Is China interfering in Canada's election?
Chinese-Canadians are particularly at risk from China’s influence and interference campaign, as Beijing targets the Canadian elections.
Just the Basics
Beijing has Chinese-Canadians in its crosshairs as it seeks to influence the Canadian election by pressuring the diaspora community to vote in certain ways
Rather than cyber threats, Chinese interference revolves around person-to-person ties and the capture of Canadian elites able to support Beijing’s position on a range of issues
While of concern, China’s ability to influence Canadians and undermine Canada’s election is limited by the diversity of Canadian society
Foreign election interference was top of mind during the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and three years later there is again concern that foreign actors could be mobilizing to interfere with the West’s democratic processes. This time it is not Washington that is the target, but rather Ottawa, as Canada’s 2019 election faces threats from outside forces. Chief among those countries which are worrying Canadian intelligence services is China, with many concerned that Beijing will seek to influence Canada’s election, especially given the ongoing diplomatic dispute between the two countries. Michael Wernick, former Clerk of the Privy Council has warned of foreign interference in the upcoming election, something which has been echoed by a report by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which predicts the use of online information manipulation campaigns this election season.
Alongside India, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Pakistan, China is on the list of countries which CSIS has identified as seeking to influence Canada’s upcoming election. According to Michael Cole, senior fellow at the MacDonald Laurier Institute, “[China] now has every reason to regard the upcoming elections as an opportunity to secure Meng’s release and to engineer the election of a future government that is more to its liking.” Such concerns are mirrored by public opinion in Canada, as a poll conducted by Abacus Data in February 2019 found that sixty percent of the 2,500 Canadians surveyed believe it is likely that a foreign government will try to influence Canada’s October election. Interestingly, sixty-nine percent were either moderately, highly or very highly convinced that China would seek to influence the Canadian election; the same percentage also cited the United States as a threat to Canadian democracy.
Despite such fears, Canadian security experts have noted that the level of Chinese influence has not been critical enough to invoke the Election Incident Public Protocol Group, the government team tasked with sounding the alarm if elections are being undermined. While vigilance remains vital, the nature of Canadian democracy and the ways China is influence peddling in Canada limits the scope for potential disruption. For instance, Canada’s use of paper ballots and robust electoral rules means it is less vulnerable to the kinds of digital influence campaigns seen in the United States in 2016.
It is also telling that polling has placed China and the United States ahead of Russia in list of potential election threats, with China operating in a different manner. Touching on Chinese influence work in Canada, former CSIS director Ward Elcock notes that, “it’s not the new school of the Russians using the internet to interfere in the U.S elections by moving public opinion in this direction or that direction. It’s the old way of trying to recruit people, trying to secure influence and make connections.” This is the case as far as the general Canadian population is concerned, as Beijing’s limited means of influence vis-a-vis altering political narratives makes them fairly impotent.
Part of the problem is that Canadian intelligence services have been focusing their attention on cyber threats and the kind of Russian-style interference campaigns seen in the U.S. While Canadian security agencies focus on Russian-style cyber meddling, Canada’s situation is closer to that of Australia than the United States. Both Canada and Australia have been subject to the kind of influence peddling at the individual level employed by Beijing; however, Canada’s Security & Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) taskforce is not set up to deal with this kind of mischief.
As such, some are calling for Canada to follow Australia’s example and establish something similar to the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme launched in December 2018 to counter Chinese subversion of Australian democracy. After a series of scandals involving Beijing-compliant politicians, Canberra’s creation of the aforementioned scheme requires companies and individuals politicking on behalf of a foreign power to report and disclose their activities on a public website.
Currently, CSIS and other security organs are not fully prepared to counter the kind of person-to-person influence activities employed by China in Canada. “Beijing’s influence operations in Canada are at least as deeply entrenched as they have been in Australia, but there isn’t much in Canadian law to stand in Beijing’s way,” writes Terry Glavin in Macleans.
Beijing targeting Chinese-Canadians
Where China does enjoy considerable leverage is among the Chinese-Canadian community, especially given Beijing’s near total control of Chinese-language media in Canada. As such, Canadian intelligence services are issuing warnings about Beijing’s efforts to influence diaspora communities, especially in demographically favourable ridings in Toronto and Vancouver. The Chinese government’s ability to funnel disinformation via the popular WeChat messaging service (predominantly used by Chinese-Canadians) is another tool it its message shaping toolbox. Attacks in Hong Kong and Taiwan via these channels have already been undertaken as test cases; there is little reason why such tactics could not also be employed in Canada.
Nor would such attacks be a new phenomenon, as Beijing has been implicated in influence operations in Canada for at least a decade. For instance, during the 2008 election Vancouver Police and the RCMP investigated claims about an organization linked to the Chinese government’s United Front Work Department. This organization coordinates ties with overseas Chinese communities and foreign elites of interest, and has been described by Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a “magic weapon” for the promotion of Chinese interests. The affiliated organization in Canada was allegedly attempting to buy votes by offering a $20 travel allowance on WeChat if users voted for individuals on a list of ethnic Chinese candidates.
Similarly, evidence emerged in September 2014 that the Chinese consulate in Toronto was sending Chinese students to Chinese-language only households and telling residents which candidates the consulate wanted voters to choose, according to former CSIS senior manager, Michel-Juneau Katsuya. China’s use of embassies and consulates to orchestrate United Front efforts is seen by their ties to various Chinese civil society and university student organizations, which can be mobilized to express displeasure in Canada’s civil sphere on behalf of Beijing, as seen by the protests undertaken against the shuttering of Confucius Institutes in Toronto.
China’s focus on the Chinese-Canadian community makes this group particularly vulnerable to Beijing’s influence peddling efforts. As such, “Canada must do it utmost to protect Canadians of Chinese origin, who are full citizens in their own right, against efforts by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] to weaponize them and use them against our democratic institutions,” argues Cole. Going forward, the key test in countering these efforts will be whether the Canadian government can effectively reach out to Chinese-Canadians and harness their language skills, understanding of the Chinese government and dislike of the CCP to inoculate Canadian democracy from this threat.
Beijing’s man in Ontario
Cooperating with and empowering the Chinese-Canadian community is an important priority for Ottawa, but it only counters one facet of Chinese influence in Canada. The second threat to Canadian democracy is the network of pro-China elites and politicians in Canada which Beijing has carefully nurtured for many years. The ties between some Canadian government representatives and China have already raised suspicions, as seen by the firestorm unleashed by comments made by former CSIS director Richard Fadden in a talk at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in 2010. As chronicled by Jonathan Manthorpe in Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence & Intimidation in Canada, during this event, Fadden stated that “there are several municipal politicians in British Columbia and in at least two other provinces there are ministers of the Crown who we think are under at least general influence of a foreign government.”
Speaking to The National in June 2010, Fadden told Peter Mansbridge that those in question “haven’t really hidden their association, but what surprised us is that it's been so extensive over the years and we’re now seeing in a couple of cases indications that they are in fact shifting their public policies as a reflection of that involvement.” Fadden was harshly rebuked for supposedly inciting panic among Canadians and for not naming names: security experts point to Fadden’s censure as evidence of the reluctance of the Canadian political establishment to admit that CCP influence is an issue.
While no names were proffered by Fadden during the 2010 media storm surrounding his comments, subsequent investigations and warnings from security officials have pointed out individuals of concern. On September 6th, The National Post ran an in-depth piece on Ontario PC MPP Vincent Ke, citing his strong ties to various Chinese government organizations. Ke refused to answer the National Post’s questions regarding his ties to Beijing, but the newspaper noted his eight day China trip to attend a government-run workshop in 2013. During said trip Ke repeated various CCP talking points and cited the communal struggle of ethnic Chinese in realizing the Chinese Dream, Xi Jinping’s slogan describing China’s national ethos.
After being elected the first mainland Chinese PC MPP in Ontario in 2018, Ke became the only MPP to attend the launch of a pro-China Tibet group, itself sporting close ties to the Chinese consulate and its network of pro-Beijing groups - the Toronto Confederation of Chinese Canadian Organizations. A leaked United Front manual acquired by the Financial Times also praises the victories of overseas Chinese in the Toronto election. Ke often appears with consulate officials, and in a documentary which he took part in is described as having been a student cadre - a minor official, seen as “politically reliable” - during his time in China.
The MPP for Toronto Don Valley North has since gone on to become the parliamentary assistant to the minister of tourism, culture and sport, as well as a powerful fundraiser for the PC party: Ke raised $193,000 during a single fundraiser attended by 430 people - the most lucrative event save Doug Ford’s own. Furthermore, Ontario Premier Doug Ford appeared at a July 2019 fundraiser hosted by Ke which several prominent pro-China community leaders also attended; said leaders also attended demonstrations opposing the protests in Hong Kong.
Similar concerns were also raised in 2015 concerning Markham-Unionville Liberal MPP Michael Chan, after the Globe and Mail reported that CSIS had warned the government that Chan might be under the influence of the Chinese government. Chan’s support for the failed 2013 partnership between the Toronto Public School Board and the Confucius Institute was cited by Chan as colouring the Globe and Mail’s reporting: Premier Kathleen Wynne also dismissed these claims at the time. In a 2008 interview with Chinese state news outlet Xinhua, Chan touted his Chinese roots, mentioning his seventy trips to China over the past decade facilitating Ontario-China business ties. As with Ke, Chan has also been a highly effective fundraiser for the Ontario Liberal Party. In September, Chan publicly voiced his support for Beijing and the use of force by Chinese security forces with regards to the protests in Hong Kong. Chan was thrice appointed minister of immigration and international trade between 2007 and 2018, a highly influential position.
“The function of an MPP is to represent the interests of the constituents,” argues Charles Burton, former Canadian diplomat to China and China expert at Brock University. Burton is concerned by the extent of ties between MPPs like Ke and Chan and Beijing. “I don’t think a close relationship with a foreign government is something that should be encouraged [...] If you are going to be a Canadian, I think you should be fully loyal to Canada, and not have any residual loyalties to another place.”
China’s political influence at the federal level
Evidence of China’s influence among Canada’s federal politicians has been most notably seen by the fall from grace of John McCallum, the former Canadian ambassador to China who was summarily fired in January 2019. In addition to publicly contradicting Ottawa’s position on the Huawei issue, McCallum also admitted to readily advising senior Chinese foreign ministry officials on how to influence the October election outcome. In response to these revelations, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stated that “I think that it is highly inappropriate for any Canadian to be offering advice or opinions to any foreign government on how that government ought or ought not to behave to secure any particular election outcome in Canada.”
Long a vocal supporter of Beijing, McCallum has often touted his close ties to China (his three sons all married Chinese partners), and questions continue to circulate whether he was merely grossly negligent during his ambassadorship, or if he has been co-opted by Beijing. It is interesting to note that McCallum represented Markham-Unionville as MP since 2000 (the same area represented by Ke at the provincial level) prior to resigning to become ambassador. McCallum also (legally) accepted $73,000 in free trips to China from the Chinese government (three Conservative senators were investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee in December 2017 for accepting similar trips), and is now a strategic advisor on China trade with McMillan LLP. In this he follows former PM Jean Chrétien, another long-standing friend of China. Chrétien has even publicly mused on whether it would have been better to simply ignore Washington’s extradition request for Meng Wanzhou. This is not to impute disloyalty to Chrétien, but it does demonstrate the long-standing ties between the Liberal Party and China.
In 2016, Justin Trudeau was embroiled in the cash-for-access scandal, in which Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin donated $1 million to the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, including $50,000 for a statue of Justin Trudeau. Also in attendance was Liu Meng, a CCP official who was opening a Chinese Chamber of Commerce - a common United Front organization - in the country.
In this vein, Michael Cole argues that “the Liberal Party itself, which traditionally has enjoyed cordial relations with Beijing due in large part to its closeness to large businesses will itself become a target of influence operations by the CCP in the upcoming elections, especially as Beijing knows that the more conservative alternatives in Canadian politics are likely, for ideological reasons, to have even more critical views of Beijing.” As such, despite China’s fight with the Trudeau government, it ironically remains in Beijing’s best interest to ensure that the Liberals continue to govern, being the lesser of two evils in the CCP’s view.
Stephen Harper’s scepticism of China is well documented and current Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has also voiced his opposition to Beijing, especially in the wake of the Huawei fiasco. Specifically, Scheer has spoken out on reducing Chinese access to Canadian markets as well as denying Huawei any role in Canada’s 5G network. The Conservatives have also vowed to list China alongside the Kremlin and state sponsors of terrorism as one of the three biggest threats to Canadian security. Scheer has also mentioned his intention to withdraw Canada’s $250 million commitment to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
The Bottom Line
While the threat that China poses to Canadian democracy must be taken seriously, it is important to view such threats in context, as China does not have the means to swing the election one way or the other. Beijing may be able to exert leverage on elements on the Chinese-Canadian community, but many Chinese-Canadians are well aware of Beijing’s intentions. Moreover, wider Canadian society has a hair trigger sensitivity to anything it considers to be foreign influence peddling. Those concerned about the spread of misinformation during the election should concentrate their efforts on fighting against fake news manufactured by fellow Canadians, as this poses a far greater threat to the functioning of our democracy than any CCP plot.
Nor should all Chinese-Canadian civil society organizations or third parties that engage with China be tarred as fifth columnists. Canada’s public sphere protects their right to voice pro-China sentiments, and in any case, the Chinese-Canadian community is far from hegemonic, playing host to a range of political opinions and interest groups; indeed this very diversity frustrates Beijing’s message. Larry Diamond and Orville Schell at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute explain it thusly: “Much of China’s influence activities in Canada are a legitimate extension of the public diplomacy in which all nations engage. The pressing issue is when and where China crosses the line between influence and interference. Canadian experience so far suggest more influence than interference [...] So far it would appear that the key variable for the relatively low impact of Chinese state efforts (or proxies) [...] is the internal diversity of the Chinese-Canadian community [and] Canadian practices of multiculturalism.”
Lastly, it is also far too easy to blame outside forces for internal failings. The impact of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S presidential election was nefarious and deserves attention; however, its impact in determining the outcome has been vastly overblown. The Kremlin did not cause half of the American electorate to stay at home on election day. The United States’ byzantine voter registration laws and cynical gerrymandering have caused orders of magnitude more damage to the health of American democracy than the KGB ever could. With regards to Canada’s upcoming election, “what political parties and candidates should also [...] avoid is the temptation of blaming their defeats at the ballot box on foreign disinformation campaigns when their own performance is more likely to blame,” writes Alexander Lanoszka, assistant professor of international politics at the University of Waterloo. “This temptation may be especially powerful this year since the upcoming federal election promises to be highly competitive.”