China’s Election Meddling: Canadians Deserve a Serious Response

The last thing the country needs is a half-hearted approach to protecting our democracy

A photo of a Chinese flag illuminated by sunshine between Canadian flags in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
(The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld)

On February 17, the Globe and Mail published evidence that China had deployed a sophisticated campaign to interfere in the 2021 Canadian federal election with the apparent aim of securing a minority Liberal victory. Drawing from classified Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents, the Globe’s reporting revealed a multipronged Chinese interference strategy, which included disinformation campaigns, undeclared cash donations, and mobilization of international Chinese students in a bid to defeat (mostly Conservative) politicians deemed hostile to Beijing’s interests. Those interests appear to include bending Canadian policy goals into alignment with those of the Chinese Communist Party, especially in the key areas of accepting China’s territorial claims over Taiwan and turning a blind eye to the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and the ongoing persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The full impact of the 2021 Chinese electoral interference is difficult to fathom. Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole estimated that Chinese tactics cost the Conservatives eight or nine seats. Tong Xiaoling, China’s former consul general in Vancouver, boasted that she had personally helped defeat two Conservative MPs, according to the CSIS reports. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was already investigating allegations that China had supported eleven candidates—nine Liberal and two Conservative—in the Greater Toronto Area in 2019; the committee’s scope will now be expanded to probe the 2021 election.

Regardless of the extent of Chinese meddling, the latest revelations should come as a wake-up call to Canadians. CCP-sponsored attacks on Canadian values, including the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, are nothing new. For years, China has maintained an espionage network comprising spies, party propagandists, and secret police in Canada and elsewhere. According to veteran foreign affairs journalist Jonathan Manthorpe’s 2019 book Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada, the methods employed by CCP agents in Canada include “cyberattacks, harassing phone calls, the distribution of hate propaganda, following and monitoring of individuals by CCP agents, harassment at anti-CCP demonstrations, detention and bullying of Canadians visiting China, [and] intimidation of relatives in China.” The main targets are members of the Chinese diaspora whom the regime considers “dissidents.”

In practical terms, this means that those who dare to defy Beijing—by demonstrating for Hong Kong’s civil rights or against the mistreatment of Uyghurs—have been met with CCP-supported counterprotesters who photograph, harass, and attempt to silence demonstrators. CCP-backed counterprotests have played out in cities across Canada as well as online, where democracy activists are frequently surveilled and threatened. So widespread are these rights violations that Amnesty International Canada published a 2020 report documenting a “systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation that is often clearly linked to or backed by Chinese state authorities.”

Among the arms of CCP influence said to be operating in Canada are the Confucius Institutes—language and cultural centres which began appearing here in 2006. The Confucius Institute of Toronto currently lists thirteen Canadian CIs affiliated with various universities (Carleton, the University of Waterloo, St. Mary’s) and school boards (Edmonton and, for a while, the Toronto District School Board) and describes its mission as “deepening friendly relationships” and “constructing a harmonious world.” Manthorpe describes these institutes as “espionage outstations for Chinese embassies and consulates through which they control Chinese students, gather information on perceived enemies, and intimidate dissidents.” (Schools and universities with continuing ties to the CIs claim the organizations provide valuable language support and respect academic freedom.)

While China’s willingness to interfere in foreign politics (in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere) is well established—a 2018 CSIS report noted the CCP’s strategy to “influence political decision-making” and “facilitate espionage opportunities”—the CCP’s 2021 Canadian election interference feels like an escalation. The leaked CSIS documents reveal the extensive role played by Chinese diplomats and consulate staff. Diplomats spread disinformation about Conservative intentions to impose a Trump-style ban on Chinese university students. They facilitated undeclared cash donations to—mostly Liberal—candidates favoured by the CCP. (While the precise amount of these transfers is unknown, Global News reported that a CCP proxy group allegedly funnelled approximately $250,000 through an Ontario MPP and federal campaign staffer in the 2019 election.) They helped businesses hire international Chinese students and then enlist them as paid, full-time “volunteers” on chosen campaigns.

But it gets worse for Liberals, especially given the material advantage that Chinese meddling appears to have conferred on the party. According to the December 20, 2021, CSIS report quoted by the Globe, CCP agents encouraged donors to contribute to Beijing-approved candidates, for which they received tax credits from the federal government. Those campaigns themselves then illegally returned “the difference between the original donation and the government’s refund” to the donors.

In other words, this was not simply a scenario in which foreign agents targeted Canadian actors but also one where Canadian campaigns were willing participants in illegal activity. Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who sits on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, said in an interview that these details from the CSIS documents, which indicate that the campaigns provided both tax receipts and financial refunds to Chinese-selected donors, suggest “collusion” between 2021 federal candidates and “the CCP interference network.” All of this, needless to say, is in obvious violation of the Canada Elections Act, and the RCMP should open an investigation if it hasn’t already.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau immediately downplayed the issue, claiming that Canada can have “total confidence that the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 elections were determined by Canadians, and Canadians alone, at the voting booth.” On February 28, the government issued a report indicating that national security agencies believed the attempts at foreign interference had not “met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity.” What is that threshold? The report, penned by Morris Rosenberg, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs and former CEO of the Trudeau Foundation, adds that the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol “is somewhat confusing as to what is required in order for the threshold to be met” but that the threshold is being construed as “requiring an incident or incidents that threaten the integrity of the entire election.” In short, individual ridings swayed by CCP meddling would presumably not, according to the government’s protocol, threaten Canada’s ability to “have a free and fair election.” But even if the Chinese did not tilt the overall election result, that still means a foreign power may have rendered the votes of tens of thousands of Canadians moot.

The CSIS has advised the prime minister that public transparency is crucial in cases involving foreign interference in Canada’s democratic processes. Liberals themselves used to campaign on transparency and accountability. In this case, the prime minister kept Canadians in the dark, sitting on highly sensitive evidence of foreign election meddling for seventeen months, until enterprising reporters and CSIS whistleblowers took matters into their own hands. In the interest of rebuilding public trust, the government should listen to its own national security advisers and come clean. That begins with releasing the names of the eleven GTA federal candidates in whose campaigns China is alleged to have interfered in 2019, then providing Canadians with a full account of what actually happened in 2021. It should not take another “independent” inquiry—already requested by former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley—for Canadians to pry the truth out of their leaders.

Canadians deserve to know if their democratic representatives in the House of Commons have received illegal assistance from a foreign power. To continue to keep this information secret from voters would be an unconscionable abuse of democratic faith.

A serious response from the government would include the creation of a foreign agents registry, already on the books in Australia and the United States, which would require the public disclosure of those working for foreign interests. A serious rethink of existing mechanisms for protecting Canadian democracy is also in order. Leading up to the 2019 election, the government unfurled a suite of measures to defend the country’s democratic processes from foreign intrusion. These included the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol, a mechanism for public servants to inform Canadians about incidents that threaten election integrity, and the SITE (Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections) Task Force, whose job is to provide intelligence on hostile state activities to the government and Elections Canada.

The government touts these programs as “concrete action to defend Canadian democracy,” yet they appear to have had little impact. Indeed, as Cooper pointed out, our intelligence agencies informed neither the Canadian public nor, it seems, the Conservative campaigns subject to foreign interference while it was occurring, and nor did they inform the allegedly colluding campaigns that they knew what was happening.

One final revelation from the CSIS documents should give Canadians pause: an unnamed Chinese diplomat quoted as saying Beijing “likes it when the parties in Parliament are fighting with each other.” In other words, China’s interference campaign may have been about more than swinging ridings or influencing the election as a whole and also about exacerbating the political polarization in this country. Each and every partisan outburst resulting from this affair is another minor gesture appreciated by Beijing.

In the immediate term, the onus is on the prime minister to provide Canadians with adequate information so that we can judge for ourselves the integrity of the 2021 election. In his lackadaisical response to Chinese malfeasance, Trudeau is playing a dangerous game. Canada appears to be signalling to China that interference in future elections will be met with no serious consequences. To date, no charges have been laid, no diplomats expelled. If there are any plans to get to the bottom of what Cooper has called Canadian financial “collusion” with CCP proxies, we have not been told. This half-hearted approach to protecting our democracy will hardly reassure Canadians of our electoral integrity at a moment when faith in national institutions is crumbling.

Ira Wells
Ira Wells teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in The New Republic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Puritan, and elsewhere.