Hysteria About Chinese Political Interference Has Arrived in Canada

Canadian news media is in a panic about alleged Chinese influence in Canadian politics. Their coverage is promoting anti-Chinese sentiment and creating farcical levels of paranoia about foreign interference.

Canadian MP Han Dong during elections in 2014. (Rene Johnston / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Election-meddling paranoia has now crossed north of the forty-ninth parallel. For the last several weeks, Canadian news media has been dominated by hyperventilating headlines warning that China has been interfering in both elections and the governance of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party.

Leaked intelligence files suggest that Chinese money has undermined Canadian elections. Liberal candidates seen as sympathetic to China have reportedly received financial support while Conservative candidates critical of China have reportedly had their campaigns sabotaged. This interference is alleged to have taken the form of undeclared donations to elections campaigns, as well as the discreet hiring of Chinese international students in Canada to work on campaigns. There are also claims that campaign contributions made to preferred candidates are being unlawfully reimbursed by Chinese consulates. Then there are allegations that Chinese international students were bussed in to vote in the nomination meeting for Toronto Liberal MP Han Dong in 2019.

So far, there is zero evidence that any of these allegations affected the outcome in any seats during the 2019 or 2021 federal elections. A recent independent report commissioned by the federal government on the those elections found no evidence of successful foreign interference.

Spreading Paranoia

The first casualty of these reports was Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) MPP Vincent Ke, who resigned from the PC caucus but not his seat in the Ontario legislature. Ke is alleged to have received $50,000 that worked its way from the Chinese consulate in Toronto through proxies to Ke, to be spent on electing candidates in the 2019 federal election.

As media scrutiny has increased, a report has surfaced claiming that Dong met with Han Tao, the Chinese consul general of Toronto. According to the report, Dong told Tao that China should not release Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians arrested in the country during a diplomatic spat resulting from Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou. CFO of Huawei and daughter of the company’s founder, Wanzhou was arrested at the behest of the United States. Dong has resigned from the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent MP and is threatening to sue Global News.

The paranoia has now spread to Vancouver, where rumors are circulating that the Chinese consulate in the city aided mayor Ken Sim (who ran on a conservative law-and-order campaign) in his election win last October. Sim has vigorously denied the allegations. It should be noted that Canada does not have any laws that address foreign intervention in elections, thus any potential charges would have to relate to breaking campaign financing regulations.

To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended Dong and denied claims that that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) instructed Trudeau’s election team to drop Dong as a candidate in 2019. Trudeau also defended the Chinese-Canadian community from vilification and accusations of disloyalty.

Dubious Leaks

It is important to take note of how this information became public knowledge. It was made public due to a leak within CSIS to Canada’s leading newspaper, the Globe and Mail, as well as to TV network Global News. Former federal intelligence analyst Jessica Davis told the Guardian:

This is really sensitive information . . . and there’s a hubris to people who selectively leak this sort of thing. They often assume they “know best” about what information should be in the public domain and are overly confident they can anticipate the consequence of the leaks.

Leaks from Canadian intelligence services should be viewed with suspicion. During the Maher Arar affair, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police documents leaked to a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen claimed that Arar was a trained member of al-Qaeda when he was nothing of the sort. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was wrongly accused of terrorism by the United States, sent to Syria, and tortured. Canadian officials were found to have contributed to his mistreatment by sharing inaccurate information with US authorities.

CSIS itself has been accused by a judge of illegally misrepresenting itself in court in order to engage in overseas surveillance of Canadian citizens. In 2017, a lawsuit was filed by former employees alleging a culture of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. More recently, it has been alleged that CSIS and other police agencies leaked information to leaders of the Freedom Convoy protests.

Not surprisingly, right-wing forces are apoplectic over the allegations. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre accused Trudeau of working in China’s interests. The right-wing media has run a number of unhinged articles, and the far-right website the Rebel has even brought out a jumbotron truck calling on Dong to resign.

The story has become so prominent that even the right-leaning national daily, the National Post, is now covering it, with articles suggesting that the Conservative Party has “softened” its stance on China and that infiltration is a pervasive threat.

Considering both the origin of the leaks and the widespread alarm they have caused, it’s entirely reasonable to wonder who stands to gain from their dissemination. One thing is clear: it’s not the Canadian people or their democratic institutions. Yet amid all the furor, there has been little discussion of whether Canada itself engages in espionage activities within China. This raises important questions about the fairness and reciprocity of international intelligence-gathering practices. But Canada’s news media is more interested in stoking outrage than in tabling such lines of inquiry.

Where Does the New Democratic Party Stand?

Trudeau has appointed former governor general David Johnston as a special rapporteur to investigate the allegations, but that has not satisfied the opposition parties in parliament. The Conservatives want a full public inquiry into the allegations. The New Democratic Party (NDP), for its part, is trying to put a progressive gloss on all of this and is calling for a public inquiry into all foreign interference in Canadian elections, not just Chinese. The NDP has little to gain by playing such games.

Conservative commentators are now appealing to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s sense of duty. It is time to put country over party, they say, and pull support from the Liberal minority government to force an election. But the prime minister is not wrong when he says that there is partisan scheming behind all of this and that the NDP should tread carefully.

From a purely electoral calculus, there is little to be gained for the NDP from making this a signature issue. It strains credulity to think that the NDP, a party that once supported withdrawing from NATO and opposed the occupation of Afghanistan, could benefit from an election in which national security is the main issue, even if the party has wavered on international issues over the years.

Recent polling shows that 47 percent of Canadians are aware of the story and are not following it closely, with only 8 percent following it “very closely.” Thirty-seven percent are unsure whether or not China interfered. These numbers suggest that this issue may not define an election — so long as the rhetoric around it is not ratcheted up further.

The NDP can avoid being further pulled into the furor. The same polling has shown that public opinion of Singh has recently surged. He is the only federal party leader with a net-positive approval rating. This is likely due to his grilling of grocery chain CEOs over food prices, which have increased faster than the already-high level of inflation. Canadians are getting wise to the fact that corporate profits have been a major factor in bringing inflation to its highest level in decades. If the NDP can stay the course on this and other pressing issues like the housing crisis, it need not be pulled into a debate over national security.

Cutting Through the Paranoia

It’s unlikely that this story of foreign meddling will simply go away. Furthermore, it is not acceptable to dismiss the testimony of individuals from the Chinese, Tibetan, and Uyghur communities of Canada who claim that Chinese operatives have harassed them (though China is not the only foreign government doing this in Canada).

On the other hand, the trajectory that Canada is currently on appears to be a path toward a new Cold War, which could lead to numerous unforeseen hazards. Tensions between Canada and China have significantly increased since the Trudeau government arrested Wanzhou in December 2018 due to US demands, and China arrested Kovrig and Spencer in retaliation.

The recent controversies and the ensuing paranoia have added to the feeling that international tensions are heading in a very dangerous direction. A new Cold War would not benefit anyone, whether in the East or the West. It would also unleash forces that foreclose on the possibility of social movements having much effect on nations’ foreign policy — within Cold War dynamics, the feasibility of détente from below becomes exceedingly difficult. Individuals advocating for peace and sane discourse — in both countries — may face accusations of disloyalty or aiding the enemy, as their calls for de-escalation of tensions could be perceived as treasonous.

In spite of the near-incessant pundit bloviating about China’s march to world domination, there is scant evidence that China is vying to become a global hegemon, though, of course, its regional power will obviously continue to increase. China’s efforts in brokering normalized relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and now its work with Brazil toward achieving peace in Ukraine, highlight the counterproductivity of escalating tensions with a country otherwise engaged in achieving diplomatic progress.

Then there is the issue of a racist backlash from the growing antagonism with China. We saw it during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while conservative elements of the Chinese-Canadian community — including some politicians of Chinese descent — openly support taking a tough line, the idea that rhetoric designed to differentiate ordinary Chinese people from the Communist Party will be effective is a dubious proposition. Polling of Chinese Canadians on the interference shows that over half believe blaming Chinese Canadian politicians over the issue is racist. When a country becomes an official enemy, such distinctions always fail to be upheld during times of acrimony and bellicosity.

The coming months and years could be very dangerous. With no available evidence that Canadian elections were compromised, it is up to the Left to be a voice of reason. To effectively advocate for peace, Canada’s left must take proactive measures to reduce tensions and promote diplomacy. The NDP should be pushed to advocate for constructive dialogue, the promotion of mutual understanding and respect, and a disavowal of bellicose rhetoric. At bare minimum, it is necessary to counter breathless hysteria with measured and rational responses that are grounded in facts and evidence, and that consider the broader context of the situation at hand.