Canada faces questions over alleged Chinese interference | Political news
When MP Kenny Chiu was contacted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) ahead of the 2021 Canadian federal election, he was puzzled.
He never expected to be part of a CSIS investigation, let alone one that required a face-to-face conversation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.
“At that time, everything had been posted online, so it was quite unexpected that they insisted on meeting face to face,” Chiu told Al Jazeera.
But the subject of the meeting was very sensitive: the alleged Chinese interference in the Canadian elections. And soon, it would be a dominant issue in Canadian politics, shaping Chiu’s political fortunes — and eventually even that of the prime minister.
Intelligence reports released by CSIS months indicate that the Canadian intelligence community has been concerned about Chinese election interference for decades.
The documents suggest that the Chinese government not only spread misinformation, but also operated a clandestine business network to influence of the last two federal elections, in 2019 and 2021.
The alleged network includes Chinese diplomats, Canadian politicians, business owners and international students. They are accused of using their influence to back pro-Beijing candidates and scuttle voices critical of China.
One such figure is the former Chinese Consul General of Vancouver Tong Xiaoling. In a leak to The Globe and Mail newspaper, Tong reportedly boasted that Chinese efforts resulted in the defeat of two Conservative Party of Canada candidates in the province of British Columbia. Chiu was one of them.
Disinformation in the election campaign
Chiu began to notice a change six months before his re-election bid, in the early months of 2021.
First elected to represent the Steveston-Richmond East district in 2019, Chiu had recently introduced a private member’s bill called the Foreign Influence Registry Act.
Individuals working for foreign governments and political organizations would have had to record their communications with Canadian officials if they sought, for example, to make policy proposals or influence government contracts.
According to Chiu, the bill was intended to give Canada tools to fight foreign interference without targeting any particular country.
“Yet we’ve seen a lot of misinformation circulating about the bill, saying things like, ‘It’s going to put Chinese Canadians at risk and people with ties to China could be sentenced to a fine of 400,000 Canadian dollars’ [about $300,000]”, said Chiu. “Of course, none of that was true.
Chiu himself came under fire. “There were also slanders directed at me, saying I’m a sellout and accusing me of racism despite my own Chinese heritage.”
But Chiu wasn’t the only one to notice an increase in scrutiny after his bill was introduced. Canadian disinformation monitor DisInfoWatch has taken a close look at the stories of Chiu and other Conservative Party candidates in the 2021 election.
He found that there were strong indications of a coordinated campaign aimed at influencing Chinese-Canadian voters.
Benjamin Fung, professor of cybersecurity at McGill University, also analyzed the disinformation spread during the election. He too concluded that there were links with Asia.
“It was prevalent, but a lot of the activity was centered around a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. time slot — not Canada time, but China time,” Fung told AlJazeera. “So it was most likely coordinated from somewhere in East Asia.”
Chiu District had a large Chinese-Canadian community, and experts found that a significant proportion of misinformation was spread through WeChat, a Chinese social media app widely used in the diaspora community.
With approximately 1 million users in Canada, WeChat was one of the few apps that enabled communication between people inside and outside of China.
Chiu then lost his bid for re-election. And his private member’s foreign interference bill was ultimately shelved.
Scandal for the Liberal Party
The precise effect of the alleged Chinese interference, however, is difficult to measure.
Although the Canadian government has acknowledged that China interfered in the 2019 and 2021 elections, a report published in February concluded that these efforts did not have a significant impact on the outcome of either. another vote.
Chiu agrees Chinese interference may not have changed the outcome of his 2021 campaign. But, he insists, that doesn’t mean foreign interference shouldn’t be taken seriously.
“It’s not just our democracy that is under threat. It is our very sovereignty as a nation that is at stake,” he said.
Recent revelations about election interference have sparked a political firestorm for the ruling Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
A Liberal Party MP, Han Dong, was identified among the leaks as having private meetings with the Chinese Consul General in Toronto, Han Tao.
National security sources cited by CTV News accuse Dong of encouraging China to delay the release of two Canadians, Michael Sparov and Michael Kovrig, who were arrested in 2018 for espionage.
Releasing them too soon, Dong allegedly suggested, would benefit the Conservative Party in the polls.
Dong denied making such suggestions, but confirmed he had spoken with the consul general. His office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment and Dong has since resigned from the Liberal Party, serving instead as an independent.
Amid mounting political pressure, Trudeau appointed an independent special rapporteur in March to review reports of election interference and determine whether a public inquiry was necessary.
Its critics say it’s too little, too late. They accuse Trudeau of being more obsessed with stopping the leaks than fighting the interference itself.
Tackling Anti-Chinese Hatred
Initially, Trudeau dismissed the allegations against Dong as evidence of anti-Asian racism.
“One of the things that we have unfortunately seen in recent years is an increase pandemic-related anti-asian racism and concerns about people’s loyalty,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Mississauga.
Accusations that Dong was “somehow not loyal to Canada”, he added, “should not stand.”
But some experts say the issue of anti-Asian hatred has been used as a smokescreen, in some cases to disguise election interference efforts.
Reports have shown that instances of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia have increased in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards, leading to heightened feelings of insecurity among Asian Canadians.
Beijing was able to play on those concerns, dismissing criticism of its interference efforts as further evidence of anti-Asian bias, according to research analyst Ai-Men Lau. She works for the Doublethink Lab, an organization that tracks influence operations.
The solution, she told Al Jazeera, is to engage directly with Chinese diaspora communities to build trust in Canada’s public institutions. But the government initiatives she has seen so far have been top-down.
“I still haven’t seen anything in the future in terms of what we’re going to do for the next election,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we have a particularly nasty habit in Canada of being incredibly reactive to any allegations of foreign interference rather than being proactive.”
China, on the other hand, has allegations systematically denied that he interfered in Canadian elections. On a message board on the Chinese embassy’s official website, a spokesperson called the accusations “pure slander and utter nonsense”.
Al Jazeera contacted the Chinese consulate in Vancouver and Toronto as well as the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, but neither responded to requests for comment.
Beyond Election Interference
Some advocates believe the interference extends well beyond the Canadian electoral system. In 2019, Canadian activist Rukiye Turdush said she uncovered evidence that students planned to obstruct a lecture she gave at McMaster University in Ontario, in conjunction with Chinese officials.
Turdush, a member of the Uighur ethnic group, had given a lecture on the situation in Xinjiang, the far west of China where some 1 million Uighurs have been detained in re-education campsaccording to the UN.
A Chinese student present accused her of lying and insulted her before storming out. But later, Turdush received a series of WeChat screenshots purporting to show Chinese students collecting information about her and her son, apparently to intimidate her.
Based on discussions shared with Al Jazeera, Chinese student groups reported and coordinated with the Chinese Embassy in Canada to disrupt its event.
“It shows how deep Chinese interference is in Canadian society today and how many different Chinese actors are involved,” Turdush told Al Jazeera.
In 2022, the Spanish NGO Safeguard Defenders published a report revealing a global network of more than 100 so-called overseas police stations, operating on behalf of the Chinese government.
He identified three sites in Toronto alone, with other locations believed to be in Montreal and Vancouver.
The presence of such police stations does not surprise Torontonian Mimi Lee, a member of the Toronto-based NGO HongKongers Action Group.
The influence of the Chinese government is everywhere, she said. “Chinese government interference exists from top to bottom in Canada today.”