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China's end game: What Beijing hopes to gain by meddling in Canadian politics

Experts say China has clear goals in mind, from muting criticism to undermining Canada’s relations with the U.S. and accessing trade secrets

By Tom Blackwell

March 18, 2023

Experts say China has clear goals in mind, from muting criticism to undermining Canada’s relations with the U.S. and accessing trade secrets

One of China's goals in Canada is to mould a more positive image of China — and neutralize Beijing’s enemies, analysts say. PHOTO BY NOEL CELIS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

As an opposition MP during the previous Conservative government, Liberal John McCallum travelled often to China, with pro-Beijing non-governmental groups picking up a reported $73,000 of his travel costs.

When McCallum later became ambassador to China under a new Liberal government, his friendly relations with the country seemed to continue.

He trumpeted a “great new era” in ties between the nations, called the dispute that led to the detention of two Canadians a “big hiccup” and suggested that Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou had a good case against extradition to the U.S. after being arrested in Vancouver.

There’s no indication that the earlier largesse influenced McCallum’s positive approach to Beijing. He says he also raised the plight of China’s oppressed Uyghur minority, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau encouraged him to foster closer ties.

But the former ambassador’s story might help answer a key question: What exactly does China hope to achieve by meddling in Canadian politics?

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According to media accounts of intelligence briefings delivered to Trudeau, that interference has stretched to new lengths in recent years. Chinese diplomats surreptitiously funded 11 friendly candidates in the 2019 federal election, and tried to tilt the 2021 balloting in the Liberals’ favour, those press reports say.

China has insisted it is not interfering in Canadian democracy, with one Foreign Ministry spokesman calling the allegation “ridiculous.”

Experts say Beijing not only does meddle, but has clear goals in mind, from muting criticism of its human-rights record to undermining Canada’s relations with superpower U.S. and making it easier to siphon technology and trade secrets from this country.

“We’ve proven to be very fertile ground,” argues Charles Burton, a former diplomat in Beijing and a fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “We seem to be more amenable to penetration, infiltration by Chinese forces, than other countries.”

Beijing recruits proxies to parrot its talking points, influence media and launder illicit funds, David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, told a parliamentary committee last month.

“The (Communist) party’s objective is to transform Canada into a compliant country that perpetually looks over its shoulder to be sure what it says and does meets Beijing’s approval,” he said. “Beijing’s objective is a degree of influence — in our democracy, our economy, our foreign policy and even in daily life in some of our communities — beyond the ambitions of any other country.”

Those efforts are often covert, or at least outside the easy detection of unilingual Canadians. And actual interference in politics and elections is only one part of a broader campaign.

Guy Saint-Jacques, the Canadian ambassador before McCallum, recalls attending a 2016 dinner in Montreal for a visiting Li Keqiang, until recently the Chinese premier. The Mandarin-speaking Saint-Jacques and his wife were among three Caucasians in a crowd of over 600 Chinese-Canadians.

“The message of Li Kequing was ‘Don’t forget the motherland — bring back technology, bring back investment,’” he said. “It was like he was talking to Chinese nationals. China doesn’t care about foreign citizenship.”

Canada is of course just one target in a vast influence and interference machine, powered largely by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) United Front Work Department, academics and think tanks have documented. A 2019 paper by Australian researcher Jichang Lulu, for instance, detailed how a China “friendship group” in the European Parliament became a conduit for party influence, helping engineer “a growing global consensus on the legitimacy of the party’s totalitarian governance.”

David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China: “Beijing’s objective is a degree of influence — in our democracy, our economy, our foreign policy and even in daily life in some of our communities.”PHOTO BY CHINAFOTOPRESS/GETTY IMAGES/FILE

One of China’s goals in Canada is also to mould a more positive image of China — and neutralize Beijing’s enemies, analysts say. Those foes are dominated by what the party calls the five poisons — Tibetan independence advocates, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang region, the Falun Gong, Taiwan and pro-democracy activists in mainland China.

“It could be to silence dissent, it could be to silence a community, it could be to silence any kind of discussion or talk seen as negative to China’s interests,” Dennis Molinaro, a former intelligence analyst with a federal agency, says of Beijing’s aims.

An employee of the now defunct branch of China’s Confucius Institute at McMaster University told the Post in 2020 about how she and other teachers were instructed to talk to Canadian students about Tibet’s “liberation” by China and that Taiwan was part of the People’s Republic — both central CCP assertions.

Saint-Jacques said he’s been approached by Chinese Canadians who thanked him for his tough stance on the PRC, but said they could not speak out themselves as they were afraid of repercussions for relatives or businesses in China.

And critics say Beijing faces little resistance in its attempts to neutralize negative voices here.

Falun Gong practitioners, China democracy proponents and minorities like Tibetans and Uyghurs have complained for years of harassment by China, including in a detailed report spearheaded by Amnesty International. But the federal government has resisted entreaties to set up a dedicated system or police unit to respond to those complaints.

In fact, it emerged recently that Chinese police had themselves quietly established a number of “service stations” in Canada — and other countries — which a Spanish human-rights watchdog said were used in part to intimidate critics of the regime. Only when reported by news media did the RCMP begin investigating the extraordinary development.

As well as trying to shape opinions, China has sought out ways to facilitate the siphoning of technology and other intellectual property from Canada — legally or not, says Burton.

And there are signs that effort is working. A scientist fired from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg was named on patents in China for discoveries related to her work as a federal civil servant, and worked closely with a People’s Liberation Army general. A Montreal-based academic and leading mobile technology expert was given a number of lucrative research posts in China. Several Canadian universities have collaborated with Chinese military-affiliated scholars. That practice was banned by Ottawa just recently — after news media drew attention to it.

We seem to be more amenable to penetration, infiltration by Chinese forces, than other countries

China’s designs on Canada revolve as well around its relationship with the United States — the middle kingdom’s chief global rival — and other members of the G7 group and the Five-Eyes intelligence coalition, said Molinaro, now an Ontario Tech University professor.

“If you can drive a wedge between Canada and its allies and have Canada get into spats or conflicts with the United States, that could create dissent and chaos,” he says. “You could be talking about a broader, long-term strategy to drive Canada away from the United States.”

Canada eventually banned China’s Huawei from supplying equipment to new 5G mobile communications networks last year, but the decision came after most of its Five-Eyes allies had taken similar action.

The decision should have been made at the start of the Meng Wanzhou crisis in 2018, said Saint-Jacques.

“I kept telling (federal officials) ‘You have to be tough, you have to be firm. This is the only language that China understands. If you don’t push back, they will just occupy more and more ground.’”

The recent reports about alleged interference in Canadian elections point to another PRC goal cited by China watchers — cultivating elected representatives who are sympathetic to its interests.

A United Front Work Department manual leaked to the Financial Times notes that the number of politicians of Chinese descent elected in Toronto had almost doubled between 2003 and 2006 and said officials should “aim to work with” those politicians.

The United Front has been pushing a concept called “huaren canzheng” to encourage sympathetic ethnic Chinese people to become actively involved in the electoral process, Clive Hamilton, an Australian academic and researcher on Chinese interference, wrote in 2019. Canada is at the forefront of the initiative, he said.

The targeting of politicians may or may not have also included an amorous exchange of emails between then-Conservative MP Bob Dechert and a reporter with Xinhua that emerged in 2011. The Chinese government news agency is suspected of sometimes doubling as a front for espionage. The MP — parliamentary secretary to then Foreign Minister John Baird — and the journalist insisted he never disclosed any secrets in what they called an innocent friendship.

Burton, fluent in Chinese, says he once did a search for the supposed reporter’s work online, and was unable to find a single article by her.

Supporters of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou wave signs and shout “no guilty” outside a B.C. Supreme Court hearing about Meng’s release in Vancouver, September 24, 2021. Chinese officials “have had good results” with their interference activities, one former Canadian ambassador to China says.PHOTO BY JESSE WINTER/REUTERS/FILE

McCallum told a parliamentary committee in 2020 that none of his funded trips as an MP to China were paid for by the Chinese government itself. But even if his sponsors were a step or more removed from Beijing, “you can imagine it’s more difficult to express critical views on a country that has received you so well,” says Saint-Jacques.

Academics like New Zealand’s Anne-Marie Brady who study the United Front Work Department say it often works through friendly community and business groups.

When all is said and done, though, have Beijing’s efforts to interfere in Canadian affairs really borne fruit?

Some evidence suggests they may have actually backfired.

The percentage of Canadians who view China favourably has plummeted to record lows, a recent Angus Reid poll suggested. After months of pressure over its perceived soft touch with Beijing, the government released a new Indo-Pacific strategy that pivots away from China. And it announced last week that it was planning to eventually implement a foreign agent registry, as critics of Beijing’s influence have advocated for years.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Molinaro about China’s interventions. “What’s actually happened is possibly the reverse of what the PRC was expecting.”

Saint-Jacques is not convinced. He cites the fact the government agreed to look at a foreign agent registry only under sustained opposition and media pressure, and kept warnings from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about election interference under wraps. Meanwhile, evidence suggests Beijing has managed to deeply infiltrate the Chinese-Canadian community, whose ethnic media is dominated by pro-China outlets.

“At the beginning of the crisis with Meng Wanzhou I gave interviews to Canadian media in Mandarin,” he recalls. “I was struck, because all the questions and the viewpoints were those of Beijing. They didn’t know the Canadian position. We were the bad guys — ‘Why had we done this?’

“(Chinese officials) are quite satisfied with their interference activities. They have had good results.”

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