VANCOUVER — Ottawa needs to find a way to safeguard future elections from interference by foreign powers, such as the Chinese Communist Party, says an expert on relations between China and Canada.
Earlier this week, via its DisinfoWatch project, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute in a report raised concerns over the Chinese government’s apparent attacks on the credibility of the Conservatives and other issues in Canada’s election.
“We really need to protect our democracy from foreign influence,” said Charles Burton, a China expert with the institute. “We have to do something about it.”
The short report details incidents, some high-profile, of entities controlled by the Chinese government weighing in on Canada’s federal election.
One such incident mentioned in the report relates to comments made by Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu in the Hill Times, a newspaper covering Parliament Hill.
Burton said Cong’s comments are “incompatible” with his position as a foreign diplomat.
“It really seriously calls into question whether he should be declared persona non grata and be returned to Beijing,” Burton said of the comments.
In another incident the Global Times newspaper, a Chinese state-owned tabloid often referred to as a mouthpiece for the CCP by China analysts, ran an editorial that the report says seems to threaten Canadians with retaliation if the Conservatives are elected and introduce stronger measures on China. Some other attacks targeted candidates themselves, the report says.
Burton said efforts meant to speak to the Chinese diaspora in Canada are particularly troubling.
One such incident was an anonymous article on the widely used Chinese-language social media platform Weixin suggesting a foreign agents registry proposed by Conservative MP Kenny Chiu would require all Chinese to register with it.
The report raises concerns the article could affect the election because it was reprinted on a number of Chinese-language platforms and websites.
In reality, Chiu’s bill says it would have obligated those acting “on behalf of a foreign principle to file a return when they undertake specific actions with respect to public office holders.” The Conservatives have promised to introduce similar legislation if elected.
Elections Canada spokesperson Andrea Marantz said such complaints about misinformation are handled by the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
Marantz said other government agencies are involved in issues involving concerns about tampering in Canada’s elections from foreign governments.
“In terms of security issues like that, that are national security issues, we would work with other branches of government and organizations,” she said. “So, it’s not something that would all fall on to us.”
Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China said he’s concerned anonymous disinformation is being used to make Chinese communities in Canada feel targeted, and in turn feel the CCP is their protector.
“They’re presenting themselves as the defender of Chinese Canadian rights,” Kwan said of the efforts. “This is offensive to me.”
Kwan said there has already been brazen efforts to denounce Canadian politicians, such as Chiu, as a traitor to Chinese people. Both Chiu and fellow Conservative Michael Chong have been sanctioned by the Chinese government for speaking out against the CCP’s human rights infractions.
Burton said misinformation and disinformation could swing an election in a riding where results are close. He said a big challenge is reaching the people who have read it to set the record straight. Canada must also try to determine the source of such social media posts.
Authorities can’t shrug it off, he said, adding it’s difficult to come up with solutions but Ottawa at least needs to better monitor Chinese-language media.
Pieces constituting hate speech against Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group the Chinese government is accused of conducting a genocide against, or serious slander against Canadian politicians must be held to the same level of scrutiny as English or French media, Burton said.
“If this disinformation actually causes voters to be misinformed about a candidate’s program and therefore to vote for a rival candidate — I’m very concerned about this possibility,” he said. “I really hope that it just doesn’t fade away once the election is over.”