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Is China a threat to Canadian democracy?

A recent news story on Chinese infiltration in Canadian politics is based on unsubstantiated claims and dubious allegations

Canadian PoliticsAsia

Photo by Peter Morgan/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

Following years of deteriorating relations with China, Canada’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy sets the stage for further, more dangerous confrontation. The strategy commits $500 million over five years to “reinforce Canada’s Indo-Pacific naval presence and increase Canadian Armed Forces participation in regional military exercises.” At the same time, it treats China’s rise as a “strategic challenge,” and emphasizes that China is an “increasingly disruptive global power.”

As part of its effort to rationalize escalating hostility toward the region’s most powerful country, the strategy also identifies China as a source of foreign interference in Canadian politics. In the section on Canada’s China strategy, the government commits to “continu[ing] to strengthen the defence of our Canadian infrastructure, democracy and citizens against foreign interference,” and “pushing back against any form of foreign interference on Canadian soil.”

It is no accident that these general commitments are found in the China section. The implicit allegation of Chinese interference connects to a major story that broke less than a month before the strategy was released.

In early November, Global News journalist Sam Cooper reported on intelligence gathered by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) alleging that China has been interfering in Canadian politics, most notably by transferring funds to a handful of candidates in the 2019 federal election.

This story galvanized outrage and calls to action in government and media circles. Conservative Party leader Pierre Poillievre said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “failed to protect Canadian democracy.” Senator Leo Housakos called for a harder line on China’s “evil authoritarian regime” and proposed a foreign influence registry. A multi-partisan parliamentary committee is formally investigating the allegations, and the government is now committing to respond the article’s allegations in official strategy documents.

After the story was released, there was an unspoken consensus in Canadian media that its allegations against China were basically well founded and not worth interrogating. Some cracks have emerged since then, with various public authorities coming forward seemingly contradicting claims in the report. Still, nearly every article from a major Canadian outlet cited in the piece repeats the main allegations without scrutinizing them. There has been practically no indication anywhere in Canadian media that there’s any reason for skepticism beyond the points public authorities themselves are disputing.

All this put the Liberals on the defensive. Trudeau said the report was further evidence that China is playing “aggressive games” with Canada’s democratic institutions and raised the alleged interference in an informal meeting with Xi Jinping.

Apparently, he did so based on the same reporting available to the public, since he now claims he was never briefed on intelligence on Chinese funding of federal candidates. Xi apparently considered this a private meeting, but the contents were released to the Canadian press in what reads like a desperate PR exercise by a prime minister under fire. This prompted a tense viral exchange between the two leaders at the G20.

Yet for all the alarmism around Global’s story, the allegations it contains don’t amount to much. The article is mostly made up of unsubstantiated claims, innuendo, and vague allusions to supposed Chinese wrongdoing. Even if the claims were true, it is far from clear that China’s alleged actions would have had any real impact on the 2019 election or the integrity of Canada’s political system generally.

Indeed, there are only a few essential, concrete allegations in the 2,000 word report.

The flagship claim is that China’s Toronto Consulate transferred around $250,000 to a network of at least eleven federal election candidates and “numerous Beijing operatives” who worked as campaign staffers. The funds were allegedly wired through some combination of an Ontario MPP, a federal election candidate staffer, a Toronto-based grocery chain owner, and a Communist Party of China (CPC) “proxy group.”

The report also claims that China uses CPC “proxies” to co-opt politicians and harass critics, and raises concerns about China’s efforts to repatriate economic fugitives residing in Canada.

These latter points add to past reporting and allegations from Canadian intelligence, but the story doesn’t provide new information or make new allegations on the subject.

There are three main problems with this report: every claim is unsubstantiated; it is vague and filled with innuendo rather than concrete, specific allegations; and the claims don’t amount to any kind of threat to Canadian democracy.

To begin, the story is a second-hand account of allegations from CSIS intelligence that is not available to anyone: not to the public, not to Global News, and apparently not to the prime minister.

CSIS apparently captures its findings by intercepting electronic communications between Chinese consulate officials, Canadian politicians and staffers. No such communications have been published, and there is no indication the author has seen them. We don’t know whether the anonymous sources have even seen them.

Global says that its sources were “close to the situation,” but asked that their names be withheld.

As a result, the only insight we have comes from unnamed sources with unspecified knowledge of the intelligence.

What’s more, different public offices have cast doubt on some of the story’s claims. Trudeau disputes that intelligence on Chinese funding of federal candidates had ever been shared with him, as the story claimed. Elections Canada Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault testified before the House of Commons saying that he hadn’t heard of these allegations until reading them in the news, adding that it would be “premature to draw conclusions” from media reports.

The commissioner of Elections Canada, the office responsible for investigating these sorts of election irregularities, has not said much since the story broke. In November 2021, Global reported that there were 10 complaints of foreign interference in the 2019 election, but clarified that these were just allegations. The Deputy to the Commissioner of Canada Elections is quoted in that story explaining that “in many cases, they don’t fall within the prohibited conduct of the [Canada Elections] Act,” and “[o]ften we just cannot do anything with the complaint.”

Most recently, the RCMP has confirmed that they did not have any criminal investigations into Chinese interference activity in the headline 2019 election, as there was no evidence at the time. They are currently investigating “broader foreign-actor interference activities,” but did not provide any details.

Leaving aside this lack of evidence, the claims themselves are very vague and rely on innuendo.

Take the story’s headline claim: the Toronto Consulate transferred $250,000 to a network of federal candidates and “Beijing operatives” working as campaign staff in 2019, with a CPC “proxy group” acting as one of the intermediaries. This is the most concrete, specific claim in the story, and it still leaves so much to the imagination.

For one thing, we do not know the names of any of the 11 candidates who allegedly received Chinese funding, nor do we know whether any of them won their races. All Global claims to know about these candidates is that they came from both the Liberal and the Conservative parties.

For another, what exactly is a “Beijing operative”? It obviously implies some connection with the Chinese state or the CPC, but it leaves the reader to fill in the blanks about what kind of connection actually exists. Are these “operatives” employed by the Chinese government? Are they members of the CPC?

Apparently, the intelligence clarifies that “some, but not all, members of the alleged network are witting affiliates” of the CPC, but this only confuses things further.

What makes someone an “unwitting” Beijing operative? If a candidate’s campaign staffer secretly works for Beijing, does CSIS consider the candidate themselves a “Beijing operative”? Maybe this could be plausible, but the public has no way to know how CSIS makes these calls.

Similarly, it’s anyone’s guess what a CPC “proxy group” actually means in concrete terms. Is this group affiliated with the CPC? Does it somehow take direction from the Politburo? Are members of the group also members of the party? What are the concrete connections to the CPC? Readers have no way of knowing, and there is no indication Global does either. Again, we don’t know whether the story’s sources even know how CSIS defines words like “proxies” or “operatives.”

Even if some version of these claims turns out to be true, it is far from clear that China’s alleged actions had any measurable impact at all on the 2019 election or Canada’s political system, much less that they represent a “clear and present threat to our democracy” or institutions, as has been claimed.

The story specifies that CSIS itself was unable to determine whether China’s alleged interference made any difference in the election.

This is not surprising: $250,000 is a relatively modest amount of money by the standards of Canadian election finance, especially spread across at least 11 candidates from opposing parties and their staffers. The Conservative Party raised $30.8 million and spent $28.9 million during the 2019 campaign. The Liberals raised $21 million and spent $26.1 million. The two parties raised a combined total of over $2 million in the first week of the campaign.

So, while a quarter-million-dollar sum (if true) should raise eyebrows, it is a far cry from a “sophisticated interference campaign” to “subvert Canadian democracy.”

The article’s claims that China is targeting MPs and harassing critics do not amount to much either.

The story’s sources apparently confirm that former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu was targeted by China’s interference network, as he has claimed since losing the election in 2021. Chiu is the only MP mentioned in the story, and there is no elaboration on how CSIS intelligence confirms his claims. Instead of new information, the story simply provides Chiu with another platform to talk about how “he believes Chinese agents succeeded in smearing him as a racist in WeChat and Mandarin-language media reports,” and that this essentially cost him the election.

The story also claims that Chinese intelligence agents conducted in-depth background research into MPs who voted in favour of a motion declaring China guilty of genocide of the Uyghurs in 2021. The intention was reportedly to judge whether China could leverage the local economies of Canadian politicians seen as hostile to the CPC.

The story calls this “one of the more dramatic allegations,” but why? There is nothing illegal, dramatic, or unusual about intelligence agencies doing research about the countries in which they operate. Canadian intelligence agents also conduct research to determine how to best pursue their goals in a given country. Why would this be different for China?

The intelligence apparently “detailed Chinese intelligence efforts to infiltrate, surveil and ‘mess with’ Chinese diaspora communities.” As interesting as the details might have been, the story instead pivots to brief, inconsequential testimonies from two diasporic activists.

One Hong Kong Canadian community leader believes Chinese intelligence infiltrates diaspora groups in Canada through “business inducements” and “subtle psychological warfare.” The story does not elaborate on what this means.

A Uyghur Canadian activist said many in her community believe Chinese agents monitor and harass them. She apparently provided photos of one alleged incident, but Global did not publish them. Instead, it describes the incident as follows: “she was protesting outside the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver when a van pulled up, and two men jumped out.” The story presents no more information about this incident.

The article’s final section raises concerns about China’s Operation Fox Hunt, which also leaves something to be desired. Cooper describes Fox Hunt as a campaign “to battle corruption and persuade economic fugitives to return to China.” Next, he explains that unnamed national security experts argue that the operation is less about battling corruption and more about repressing diaspora communities abroad and clamping down on rivals and dissidents.

CSIS has claimed Chinese spies have engaged in illegal activity connected to Fox Hunt in Canada. While the government declined to say whether anyone had been arrested at the time, the RCMP confirmed that no criminal charges had been laid. But speculation has continued. Instead of adding new information from the intelligence, the article simply highlights two apparently concerning cases.

In one instance, Chinese police brought a Fox Hunt target’s brother and father into Canada and would not allow them to return to China unless the target also returned. In another, a Chinese police agent worked with a Canadian police officer to repatriate an economic fugitive.

Canadians may object to these methods, but where is the threat to Canadian institutions? In the first case, there is no indication intelligence claimed that Chinese police entered Canada under false pretenses, that they smuggled these family members into Canada, or that they broke any laws. This suggests there was at least some understanding of what was going on among Canadian authorities who let the Chinese police into the country.

The second case straightforwardly demonstrates that Chinese law enforcement carries out their mandate in cooperation with Canadian police services.

Importantly, Canadian authorities have some discretion in cooperating with Chinese officials, since Canada does not have an extradition treaty with China. This reportedly makes Canada a popular destination for Chinese economic fugitives.

Maybe China also engages in illegal Fox Hunt activities, but both cases described here seem to be examples of China carrying out its operation with varying levels of cooperation from Canadian institutions.

On this note, it’s worth highlighting that few commentators have actually gone as far as claiming that China violated Canadian law.

Conservative Party members attacked the Liberals over the fact that no one on public record has been expelled or criminally charged for these allegations, but this refrain actually stands as a reminder that there is not yet any actionable evidence of legal violations. The RCMP’s recent statements bolster this point in the case of the 2019 elections.

The report references experts who say that the allegations point to China “exploiting weaknesses” in Canada’s laws and taking advantage of “legislative loopholes.” But both of these expert assessments implicitly imply that China is not breaking the law.

For all the hysteria around this report, its claims are mostly exaggerated. It is made up of unsubstantiated claims, innuendo and vague allusions to what seems like fairly inconsequential Chinese wrongdoing. It is, to say the least, a very poor foundation for Canada’s strategic outlook on China.

But this serves a purpose. Claims of foreign interference are often useful to powerful interests looking to distract the population with a foreign boogeyman. If successful, these claims can defuse legitimate anger and potential movement energy by redirecting it away from Canada’s ruling class and toward foreign governments over which we have no control.

Moreover, rhetoric like “anyone can be used by a foreign state as a co-optee, or agent or source,” as one former CSIS agent claims in Global’s story, contributes to a climate of fear, paranoia, and hatred. Canadian society being what it is, it is certain that Chinese and Asian diasporic people will pay the heaviest price.

Canada is a powerful imperialist country with its own deep-rooted problems that cannot be explained away as a result of foreign interference. For the sake of both accuracy and solving the problems we face, self-interested attempts to direct our attention away from the real sources of suffering need to be exposed and rejected.

Brendan Devlin is a master’s student in political studies at the University of Manitoba. His research focuses on capitalist class rule, Canada’s relationship to imperialism and sovereignty, and Canada-China relations. He is a research assistant with the Geopolitical Economy Research Group and a member of the International Manifesto Group. His writing has appeared in Canadian Dimension, Passage and Monthly Review Online.

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