Glavin: China’s interference in Canada’s election doesn’t seem to faze the Liberals

Foreign affairs haven’t been a significant focus of the campaign or the debates. Yet the parties differ profoundly on China, the most worrisome foreign-policy preoccupation of almost every democracy on Earth.

It began on Aug. 25, when Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu, without explicitly naming him, insinuated that Erin O’Toole was placing his party’s “political interests” ahead of fruitful Canada-China relations. After an obligatory throat-clearing to the effect that it was not his intent to comment on or interfere in the election, Cong said China would oppose anyone “hyping up issues related to China or smearing China.”

Since then, Vancouver-East New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan and Steveston—Richmond East Conservative Kenny Chiu have been targeted by Beijing-friendly individuals and organizations that have served as megaphones for China’s brutal crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The two candidates have been vocal in calling attention to Beijing’s genocidal repression of Xinjiang’s minority Muslim Uyghurs and Xi Jinping’s brutal repression of Hong Kong’s democratic movement.

In Kwan’s case, Fred Kwok, a high-rolling Vancouverite with a reputation for defending Beijing against charges that it is a totalitarian human rights abuser, organized a free lunch for the Chinese-Canadian community to meet with Kwan’s Liberal opponent, Josh Vander Vies. Kwok later told the Vancouver Sun that in doing so, he’d inadvertently violated the donation-limit rules under the Elections Act.

On the Chinese social-media platform WeChat and its sister application Weixin, anonymous accounts have been waging a disinformation campaign about the content and purpose of O’Toole’s proposed foreign-agents registry. Other accounts have fabricated a Conservative policy to ban WeChat from Canada altogether.

Owned by the Chinese technology conglomerate TenCent, WeChat hosts a billion users around the world in 17 languages, and is wildly popular with Chinese-Canadians. Weixin, which specifically targets China’s 1.4 billion citizens, is fully available via WeChat accounts.

Earlier this week, in an article that appeared in the English-language propaganda platform Global Times, Canadian voters were warned that Canada would be subjected to “counterstrikes” if voters replaced Trudeau’s Liberals with O’Toole’s Conservatives. An anonymous article posted on Weixin claimed that Chiu, who put the proposed Foreign Agents Registry Act to the House of Commons in a private member’s bill back in April, was setting out to “suppress” Chinese-Canadians.

The article falsely claimed that the Act would force Chinese-Canadians to register as foreign agents if they expressed any sympathetic views to Xi Jinping’s regime in Beijing, or if they had connections to the People’s Republic. In fact, Chiu’s proposed law would require individuals and groups acting on behalf of any foreign government to register with the federal government.

Chiu and his colleagues on a House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights, along with Michael Chong, the Conservatives’ foreign affairs critic, were among legislators from Canada, the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom subjected to sanctions by Beijing on March 27. All of the legislators on the sanctions list have been outspoken in their condemnation of the Xi regime’s human rights abuses.

In the lead-up to the 2019 federal election, fearful of the kind of Russian disinformation that skewed the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign in favour of Donald Trump, Canada brought in the Elections Modernization Act, which set out prohibitions on foreign citizens or entities from unduly influencing Canadians to vote, or refrain from voting, or to vote for or against a particular candidate.

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole; His tough-on-China stance worries Beijing.
Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole; His tough-on-China stance worries Beijing. PHOTO BY DAVE CHAN /AFP via Getty Images

“Back then, the government was actually taking things seriously and putting measures in place to keep an eye out for this stuff. They had two years to build on that, but after all the votes were counted in 2019, all these measures just sort of disappeared,” said Marcus Kolga, lead researcher for DisinfoWatch, a Macdonald-Laurier Institute project devoted to exposing and debunking foreign disinformation operations in Canada. Disinfo Watch published a brief report this week outlining some of the apparent election interference operations outlined here.

Only two months ago, the federal Communications Security Establishment warned: “We judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference ahead of, and during, the next federal election.” Similar warnings have been repeated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. Canada’s intelligence agencies have also consistently warned that China’s overseas belligerence — its spying, sabotage and influence operations — constitute one of the gravest threats to Canada’s national security.

Even so, Trudeau’s Liberals have been quiet about all this. In their entire 82-page election platform package, foreign policy takes up only a handful of paragraphs interspersed within five pages of pledges and promises that touch upon trade, veterans’ affairs, aid to developing countries, cybersecurity, and so on. China, the most worrisome foreign-policy preoccupation of almost every democracy on Earth, shows up in only one sentence. And even then, it’s only in passing, in the context of the dim view the Liberals purport to take of “illegal and unacceptable behaviour by authoritarian states, including China, Russia, and Iran.”

Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats pledge to “stand up to China with a strong and coherent strategy” to collaborate with Canada’s allies in a “robust and coordinated international response to China’s disregard of the rule of law.” The NDP would also “stand with Hong Kong pro-democracy asylum seekers, and provide coordinated support for those facing threats by Chinese entities here in Canada.”

O’Toole proposes to do all that, and much, much more, which is why it’s the Conservatives who really worry Beijing. Among other things, the Conservatives would stop payments to the Beijing-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, bar the Huawei Technologies Company from Canada’s 5G internet connectivity rollout, suspend the Canada-China Legislative Association, and sanction the most senior Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping, over the arbitrary arrest and detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The two Michaels were imprisoned more than 1,000 days ago to retaliate for Canada’s detention of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. Justice Department extradition warrant.

It’s no wonder, then, that Liberals don’t want the federal election campaign complicated by anyone talking out loud about foreign policy, or the threat of foreign meddling in the federal election, or about China.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.