Mounties to search for 75 Chinese businessmen

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IT'S HARD to imagine losing 75 Chinese businessmen even in a country as large as Canada but that's what the organisers of an investment seminar paid for by the Canadian government have done. Now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been set the difficult task of finding them.

The mislaid visitors were part of a group of 87 from Yunana province who arrived in Canada on 17 April for what was supposed to be a five-day, privately organised seminar to check out business investment opportunities in the Toronto area. But somewhere along the way, as the group was taken around the industrial communities in southern Ontario, 75 of the businessmen went missing.

Eventually, the Canadian immigration department became suspicious, following a tip-off from one of the organisers of the tour. A spokesman for the immigration department said its investigation showed that the number of businessmen declined at each meeting.

Business exchanges between Canada and the free economic zones of southwestern China have become more commonplace recently, especially since Canadian businessmen, often of Hong Kong origin, have been rushing to cash in on China's economic boom. The suspicion is that one by one the delegates quietly absented themselves from seminar proceedings and melted away into Canada's busy Chinatown districts to join the bonanza.

"Of course we're concerned that some individuals may have gone underground," Immigration Minister Sergio Marchi said.

The arrangements for this particular group were made by Toronto lawyer George Argiris, who specialises in immigration procedures. In a letter to Alex Ma, a Chinese-Canadian businessman who was to host a meeting in Brampton, near the Toronto International Airport, the lawyer said the group wanted to study market and economic conditions in Ontario with a view to applying as business immigrants. The group never showed up for the meeting Mr Ma organised, but he eventually found about half of the original 87 at another scheduled stop on their itinerary.

The immigration department is now trying to determine if fraud was involved in getting the group's visitor visas. The visas were issued by the Canadian immigration office in Hong Kong. Included with the application was a five- day itinerary, return air tickets and appropriate travel documents.