Foreign Interference and National Security, Part II: Forget Election Interference, Focus on the PRC’s Many More Effective Efforts at Domestic Meddling

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It is surely a depressing sign of the times when media attention, public opinion and opposition political parties can be so easily influenced by the views of an individual guilty of violating the national security oath they were sworn to uphold. Meanwhile the expert opinions of senior bureaucrats, academics and heads of national security agencies are casually dismissed as biased, incorrect or deliberately designed to conceal the truth. This is a particularly egregious development since virtually all of these experts are in agreement that the efforts of the Chinese government (PRC) to influence the 2019 and 2021 elections were ineffective. Simply put, it seems we have now reached the stage where one discontented individual can accuse individuals or governments of almost anything on the basis of unsubstantiated claims and receive a serious hearing. And, having been granted anonymity by the media, they are able to do so with impunity.

Let us be clear. No one is suggesting that there were no attempts by Chinese officials or agents to influence the two most recent federal elections. But those who are in a position to know have stated repeatedly that those attempts were ineffective and did not affect the outcome of those elections. Judging from the reported nature of some of the efforts, this is hardly surprising. Many could be described as amateurish, naïve or even clownish.

Still the “leaker” disagrees with the experts. This in itself is problematic. For all we know, his/her superiors specifically rejected that view. The leaker’s own explanation for breaching national security, (provided in an OpEd published by the Globe and Mail in violation of many journalistic principles, as eminent defence and security expert Wesley Wark has noted[i]) implies that this may indeed have been the case.[ii]

The leaker also apparently believes the government did not do enough to prevent such efforts. Evidently he/she thinks much more should be done, and is convinced this will not happen unless accusations and top secret documents are made public. Yet an earlier article on this subject, posted March 17, ( The Manufactured Foreign Interference/National Security “Crisis”: The Danger of Political Spin in an Era of Hyperpartisan Politics) outlines in detail the many steps the Liberal government has already taken to address foreign interference, and it is in the process of introducing several more. Some of necessity are confidential, since revealing what measures are being taken, or what is known, would compromise those preventive measures. Whether there are further measures that could be taken, and with what consequences, is clearly a moot point. But, reasonable though this line of inquiry might be, it is hardly the one the opposition is staking its claim on.

It is unclear whether the leaker also believes there has been some type of federal government complicity in “covering up” this activity, but this is certainly the primary line of attack taken by  the Official Opposition. Pierre Poilievre and Company appear far more concerned with the tired old “what did the government know and when did it know it” approach, even on matters of national security where the question is essentially meaningless, than they are with the actual alleged (and unsuccessful) electoral interference. They have also engaged in fanciful speculation, advancing a series of ever more farfetched scenarios in a blatant effort to maintain public interest. As journalist Michael Harris has outlined in detail, these types of reckless accusations, driven by out-of-control populism, are wreaking far more serious havoc on Canadians’ faith in democratic institutions than the simplistic efforts of the alleged Chinese agitators. [iii] 

Moreover the leaker – and supporters — conveniently ignore any discussion of context. Surely it is worth noting that the period covered by the two elections is one in which the “two Michaels” were held hostage by the Chinese government, making it even less likely that the federal government would publicize any actions it was taking to counter foreign intervention by that country. Yet the government appears to have been given little credit for the release of the two men, an accomplishment that was achieved out of the public eye through quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes negotiations.

At the end of the day the leaker’s opinion is a judgment call, made by someone who is neither elected nor employed to make policy. (Nor do these actions fit the description of a “brave whistlelower”, as some have said, since the leaker in this case has chosen to publicly attack the established order without taking responsibility.[iv]) As former intelligence analyst Jessica Davis, currently the CEO of Insight Threat Intelligence, has noted, such individuals are frequently victims of hubris, convinced only they can solve the perceived problem, and that they can do so with minimal collateral damage.[v]

That latter calculation has clearly been disproven in this case. Anti-Asian racism, already mounting during the pandemic, has now reached alarming levels in Canada, just as the prime minister predicted and the Chinese-Canadian community feared.[vi] As former Liberal MP Han Dong has learned, there is really no way to defend oneself against anonymous and unsubstantiated charges[vii] And, as recently-elected Vancouver mayor Ken Sim has discovered, angrily rejecting accusations that he received help from Chinese officials to become the first person of Chinese descent to win the mayoralty race only leads to further negative press coverage.[viii] (This despite the fact that the mayoralty race, like that of several councilors on his ticket, was not even close. Even his defeated opponent, former mayor Kennedy Stewart, has indicated he does not believe the outcome was affected)     

So now we have a chorus of voices calling for a public inquiry, despite the fact that many of the potential witnesses will still not be able to provide additional information because of national security concerns. This scenario, in turn, will undoubtedly lead some of the more fanatical critics of the government, such as Opposition Leader Poilievre, to cry foul and declare that even the public inquiry is a sham. After all, the Conservative leader has already denounced the government’s choice of former Governor-General David Johnston as special rapporteur. Incredibly, he has dismissed him as a “Liberal insider” even though it was former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper who appointed Johnston to several posts including that of GG, after former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney had earlier asked Johnston to chair his National Environmental Roundtable . Even well-known right-wing conservative columnist John Ibbitson has decried Poilievre’s behaviour, arguing that Johnston is an excellent choice that all ‘Canadians of good will” should accept.[ix] 

When Poilievre failed that test, Ibbitson felt obliged to pen another missive on the subject, which he titled “Opposition to David Johnston’s appointment shows how much politics has changed.”[x] In it, he decries the cynicism and contempt for “political, cultural and academic elites” that drives the new conservatives, as well as their willingness to fan the flames of division with populist rhetoric and political ruthlessness. Which is why, sadly, one of the few balanced and informed contributions to the debate, an OpEd by former Communications Security Establishment assistant deputy minister Artur Wilczynski, titled “We Need A Rational Conversation About Election Interference,”[xi] misses the mark. There is simply no appetite for rational debate at this point.

A telling confirmation of this situation is the fact that no one but the government is apparently concerned with learning the identity of the leaker. Yet the public interest would surely be served by knowing, at a minimum, what has motivated this individual to take such a drastic step and, equally important, where they are located in the system (inside a security agency? outside the security establishment but elsewhere in government? or not even in Canada?). Without this context, there is really no possibility of meaningfully evaluating the alleged information they have provided.    

The irony is that the inept attempts at electoral interference by Chinese agents were not only unsuccessful but arguably represent the least significant of the many PRC intrusions into Canada’s domestic affairs.  The most worrisome aspect of this misplaced concern over the integrity of the electoral system is the fact that there are actually several other areas where foreign intervention in our domestic policies has been more invasive and effective. Nor is it only the government of China that is intent on wreaking havoc. As both the United Nations Secretary General and the American Secretary of State for Homeland Security have noted,[xii] the post Cold War geopolitical situation has changed significantly in recent years. Both Russia under Putin, and Iran under its current regime, are notably guilty of ongoing and aggressive efforts to influence events in many western liberal democratic states.

In a similar vein, it is also worth noting that the PRC under former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had moved dramatically closer to western society with his policies of economic capitalism, structural reform and international outreach, prompting leaders in western democracies to forge closer economic and cultural ties to encourage further evolution.  That trend has only recently been reversed under the current leader, Xi Jinping. As a result, the PRC’s efforts to intervene in the domestic affairs of liberal democracies also have escalated dramatically under Xi, something that would not have been expected under Deng.    

In addition it has become clear that Xi’s regime considers Canada a high value priority target for a number of reasons, including our close proximity to the United States (China’s #1 enemy), our membership in NATO, the Five Eyes security network and the G7, and, last but hardly least, the presence of a large Chinese diaspora. In this regard it is also worth noting that China rejects all  claims by native-born Chinese to other citizenship acquired after leaving the home country. Once a Chinese citizen, always a Chinese citizen. This has been graphically demonstrated by the case of Huseyin Celil, the naturalized Canadian abducted from Uzbekistan and imprisoned by the PRC because of his support for Uyghur rights. Refusing to recognize his Canadian citizenship, PRC officials have rebuffed all attempts by Canadian diplomats to meet with Celil or to offer him assistance.

It is also worth noting that such covert domestic interference by the PRC is not news. Media accounts of various types of foreign interference go back more than a decade. Nor are these efforts limited to the federal level. Take, for example, the case of Joseph Shi, an outspoken critic of the PRC’s human rights violations who is also a municipal councillor in a small Alberta town. Despite, or more likely because of, clumsy efforts by two apparent foreign agents to distribute defamatory material concerning Shi among his constituents, he was re-elected in the last municipal election with a larger majority than before.   

By contrast the efforts of the Chinese government in other areas have been far more successful. Specifically, the PRC employs at least four means of domestic meddling that should take precedence in public opinion and prompt consideration of further government action. These are (1) intimidation of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, many if not most of whom are Canadian citizens (2) infiltration of research establishments (3) promotion of public unrest through the propagation of disinformation and (4) acquisition/control of critical sectors of the economy.

Canadians have recently seen some striking evidence of PRC interference in our domestic affairs, and in particular in the affairs of members of the Chinese community. Attention has been focused on the attempted intimidation of the Chinese diaspora in Canada through the surreptitious creation of de facto police stations.  The existence of hundreds of these stations around the world was exposed by an international human rights group in December 2022. The primary purpose, according to the group, is to harass and intimidate members of the Chinese diaspora, many of whom the PRC wants to return to China. Often blackmail is used, for example by threatening the safety of friends and relatives who remain in China, in order to ensure the compliance of targeted individuals. In some cases, having located them through these stations, the PRC is even alleged to have forcibly repatriated them.

In February 2023 RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki informed parliamentarians that the force had identified four of these stations in Toronto and one in Vancouver, and had taken “disruptive” measures to neutralize their impact. She also noted, however, that these units are generally located in legitimate businesses, and evidence of criminal activity is difficult to obtain. In early March the Force also identified two such stations in Montreal and a spokesperson indicated investigations were continuing.[xiii]

A major problem in dealing with this issue is the question of jurisdiction, since these stations are located in large urban centres that fall within the purview of local police forces and, in some cases, of a provincial force as well. Clearly close collaboration among these enforcement agencies, and with national security analysts, is required to ensure the safety of members of the diaspora and to pursue appropriate legal action. Close cooperation may also be possible with allies, who are all experiencing the same phenomenon. For example Public Safety Minister Marco Mendocino has indicated the federal government is preparing to consult relevant agencies about the possibility of establishing a Foreign Agent Registry. This measure has already been put in place in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. However the minister has also stated the government has a number of concerns with respect to equity and diversity that must be considered in the Canadian context, delaying the introduction of such a measure here. At the same time, some security experts have cautioned that this measure, while a step in the right direction, will be ineffective without the introduction of clear enforcement and accountability mechanisms, something both Australia and the UK continue to struggle with as well.[xiv]

A second major focus of PRC activities has been the acquisition of cutting edge scientific research for economic and military ends. A number of pathways have been devised to achieve this, beginning with the offer of lucrative collaboration/partnerships with pre-eminent Canadian researchers at leading Canadian universities. One survey found that academics from the top 10 Canadian research universities published some 240 joint papers between 2005 and 2022 with partners at China’s National University of Defence Technology (NUDT) alone. Subjects included quantum cryptography, space science and photonics, a crucial element of national security systems. While the University of Waterloo was the clear frontrunner, with some 46 papers published in collaboration with NUDT researchers between 2017 and 2022, the issue affects academic institutions across the country. In descending order the next five included the University of Alberta, McGill, University of Toronto, UBC and Simon Fraser. [xv]      

In 2021 the Liberal government introduced guidelines for federal grants from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). They required any applications involving collaboration with Chinese partners on a range of sensitive issues to be forwarded for scrutiny by national security agency analysts before approval could be granted, a move which saw some 40 requests denied in the next year. In February 2023 Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced the guidelines would be further tightened, to include funding from all federal research agencies, and to end entirely any funding for joint research with any Chinese military or state security institutions.[xvi]

However here too jurisdiction is an issue, since education is a provincial matter. As the minister noted, Ottawa has urged provinces and universities to take similar steps, but cannot simply enforce such a directive. Moreover, many universities are loathe to lose access to generous funding provided by Chinese partners, (which on many occasions far exceeds the amounts provided by NSERC and other research agency grants), in view of the longstanding and continuing underfunding of Canadian universities by most provinces. In addition, as Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former vice-president at NSERC, pointed out, many supposedly independent Chinese companies also “have deep pockets”. She noted that “in the last several years we’ve noted that many collaborations are still happening without Canadian researchers applying for matching NSERC grants…What this means is that sometimes even the presence of millions of dollars (from Chinese sources) in a particular research lab isn’t visible to the public.” [xvii]

Adding to this worrisome trend is the recent findings of a CSIS report that China has adopted a deliberate policy of funneling Chinese postgraduate students to Canadian universities to study cutting edge technology. This relatively new phenomenon allegedly has been adopted by the PRC as a response to recent changes to United States policy that has resulted in the denial of student visas to many suspect individuals on national security grounds. The American action was taken on the recommendation of the congressional watchdog commission tasked with overseeing economic and military national security issues related to China. The commission noted that such students are provided scholarships to study abroad by the China Scholarship Council of the PRC, and are given specific instructions to provide regular reports on their work and maintain close contact with Chinese consular officials in the host country.[xviii]    

A third method of domestic intervention by the PRC involves the use of social media to spread disinformation and encourage political unrest. (In this area the Beijing government appears to have learned quickly from sophisticated Russian efforts, exemplified recently by that country’s messaging about the Ohio train derailment[xix] and attacking Canadian support for the war in Ukraine.[xx] ) China, meanwhile, is known to have promoted disinformation in Canada and elsewhere on the Covid pandemic, the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and even the credibility of targeted Canadian businesses.[xxi] Since most of these PRC campaigns have been promoted in Chinese language mis sives, mainstream media attention had been less frequent. However the significance of the threat can be inferred from the fact that Twitter alone  removed some 170,000 China-linked accounts in 2020.

Finally, the PRC has made a concerted effort to become a player in the Canadian economy, either by entering directly through state-owned enterprises, or indirectly through the purchase of pre-existing Canadian industries. Perhaps the most visible example was that of Huawei, which was formally banned from participating in Canada’s 5G infrastructure in 2022 over national security concerns. That decision by the Trudeau government – in line with those of allies such as the US and the UK – also requires Canadian distributers to remove all existing 4G equipment from Huawei within five years. The Canadian government has also blocked several high profile transactions involving Chinese state-owned investors in sensitive Canadian industries. These include Shandong Gold Mining’s 2020 attempt to purchase TMAC Resources Inc., (owner of a gold mine in Canada’s Arctic), and a 2018 bid by China Communications Construction Company International Holding Limited to purchase Aecon Group Inc., one of Canada’s largest infrastructure construction companies. In 2021 the government also raised national security concerns when it ordered China Mobile to divest its Canadian affiliate, CMLink. [xxii]

As the recent visit to Ottawa by US president Joe Biden emphasized, Canada and the US are also concerned with ensuring a secure supply chain for various industries, and with establishing secure access to various rare earth elements (REE). The situation has become more pressing because, as one seminal academic study demonstrated, [xxiii] China now controls more than 75% of the current global supply of REE, and such minerals are crucial components of a broad range of electronics industries including computers, cell phones and electric vehicles.  A significant portion of the bilateral agreement announced following that visit is therefore focused on these issues, and on ensuring the independence of the broader North American economy from Chinese intervention. [xxiv]  

Given all of these interventions by the Chinese government in Canada’s domestic affairs, it is highly encouraging to note that the Trudeau government recently unveiled a series of measures in the 2023 budget that are specifically designed to provide additional tools to law enforcement and national security agencies to counter such interference. These include:

  • Budget 2023 proposes to provide $48.9 million over three years on a cash basis, starting in 2023-24, to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to protect Canadians from harassment and intimidation, increase its investigative capacity, and more proactively engage with communities at greater risk of being targeted. 
  • Budget 2023 proposes to provide $13.5 million over five years, starting in 2023-24, and $3.1 million ongoing to Public Safety Canada to establish a National Counter-Foreign Interference Office. [xxv]

In the end, as the Budget document notes, all western democracies are vulnerable to disruptive efforts by authoritarian foreign regimes. China has clearly joined the ranks of Russia and Iran as one of the most aggressive perpetrators of this type of interference, but it is hardly the only one. While western governments must be aware of such efforts, and take steps to ensure citizen confidence in the institutions of the democratic state, it is also imperative that the very elements of liberal democracy, including an open society and independent media, are not threatened by an overly interventionist national security regime. At the same time, it is also important for citizens to recognize the need for a measure of confidentiality in national security operations if they are to be effective. If the efforts of David Johnston as special rapporteur are successful in communicating this message and restoring a measure of trust in the existing security apparatus, the misplaced furor over election interference may have at least one positive result.           













[xiii]   and