President Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic of China continues its efforts to bring people around the globe under its influence.
The British secret services warned parliamentarians of China’s efforts to subvert their political processes in early 2022, and the American Federal Bureau of Investigation said, “The counterintelligence and economic espionage efforts emanating from the government of China…are a grave threat.”
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has expressed similar concerns, though the federal government had been largely silent on the issue for years. But there are signs that’s beginning to change.
China’s main instrument in such interference is the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is run by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Its task is to gather intelligence by influencing global elites and organizations. In Canada, it largely targets Chinese Canadians who have political, media, corporate or academic clout. The aim is to ensure that these organizations and individuals are helpful to Beijing’s interests and that China’s critics are weak and divided.
Given that there are about 1.8 million Chinese living in Canada as citizens, landed immigrants or students, there are lots of potential targets for the UFWD.
Indeed, China has been successful in creating a strong pro-Beijing lobby in Ottawa. Some prominent retired politicians hold seats on Chinese corporate boards or, through law firms, have lucrative contracts to smooth the way for such corporations to get established or to operate freely in Canada. And some senators have been noticeably pro-Beijing—senator Yuen Pau Woo said in 2021 that Canada should avoid condemning China for its human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims because Canada had mistreated its Indigenous Peoples.
In the subsequent motion, 33 senators voted against criticizing China. A similar motion in the House of Commons in February 2021 was endorsed by a vote of 258-0—though the Prime Minister and his cabinet abstained.
Chinese nationals have also expanded their influence in research and development at Canadian universities. They have established well-funded education programs, known as Confucius Institutes, both within and separate from post-secondary facilities in Canada, provided funding for think tanks, and Chinese universities have been offering lucrative visiting professorships in fields such as avionics, nuclear science and space technology.
Some of Canada’s top research universities—notably Waterloo, McGill and Toronto—are among the most collaborative in this regard. The concern? “They’re looking for help from Canada in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced materials, quantum computing, all areas that can help their military,” said Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a former member of the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology.
Perhaps most importantly, the UFWD runs or sponsors disinformation campaigns directed at Chinese Canadians. During the 2019 federal election, for instance, the Chinese consulate in Toronto provided $250,000 to 11 candidates; and in 2021, Chinese-language media, notably through the social media app WeChat, were critical of federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and his party’s policy toward China. O’Toole claimed the coverage cost his party eight or nine seats in lower mainland B.C. and the Greater Toronto Area.
Disinformation campaigns continue today about Taiwan and Hong Kong. Sing Tao, jointly owned by a Hong Kong company and the Toronto Star, was the largest circulation Chinese-language print newspaper in Canada until last August when it went digital. Its positions on the independence of Taiwan and Hong Kong tend to support Beijing; so, too, do most other Chinese-language media in Canada (except for Falun Gong’s The Epoch Times newspaper).
According to Jonathan Manthorpe, the leading critic of China’s influence operations in Canada, Beijing’s efforts to control the Chinese-language media have been “hugely successful.”
Beyond that, China has reportedly opened five “police” stations in Canada, part of a worldwide network of more than 50 such centres. “The main purpose of the service stations abroad is to provide free assistance to overseas Chinese citizens” in renewing driver’s licences and similar services the Chinese embassy told the CBC this past October.
Spain-based human rights group Safeguard Defenders, however, said it appears individuals from these depots are trying to persuade those accused of crimes in China to voluntarily return home to face trial.
Ottawa was apparently not informed of these stations, but it called them illegal. It summoned the Chinese ambassador and threatened to take further action if China refused to “cease and desist,” while the RCMP continued to investigate the issue.
At the same time, the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic in China in Vancouver has created a corps of “citizen volunteers” to assist Chinese in trouble, calling this “the watchful solidarity of the Chinese people.”
The RCMP and CSIS should increase the numbers of their Chinese linguists and specialists, and their efforts to monitor the activities of Beijing’s diplomats and agents. As concern about China’s apparently aggressive intentions increases, Ottawa needs to take Beijing’s operations in Canada seriously.
To be clear, Chinese diplomats have the right to talk to Canadian Chinese, and these citizens and landed immigrants have every right to talk to China’s diplomats. But the diplomats do not have the right to threaten Canadians, and Chinese police have no right to operate in Canada without Ottawa’s consent.
The concern? “They’re looking for help in all areas that can help their military.”
China does not have the right to target Canadians who advocate for a democratic Hong Kong or an independent Taiwan. There is nothing to stop Chinese representatives from buying advertisements to tout their policies in Canada, but they can’t spread disinformation. Nor do agents of Beijing have the right to interfere in elections in this country.
Canadians are not prohibited from lobbying for Chinese corporations or the Chinese government, but the federal government should require all such lobbyists to register, and there are signs it is moving to do so. This should be done in the case of former politicians, public servants, representatives of powerful law firms, corporations and academics. Indeed, anyone on the Chinese payroll should have to declare so, as Australia and the U.S. require.
The government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, released this past November, is a start in dealing with Chinese influence in Canada. Ottawa has promised funding to bolster intelligence and cyber security, and will, the plan says, protect “Canadians from attempts by foreign states to influence them covertly or coercively.” Unfortunately, there is no real indication that Chinese diplomats will be kept in check. More needs to be done—and quickly.