What is foreign interference and why is it important? What have we learned from CSIS documents, national-security sources and politicians about Chinese meddling in Canadian affairs? Here’s what you need to know.

Top-secret reports from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). A whistleblower explaining the tough decision to reveal those documents. Multiple parliamentary committee hearings. Calls for a public inquiry. The Prime Minister setting up two closed-door investigations and appointing a special rapporteur. Conservative MP Michael Chong learning he was a target of Chinese interference. The expelling of a Chinese diplomat and the retaliatory expelling of a Canadian one.

Foreign interference has dominated the headlines again since The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 17 details of China’s sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 federal election campaign, based on secret and top-secret CSIS documents.

What is foreign interference and why is it important? What have we learned from CSIS documents, national-security sources and politicians about Chinese meddling in Canadian affairs? Here’s what you need to know.

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What is foreign interference?

The Government of Canada website describes foreign interference as “harmful activities undertaken by foreign states, or those acting on its behalf, that are clandestine, deceptive, or involve a threat to any person to advance the strategic objectives of those states to the detriment of Canada’s national interests.” Foreign interference can be classified as threats, harassment or intimidation by foreign states against anyone in Canada, the act of targeting a government official to influence public policy or decision-making, or the act of covertly influencing the outcomes of elections.

A top-secret report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), seen by The Globe, warns that Beijing views Canada as a “high-priority target” for foreign interference. China sees Canada that way because it’s a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, which also includes the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and because the country has a “robust reputation that can be used or co-opted to help legitimize [Chinese Communist] Party interests,” the report said.

China’s goal, according to CSIS, is to insert itself into diaspora communities and then mobilize them as political influencers and apply pressure in support of Beijing’s interests:

The CCP uses incentives and punishment to achieve its united front work objectives … instilling fear that criticizing the PRC [People’s Republic of China] will negatively impact bilateral relations and jeopardize access to the PRC market.

How did China try to influence Canadian elections?

2021 federal election

Secret and top-secret documents viewed by The Globe reveal that Chinese diplomats and their proxies had two primary aims in the 2021 federal election:

  1. to ensure that a minority Liberal government was re-elected in 2021;
  2. to defeat certain Conservative candidates considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.

How did they try to make it happen? CSIS said Beijing pursued a sophisticated game plan, pressuring “its consulates to create strategies to leverage politically [active] Chinese community members and associations within Canadian society.” The CSIS documents outline a number of such strategies. China used disinformation campaigns and proxies connected to Chinese-Canadian organizations in Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area, which have large mainland Chinese immigrant communities, to voice opposition to the Conservatives and favour the Trudeau Liberals.

CSIS also explained how Chinese diplomats conduct foreign-interference operations in support of political candidates and elected officials. Tactics include undeclared cash donations to political campaigns or having business owners hire international Chinese students and “assign them to volunteer in electoral campaigns on a full-time basis.” Sympathetic donors were also encouraged to provide campaign contributions to candidates favoured by China – donations for which they receive a tax credit from the federal government. Then, the CSIS report from Dec. 20, 2021 says, political campaigns quietly, and illegally, return part of the contribution – “the difference between the original donation and the government’s refund” – back to the donor

In its 2021 annual report, CSIS said it warned federal agencies that the federal election that year could be a target for foreign interference, as well as violence from domestic extremists.

2019 federal election

The Globe reported in late December that the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received a national-security briefing during the fall in which he was told China’s consulate in Toronto had targeted 11 candidates – nine Liberals and two Conservatives – in the 2019 federal election. CSIS Director David Vigneault told Mr. Trudeau that there was no indication that China’s interference efforts had helped elect any of the candidates, despite the consulate’s attempts to promote the campaigns on social media and in Chinese-language media outlets.

The Globe report came more than a month after Global News reported that CSIS warned the Prime Minister that China has been targeting Canada with a foreign-interference campaign, including Beijing allegedly providing cash for 11 federal candidates in the 2019 election. Mr. Trudeau later said this was incorrect and he had never been briefed on this. National-security adviser Jody Thomas also said there was no evidence of money going to candidates. She told a parliamentary committee in December “that we have not seen money going to 11 candidates, period.”

2022 Vancouver municipal election

China’s diplomatic mission in Vancouver actively interfered in the city’s politics, using proxies in diaspora community organizations and grooming politicians to run in the 2022 Vancouver municipal election, CSIS said in a report.

The Jan. 10, 2022, report viewed by The Globe and Mail outlines how China’s then-consul-general, Tong Xiaoling, discussed mentoring – or as the report quoted her, “grooming” – Chinese-Canadian municipal politicians for higher office to advance Beijing’s interests and getting “all eligible voters to come out and elect a specific Chinese-Canadian candidate” during the 2022 mayoral vote.

In the October 2022 municipal election, incumbent mayor Kennedy Stewart lost to Ken Sim by margin of nearly 37,000 votes.

The CSIS report did not include names of candidates Ms. Tong was supposed to have groomed. Mr. Stewart later said he believed there was foreign interference in the election, but he did not lose the election because of it. Mr. Sim expressed outrage after the disclosure in the March Globe report. “If I was a Caucasian male, we’re not having this conversation,” he said.

What happened to Michael Chong and how was he targeted by China?

On May 1, The Globe reported on a top-secret CSIS intelligence assessment that said China sees Canada as a “high-priority target” and employs “incentives and punishment” as part of a vast influence network directed at legislators, business executives and diaspora communities in this country.

The CSIS report was an overview of Chinese government foreign interference in Canada, and included a description of how a Conservative MP and his family were targeted by a Chinese diplomat. A national-security source told The Globe the MP was Michael Chong and the diplomat was Zhao Wei. Mr. Chong was targeted after his work in spearheading a 2021 parliamentary motion that declared Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs to constitute genocide.

The next day, in a meeting brokered by Mr. Trudeau, CSIS director David Vigneault confirmed the Globe report to Mr. Chong. Mr. Trudeau said a day after that meeting that CSIS made the decision not to inform Mr. Chong in 2021 that he and his family were being targeted and said he didn’t know about the targeting of Mr. Chong until The Globe reported it. The spy agency’s explanation, he said, was that it didn’t send the report up the chain of authority because it felt this “wasn’t a significant enough concern.”

One day after that, Mr. Chong told MPs that the Prime Minister’s national-security adviser informed him that the 2021 intelligence report was circulated beyond the CSIS and even reached the desk of the person serving as Mr. Trudeau’s national-security adviser at the time.

In testimony before the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs on May 16, Mr. Chong said he approached CSIS on three occasions to outline threats that were made against him. Mr. Chong said he did not want to get into the specifics but believes agents of the People’s Republic of China [PRC] were behind the intimidation.

“I received threats that I believe may be related to the PRC and I will just leave it at that,” he said. “It was more than one threat. One of the incidents involved something that happened in the last federal election campaign. The other incidents were outside the federal election campaigns and involve threats sent to me regarding the PRC and my travel outside the country.”

What has been the diplomatic fallout so far?

The reports of China targeting Mr. Chong kicked off a series of extraordinary diplomatic events from both the Canadian and Chinese government.

On May 8, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced that Canada has expelled Mr. Zhao – the first Chinese diplomat to be ordered to leave in decades. “Canada has decided to declare persona non grata, Mr. Zhao Wei,” read the statement from Global Affairs Canada tweeted by Ms. Joly.

Mr. Zhao left Canada on May 12.

Ms. Joly’s announcement came around the same time MPs in the House of Commons were voting on a Conservative motion calling on the government to take a range of measures in response to China, including expelling diplomats, establishing a public inquiry on foreign-election interference, closing down police stations in Canada tied to the China and creating a foreign-agent registry. The motion was approved in a 170 to 150 vote.

The Chinese embassy in Canada issued a strongly worded statement after Ms. Joly’s announcement that promised “countermeasures.” Hours later, Beijing said Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, a Shanghai-based diplomat, had been declared “persona non grata” and told to leave the country by May 13 – in what China said was a response to Canada’s own “unscrupulous” expulsion of Mr. Zhao.

Who is the whistleblower who brought all this to light?

The Globe published a confidential opinion piece on March 17 from the whistleblower who leaked key CSIS reports about China’s interference in the Canadian elections. The national-security official wrote about their decision to reveal the secret and top-secret intelligence documents – and why the decision did not come easily:

When I first became aware of the significance of the threat posed by outside interference to our democratic institutions, I worked – as have many unnamed and tireless colleagues – to equip our leaders with the knowledge and the tools needed to take action against it.

Months passed, and then years. The threat grew in urgency; serious action remained unforthcoming. I endeavored, alone and with others, to raise concerns about this threat directly to those in a position to hold our top officials to account. Regrettably, those individuals were unable to do so.

I was raised to believe that integrity is the act of weighing your actions against your principles, not against what is convenient or expedient. And here my principles remain firmly tied to those words in my oath: I will serve my country, I will serve the democratic institutions on which it is founded and I will most certainly serve my fellow Canadians.

What about China and the Trudeau Foundation?

In 2016, The Globe reported that Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin attended an exclusive cash-for-access Liberal fundraiser where Mr. Trudeau was the star attraction. Shortly after that event, The Globe learned that Mr. Zhang, with business partner, Niu Gensheng, donated $1-million to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal Faculty of Law. Mr. Zhang is a political adviser to the Chinese government in Beijing and a senior apparatchik in the network of Chinese state promotional activities around the world.

In February of this year, The Globe reported that the pledge was part of Chinese government effort to influence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A national-security source told The Globe that CSIS captured a conversation in 2014 between Mr. Zhang and Chinese commercial consulate official in which the diplomat said Bejing would be reimburse him and his partner for the $1-million.

The donation would be “to honour the memory and leadership” of Pierre Trudeau, who as prime minister opened diplomatic relations with China in 1970.

The men pledged $200,000 to the foundation. They also pledged $750,000 to the law school, where Pierre Trudeau had studied and taught, and $50,000 for a statue of the former prime minister that was never built. The foundation’s records show that it received only $140,000.

The foundation announced in early March that it would return $140,000 of the $200,000 donation. Former CEO Pascale Fournier said the foundation had received two payments of $70,000 each but never received the rest of the money.

In March, Ms. Fournier and its board of directors resigned – citing political backlash. “The circumstances created by the politicization of the foundation have made it impossible to continue with the status quo,” the foundation said in a statement.

She later testified before a parliamentary committee, saying she believed the non-profit organization’s earlier leadership misled the country by characterizing the donation from wealthy Chinese benefactors as a Canadian donation.

She noted that the first 2016 tax receipt, for the initial $70,000 donation, was made out to a Canadian subsidiary of a Canadian company and it was sent to a Beijing address – one later identified as that of a Chinese-state backed-backed industry association.

Ms. Fournier criticized the way in which the foundation advertised the donation to Canadians.

Who ordered the investigations into foreign interference and appointed David Johnston as special rapporteur?

On March 6, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered two closed-door probes after facing growing calls to launch an investigation into claims of Beijing’s influence in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

  • The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians will study China’s interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections. The committee is headed by Liberal MP David McGuinty.
  • The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency will examine how investigations into Chinese election meddling have been handled. The agency’s chair is former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps.

Mr. Trudeau also announced former governor-general David Johnston will take on the role of special rapporteur to review the findings of the two panels.

Mr. Johnston’s first report, released on May 23, ruled out a public inquiry. In the 55-page report, Mr. Johnston said China’s interference in Canadian politics is an “increasing threat to our democratic system” but he uncovered no proof that the Prime Minister ignored intelligence briefings on Chinese influence operations in the 2019 and 2021 elections, or warnings of attempts by Beijing to intimidate Mr. Chong.

The government said Mr. Johnston would issue other reports on a rolling basis until late October.

All three major opposition parties continue to call for an independent public inquiry. The choice of Mr. Johnston also was criticized, with the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois questioning his independence given that he is a family friend of the Trudeaus.

The Globe and Mail, May 22, 2023