It seems increasingly clear to the Canadian government, media, and public that China is exerting foreign influence and interference in Canada through a variety of means, in all areas of politics, business, and academia. At the same time, there is surveillance, threats and harassment of Chinese dissidents living in Canada.
The Canadian Parliament’s Select Committee on Canada-China Relations (CACN) held hearings on this issue, and invited witnesses included representatives from Hong Kong, Uighur, and Tibetan institutions, as well as representatives from non-governmental organizations, and members of Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Council.
In an interview with the Voice of America in Chinese, David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China, said the various pieces of evidence are a wake-up call for Canada and that countries like Canada and Australia should begin to be vigilant.
He said there are many countries trying to exert influence over Canada, but China is the largest and most worrisome in the current situation. Canada must start taking action now.
Fear of Chinese influence and interference
In an interview with the Voice of America in Chinese, Cherie Wong, executive director of the Canadian Coalition for Hong Kong (ACHK), said that at the end of May, ACHK released a 40-page investigative report detailing China’s pervasive influence and interference in Canada.
The report, entitled “In Plain Sight: Beijing’s unrestricted network of foreign influence in Canada,” lists seven major areas of “Chinese influence”. Political Influence, Capturing the Elite, Surveillance and Harassment of Expatriate and Dissident Communities, War on Information and Narrative, Academic Influence and the Vulnerability of Intellectual Property Transfers, National Security, and the United Front Work Department.
In each of these areas, the report’s authors gathered media reports, testimonies from some of the individuals involved, and summaries from intelligence agencies to analyze the tactics used by the Chinese government and the key areas of influence.
Wang Zhuoyan said that this report is actually very concise and presents still only some surface phenomena. However, our report is accompanied by a lot of references, information, and from our findings, you can see a complete picture, which is the Chinese influence that Canada is facing. Our wish is that the Canadian government and people be alert to this and take action to prevent and stop it.
In an interview with the Voice of America, Conservative federal MP Kenny Chiu, who attended the hearing, said the ACHK report presents a good perspective on Chinese influence, and that the influence and interference in Canadian politics mentioned in the report is particularly concerning to him.
He said that because several of the other areas covered in the report ultimately come down to policy makers – in Canada, that’s democratically elected federal, provincial and municipal councillors, as well as school board members. They are responsible for making laws, and if they are subject to foreign influence, the consequences are quite serious. And the key to changing or preventing this situation is to work together at the federal and provincial and municipal levels.
In terms of information warfare, the report analyzes that China has used its soft power in recent years to promote its ideology in Canada in a smarter way through state media networks and popular social media such as WeChat and Weibo, leading public opinion and even reshaping the narrative on major social and historical events of concern.
In this regard, Wang Zhuoyan believes that the Canadian government’s lack of investment in the Chinese community, such as targeting Chinese language media or Chinese language schools, is very important. Establishing credible and influential Chinese media can enable the community to receive authentic information and be protected from media or self-promotion under the control of the Chinese government, and we need to build community resistance.
In addition, in terms of the threat of surveillance and harassment of expatriates and dissidents, several witnesses who participated in the hearing recounted their own personal experiences of harassment, from online attacks and harassment, to real-life boycotts of their activities, on-site harassment, to harassment of their families in China. Some dissidents were afraid to contact their families for a long time to avoid their family suffering.
Wang Zhuoyan said this type of harassment usually takes advantage of a grey area in Canadian law; it is not something that the current Canadian criminal code can handle.
And Canada’s security intelligence agencies and police have long acknowledged the limited legal tools they can use against foreign powers threatening to harass dissidents in Canada.
In 2019, David Mulroney published an analysis, “Shining a Brighter Light on Foreign Influence in Canada,” which included a section that specifically mentioned China.
In the past decade, he says, as China’s economy has risen, so has its “international ambition, self-confidence, and aggressiveness.
According to Wang, the Chinese government became aware of the role of expatriates and dissidents after the 1989 Tiananmen Incident and began to tighten its grip on overseas students and Chinese nationals.
In their report, they singled out China’s United Front Work Department as an organization that has grown more secretive and clever over the decades.
Witnesses at the hearing were generally concerned that China’s surveillance harassment against dissidents is designed to intimidate everyone. Imagine if politicians, media journalists, or influential figures in the community in Canada were afraid to speak out for fear of offending the Chinese government, it would undermine the core values of media and freedom of expression in Canada.
One of the witnesses at the hearing, Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights, said China’s goal is to become the leading force in cyber technology in the 21st century and then to achieve its ambition of “digital totalitarianism.
He said that during the epidemic, China is using the Internet to target democracies more aggressively, and Canada must join with its allies to take steps to stop it.
Canada slow to act?
The Globe and Mail, Canada’s nationally distributed newspaper, has recently reported continuously on the University of Alberta’s continued cooperation with China in cutting-edge science and technology.
Education in Canada falls under the jurisdiction of the provinces. Last week, the Alberta government announced that it was halting cooperation between the province’s university research institutions and China. The eastern province of Quebec has also hinted at considering similar measures.
The federal government has announced that it will issue a “Framework for Canadian University-Foreign Collaboration” by the end of June.
The federal Conservative Party’s member of Parliament, Mr. Jinrong Zhao, described Canadians as too good-natured and sometimes naive, believing in a “community of human destiny” and easily trusting others. But the situation is such that we are now faced with powerful but ill-motivated foreign governments, and Canada needs to take steps to protect its interests.
David Mulroney analyzes that there has been a considerable change in public opinion against China in Canada, but the government has not yet made any policy changes. Perhaps they have concerns about China in private, but they are still very careful about what they say in public. But if you can’t signal it clearly, the public and other government agencies may not be aware of the change.
Recent polls show that the percentage of Canadians who have a favorable view of China is only 15 percent.
At the same time, Canada is facing diplomatic tensions with China over the detention of Huawei’s finance director Meng Wanzhou and the arrest of two Canadians, Kang Mingkai and Mike Spavor.
Beijing has also been angered by Canada’s “No Arbitrary Detention of Foreigners Initiative” and the passage of a parliamentary resolution “affirming China’s genocide in Xinjiang.
The “Australian Model”
The Hong Kong Coalition of Canada’s report made four recommendations, including the creation of a Foreign Influence Transparency Act and a Public Commission on Foreign Influence, support for Canadian research and intellectual property, increased investment in resources and infrastructure for Canada’s minority communities, and protection of Canadian data and user information.
The “Australian model” was coincidentally mentioned by the interviewees. This model includes government legislation that gives police greater investigative and enforcement powers in cases involving foreign influence, and the passage of the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, which requires the registration of agents lobbying for foreign governments and corporations to increase transparency.
Canada’s current regulations for foreign interests and corporate interests include the Lobbying Act and the Lobbyist Code of Conduct, and there are also regulations strictly for political campaign contributions. In 2006, the Federal Accountability Act was passed to make the federal government’s operations more transparent.
But an analysis by former Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney says the current Federal Accountability Act does not sufficiently cover all agents who lobby for foreign governments.
The article says that people who have been in powerful positions in government, including former ministers or prime ministers, have a responsibility to protect the country’s interests. In Canada, such individuals often continue to exert influence, freely and frequently establishing contact with current senior officials and speaking publicly about important national policy issues. Canada allows individuals to freely represent foreign governments and groups, but this needs to be done under open and transparent mechanisms.
If you take your personal expertise, your experience and network of contacts that you have accumulated while serving the government and people of Canada in exchange, you need to do so publicly, he told Voice of America.
Earlier this year, Conservative MP Kam Cho introduced a bill, the Foreign Influence Registration Act, C-282, which would require federal government members, Supreme Court justices and Privy Council officials to register if they lobby for other foreign governments or corporations after leaving office. The public and the media will be able to judge whether what they did was reasonable and legal. Currently, the bill has passed its first reading.
He said the bill was also inspired by similar bills in Australia. Although it is uncertain whether this individual bill will eventually pass the third reading and become law, it is a first step.