What to know about Canada and China’s foreign interference row

What to know about Canada and China's foreign interference row
Photo of Justin Trudeau and Xi Jinping in front of a backdrop of Chinese and Canadian flagsPool

In recent months, Canadian media have released a steady drip of reports, many based on leaked intelligence, about detailed claims of Chinese meddling in the country’s last two federal elections in 2019 and 2021 – the latest Western nation to sound the alarm over concerns of foreign election interference.

Chinese officials have denied any interference, calling the allegations “purely baseless and defamatory”.

The efforts are not believed to have altered the outcomes of either general election, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure to launch a national public inquiry looking into the allegations, which have strained already challenging diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Most recently in May, tensions ratcheted up with tit-for-tat expulsions of a Chinese diplomat in Toronto and a Canadian diplomat in Shanghai.

What are the claims?

The allegations stem from leaked intelligence reports, which allege that Beijing diplomats and proxies in Canada tried to sway election outcomes in favour of the Liberals.

According to a series of reports in the Globe and Mail newspaper and by Global News, intelligence sources are concerned that China’s Communist Party interfered by putting pressure on its consulates in Canada to support certain candidates.

The key claims in the reports include:

Conservative politicians have said publicly they were aware of interference in the 2021 race, flagged concerns to officials, and believe it had cost them several seats – though not enough to change the election result, which Mr Trudeau’s Liberals won with a 41-seat lead.

Mr Chong has accused Canadian officials of being negligent by not notifying him until recently about the alleged targeting of him and his family in Hong Kong.

A parliamentary committee is now looking into the intimidation campaign claims.

Canada has also expelled diplomat Zhao Wei, who has been accused of being involved in gathering information about Mr Chong.

In response, China ordered the removal of Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, Canada’s diplomat in its Shanghai consulate.

Mr Trudeau said Canada “will not be intimidated” by China following Beijing’s tit-for-tat expulsion.

What has been the response?

The steady drip of stories with specific accounts of apparent interference has roiled Canadian politics, raising questions about what Mr Trudeau and his party knew of China’s meddling – and when.

Mr Trudeau has said he believes there are “many inaccuracies” in what has been reported, but that there are “ongoing efforts” by China and other countries to interfere with Canada’s democracy.

In early March, he announced a series of probes into the alleged interference and appointed an independent special rapporteur to look into the matter.

The rapporteur has until 23 May to decide whether to recommend a public inquiry to examine the claims, with a full report coming later this year.

Mr Trudeau also asked members of parliament and senators in the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to begin a review of foreign interference and to report its findings to parliament.

Federal opposition parties – the New Democrats and the Conservatives – are pushing for an “independent and public” inquiry into the accounts.

Their calls have been echoed by Canada’s former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley and Richard Fadden, the former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS.

Mr Fadden told the BBC earlier this year that he believes an inquiry is needed to determine what Canada can do in the future to prevent similar interference attempts.

“It would shed some light of day on how extensive the problem is at the constituency level, because we’ve not had a great deal of information about that,” he added.

Others have called it a “bad idea” because much of the information will be kept behind the veil, by law, of highly classified intelligence documents.

“The public would be none the wiser about the details,” said intelligence and security expert Wesley Wark.

And while the public deserves to know about national security threats, he worried “broad-brush suggestions” that members of any diaspora community are disloyal to Canada or vulnerable to foreign campaigns could be harmful.

What do we know about foreign interference in Canada?

Concerns of foreign actors meddling in Canadian affairs are not new.

In 2021, CSIS said it continues “to observe steady, and in some cases increasing” foreign interference, and warned that this type of meddling “can erode trust and threaten the integrity of our democratic institutions”.

Their public report cited cyber-attacks, disinformation and corrupt financing as some of the ways this type of interference occurs.

In testimony before the parliamentary committee probing China’s interference earlier this year, Mr Trudeau’s national security adviser, Jody Thomas, said there were “attempts” by Beijing to meddle in both elections and that the prime minister had been briefed on the intelligence.

She added that the government is taking “concrete” steps to address the issue, and that Canadians should be confident that the last two federal elections were “fair and legitimate”.

A recent federal public report arrived at a similar conclusion – that efforts to meddle in the 2021 federal election did not affect the results.

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