAC was not aware of this project.”

“The only highly experienced Chinese expert available”: CSIS uncovered documents revealing that Qiu was considered essential to the research ambitions of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (shown), an institution with close ties to the Chinese military and infamous for its proximity, and likely connection, to the initial outbreak of Covid-19. (Source of photo: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The weight of evidence suggests Qiu was a vital link in China’s apparently successful strategy to enhance its biological research capabilities using information and materials taken from Canada’s highest security biohazard lab. And it appears this type of subterfuge was ongoing for a considerable period of time. Documentation for an award presented to Qiu in 2016 by China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and obtained by CSIS says Qiu “used Canada’s Level 4 Biosecurity Laboratory as a base to assist China to improve its capability to fight highly-pathogenic pathogens…and achieve brilliant results.”

A subsequent CSIS report delves deeper into the background of the many research students and other scientists associated with the Chinese regime that cultivated connections with Qiu and Cheng during their time at the NML. Among these characters is Shi Zhengli, the WIV deputy-director widely referred to as “bat-woman” for her focus on bat virus research at the WIV prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. Shi is identified as “Individual 1” in the CSIS files. Another frequent Qiu collaborator was Major-General Chen Wei, named China’s “top biowarfare expert” by a U.S. congressional investigation. CSIS similarly describes Chen – identified as “Major General, PLA/Top Virologist AMMS (Chief 2)” in the at-times easily-broken code of the documents – as “China’s chief biological weapons defense expert engaged in research related to biosafety, bio-defence and bio-terrorism.”

Another name that pops up frequently is Feihu Yan. He is described in academic papers as being associated with the Institute for Military Veterinary at China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, as well as Canada’s NML and the University of Manitoba. In the declassified CSIS documents, Feihu is referred to as “Restricted Visitor 4”, which means he had access to NML’s BSL4 lab under Qiu’s supervision. Qiu and Feihu appear as co-authors on ten research papers published in a variety of scientific journals from 2016 through 2021. Over the same period, Qiu and Chen co-authored two papers. All the research concerns deadly viruses such as Ebola and Rift Valley fever.

Bosom buddies: Shi Zhengli, WIV’s deputy-director and often referred to as “bat-woman” (left), and Major-General Chen Wei, China’s “top biowarfare expert” (right), frequently collaborated with Qiu during her time at the NML. (Source of left photo: Chinatopix via AP, File)

As the CSIS documentation makes clear, this research has both civil and military applications and is of considerable interest to China’s PLA. Among the Academy of Military Medical Science’s tasks, CSIS observes, is “the development of military biotechnologies, biological counter-terrorism and prevention and control of major diseases.” As for China’s greater goals, then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe caused a stir in 2020 with a Wall Street Journal commentary about the threats posed by China’s talent programs and its use of scientific research stolen from western countries. Referring specifically to its biowarfare ambitions, Ratcliffe said China had “conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities.” In an ominous coda, he warned “There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power.”

Espionage? Never Heard of it

CSIS’s evolving investigation into Qiu and Cheng established numerous situations in which they attempted to keep their deep links with China’s scientific and military establishments hidden. As early as 2016, for example, Qiu held multiple positions at Chinese universities which she left off her Canadian CVs. She also had her name scrubbed from the online program of a 2017 conference in Wuhan at which she gave a talk. And there are the gaps in her travel itineraries and the secrecy surrounding the 2019 virus shipment. Cheng’s work seems equally cloaked in mystery. According to CSIS, he had been conducting a three-year research program at the NML on behalf of China’s Centre for Disease Control – without NML management’s knowledge.

Scrubbed clean: Qiu held multiple positions at Chinese universities as early as April 2016, but hid these facts from PHAC management and lied about them in her initial interview with CSIS.

Confronted with evidence of their deceptions, Qiu and Cheng adopted differing tactics to explain away their behaviour. In a November 26, 2020 written response to the accusations against her, Qiu took on the aura of a workaholic, politically-clueless scientist. “Please let me express my sincere gratitude to you and PHAC administration for the opportunity and consideration on the clarifications of the [security] report,” her letter begins. She then claimed, “It was only during the investigative interview that I started to know some new words to me, such as ‘NATO’, ‘Spy’ and ‘espionage’.” Qiu further insisted that, “I have dedicated almost all my time to the beauty of science through hardworking and national and international collaborations, no TV watching, no time to take vacations.”

Qiu maintained this façade of the dedicated-if-naïve scientist throughout the investigation. When confronted with contrary evidence, such as TPP applications filled out in her name, her central role in WIV Project 1, an undeclared bank account in China, unrecorded trips to the WIV and so on, she repeatedly claimed it was a mistake or the result of her poor grasp of English. It was not always a convincing tactic. Pressed to explain the presence of “Restricted Visitor 1” in her lab, an individual who held a Chinese public affairs passport and had clear ties to the Chinese military through bioweapons expert Major-General Chen, Qiu claimed not to know anything about her. It was later revealed Restricted Visitor 1 had rented a house owned by Qiu and Cheng when she was in Winnipeg.

“There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power”: Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe raised the alarm about China’s biowarfare ambitions in 2020, noting that China has “conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities.” (Source of photo: Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

In his own letter in response to PHAC’s investigation, Cheng took a more pragmatic approach to explaining his actions. When presented with a talents form in his name that required the applicant to declare they “passionately love the socialist motherland”, he observed that applying for jobs was a very Canadian thing to do, and that he was simply “putting bread and butter on the table.” Maintaining a healthy income was often central to Cheng’s responses.

When these efforts didn’t dissuade the investigators, the couple launched a union grievance claiming racial discrimination. In an August 5, 2020 complaint, Qiu and Cheng alleged they were “treated differently and more severely than other employees” because of their Chinese background, and that this was an example of “racial profiling.” This accusation of racism appears to have added two months to the investigative process. After being identified as potential security risks as early as September 2019, it wasn’t until January 19, 2021 that Qiu and Cheng were both formally stripped of their security clearances and fired.

Adherence to numerous human resources procedures, union-erected obstacles and sensitivity towards the feelings of the alleged spies – even after it was well-established they were “not being truthful” – largely explains why it took so long to finally fire them. Much of the federal timeline’s 14 pages (what is called the “Investigative Critical Path”) depicts an investigation bogged down by protocols and rules. There is little hint of urgency. “Conduct the interviews in a respectful and professional manner,” reads one entry advising investigators to avoid upsetting Qiu and Cheng. “Care will be taken to avoid any comments or behaviours that could intimidate or be perceived as badgering.” This approach continued right through to the letters firing them. “I appreciate that this may be a stressful time, and remind you that the Employee Assistance Program is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” their identical termination letters conclude. Such velvet-glove treatment seems absurd given the obvious threat they posed to Canada’s national security.

And while the investigation did ultimately remove Qiu and Cheng from the NML, the message embedded in their fate is hardly one of deterrence. After all, the pair were never arrested and charged, let alone tried, convicted and imprisoned. In nearly all countries throughout history, the penalty for espionage has been death. In Communist China today, it still is.

Instead, according to a Globe and Mail investigation, they are now enjoying comfortable lives back in China. Qiu seems particularly active in her chosen field, with four Chinese patents filed since 2020, suggesting she has been carrying on an active research agenda after being removed from the NML. Two of these patents are with the WIV, two with the prestigious University of Science and Technology of China. Cheng appears to be employed as a professor of biology at Guangzhou Medical University; in 2021 and 2022 he was identified as an immunologist at KingMed Diagnostics, a Chinese-based testing laboratory.

Intriguingly, the Globe reports that both of them appear to be living under new names: Sandra Chiu and Kaiting Cheng. The academic biographies of these two individuals are identical to their previous Canadian identities and a few of their email addresses even include their old names. Qiu/Chiu is also reportedly the author of an upcoming book on Ebola to be published by Huazhong University of Science and Technology, an institution with well-known ties to the Chinese military.

Spies happily ever-after: According to a Globe and Mail investigation, Qiu and Cheng currently live in China and are each employed in their chosen fields. Curiously, they appear to have adopted new names – Sandra Chiu and Kaiting Cheng.

As for any crimes that might have been committed by Qiu and Cheng prior to their leaving Canada, “The RCMP investigation into this matter is ongoing,” says RCMP Sgt. Kim Chamberland via email. “National Security criminal investigations are often complex, multijurisdictional, and resource intensive and can take several years to complete.” Of course, it has already been several years. And the facts on the ground suggest the case is closed as a practical matter, even if the RCMP claim otherwise. The spies have already come in from the cold, so to speak. The entire matter appears to be yet another humiliating debacle for Canada’s troubled national police force.

For China, it is the very opposite – an unambiguous victory. Most obviously, the WIV got its hands on its desired collection of deadly viruses thanks to the efforts of Qiu, who also provided invaluable expertise and advice on the operation of its first BSL4 lab. We can only assume WIV Project 1 was a great success. The full scope of information, know-how and materials Qiu and Cheng allowed to be transferred out of the NML by their own hand and/or by welcoming numerous foreign agents into their lab may never be known. But it seems inevitable that their actions while working as federal government employees significantly enhanced the Chinese military’s biotechnology capabilities. And in doing so, made all Canadians less safe. Now it appears they’re comfortably back home, enjoying the fruits of their labour and free from worries about extradition or additional sanctions. It’s a career path that would make any spy feel warm all over.

“Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory Scandal, Part II” will examine the damage done to Canada’s international reputation and national security by the Qiu-Cheng affair.

Peter Shawn Taylor is senior features editor of C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.

Source of main image: Governor General’s Innovation Awards, adapted by Emily Moyes.

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Canada’s military today has submarines that can’t submerge, nearly half-century-old fighter jets that should never be sent into combat, an unending recruitment crisis, a collapsed public image and barely enough combat-capable soldiers to fill an army brigade – in a G7 nation of 40 million people with a nearly $3 trillion economy. Eighty years ago the same country – much poorer and with a population 75 percent smaller – deployed six entire divisions fighting simultaneously in two different combat theatres, more than 500 warplanes and one of the world’s largest navies, and kept them all supplied across an ocean. Historian David J. Bercuson recounts a time when Canada was a country that got stuff done, that earned its seat at the table with the big nations, that knew its purpose, and whose people were able and willing to do whatever it took to win, most especially on the day – June 6, 1944 – when the fate of civilization hung in the balance.

The Sacred Covenant of Kamloops: Replacing Truth and Reconciliation with Secrecy and Self-Abasement

The Roman Catholic Church is steeped in centuries of mystery and ineffable truths. Its time-honoured rituals and beliefs offer an important sense of comfort and continuity to its 1.4 billion worldwide adherents. Yet a mysterious “Sacred Covenant” signed recently between two Canadian Catholic organizations and the Kamloops First Nation concerning unproven allegations of human remains on the grounds of a former Indian Residential School will bring neither comfort nor continuity. Instead, it points to an existential crisis deep within the Church itself. Hymie Rubenstein takes a close look at what is known about this strange agreement, and what it means for the future of truth and reconciliation in Canada.

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The Vials and the Damage Done: Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory Scandal, Part II

In China, minor security infractions are routinely punished with lengthy jail terms in dreadful conditions. In Canada, it’s just the opposite. Clear evidence of espionage is rewarded with a free pass back home after the mission is complete. Neglecting our national security in this way may suit the Justin Trudeau government, but it is doing great harm to Canada’s relationship with its most important allies. In the concluding instalment of his two-part series, Peter Shawn Taylor examines the many ways in which the spy scandal at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg has damaged Canada’s international standing and contributed to the growing perception that Canada is a foreign agent’s happy place. (Part I is here.)

Want to Fix Canada’s Screwed-Up Income Tax System? Start By Taxing Families

Equity has lately become the quintessential goal of all government policies. Every Canadian, regardless of position, place or identity, must be seen to be treated fairly by their public institutions. But how can a tax system – surely the most central of all government activities – be considered fair if it requires some families to pay thousands more in taxes than other families with exactly the same income? With Ottawa eagerly adding to the bloat of its ludicrously-complex and costly Income Tax Act, it’s time to confront the glaring inequity at the heart of Canada’s tax system. Peter Shawn Taylor looks back to the last time someone offered a solution to this problem – and finds we need this wisdom now more than ever.

The Housing Market Isn’t Racist. Blame Your Parents Instead

Diversity may be our strength. But it is now alarmingly commonplace in Canada to blame any perceived diversity in outcomes between racial groups on vaguely-defined “systemic racism” or “white supremacy”. Case in point: the Federal Housing Advocate’s allegations of rampant racism in Canada’s housing market, and the need to address it with outlandishly disruptive policies. Delving deep into Statistics Canada’s ample supply of race-based data, Peter Shawn Taylor considers the evidence for racism in Canadian housing, education, income and poverty statistics, and finds a more convincing explanation much closer to home.

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