By Patricia Adams and Lawrence Solomon
The countries of the West are teeming with Chinese spies, and Canada is no exception. But in one way, Canada does stand out, and glaringly so. Unlike the governments of other countries, which in the last five years came to appreciate the extent of China’s malevolent influence in their countries, the Trudeau government has taken no decisive actions to counter foreign interference, even though the Chinese Communist Party is believed to have influenced the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, and speculation is rife that Canada may see another federal election this year.
Australia proposed action against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) foreign interference through a White Paper in 2017, then quickly followed up in 2018 by passing the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which created a registry for persons and entities acting on behalf of foreigners. In 2020, Australia extended its controls over CCP interference with Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act, which requires state and local governments, as well as universities, to report deals with Chinese entities. More than 1000 have been reported.
The U.S., whose Foreign Agents Registration Act has required foreign agents to register since 1938 following Nazi Germany’s attempt to subvert America’s democratic processes, started to crack down on China in 2018. In the U.K., after MI5’s chief warned in 2020 that CCP political interference dwarfed anything that might have come from Russia, and MI6 declared China to be its “single greatest priority,” the government followed up in 2022 with new legislation, the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, that made clandestine political activity illegal and criminalized those acting for a foreign power who didn’t declare their activities.
In France, the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire (IRSEM), a Ministry of the Armed Forces think tank, in 2021 published a comprehensive 654-page report detailing China’s sweeping interference in the political activities of countries around the world. China has been especially aggressive in Canada, it reports in excruciating detail, “first and foremost for its Chinese diaspora, which is home to a high number of real or alleged dissidents,” and because of Canada’s “proximity with its great rival the United States; its membership in military alliances (NATO) and intelligence alliances (Five Eyes); its place in the Arctic; its image as an exemplary liberal democracy, which makes it a symbolic target; and the fact that it’s a middle power, which minimizes potential repercussions.”
Virtually the whole of the western world now recognizes China as a malign actor, rather than a benign emerging economy. So why is Canada stalling, stalling, stalling in taking action against China?
It isn’t for lack of knowledge. The warnings have been growing since 2010, when Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, warned Canada’s then-Conservative government that cabinet ministers in two provinces and several municipal politicians in B.C. were under the control of governments in China and the Middle East. Warnings also came from the RCMP, numerous media reports, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the Canadian Senate, the Special Committee on the Canada–People’s Republic of China Relationship and the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, and former Canadian diplomats to China. As China’s true colours dawned on the world, the warnings increased in urgency, becoming impossible to ignore.
The Trudeau government has reacted to the warnings, by throwing up some two dozen agencies, committees, rapid response mechanisms, protocols, consultations, task forces and panels to investigate, review, collect data, coordinate, plan, consider hearings and other next steps. Following which, according to Charles Burton, a former diplomat in China, nothing happens: These agencies “routinely shroud their accountability to Canadians and Parliament … when Parliament asks for a briefing to inform the development of legislation to protect public safety and national security, those agencies too often obfuscate, claiming their information is too sensitive to share with MPs or that disclosing it would reveal operational details that would help our enemies.”
These many agencies report to the Prime Minister’s entourage, which has perfected the Art of the Stall – always claiming more investigations and consultations are needed to ensure that no stone is left unturned, and always doing nothing that is legally enforceable. Our government hasn’t even created a registry of foreign agents, as wanted by almost 90 percent of the Canadian public. This registry could be accomplished quickly since legislation in second reading in the Senate would sail into law if the Trudeau government gave the ok. As put by Senator Leo Housakos, “As is so often the case with this government, I think the idea of public consultation on the matter is more of an attempt to APPEAR to be taking it seriously rather than actually taking it seriously.”
The general public would benefit from such a registry, which it feels is necessary to ensure election integrity. So would Chinese Canadians, who are often intimidated by CCP operatives. So would Canadian businesses which lose out to Chinese competitors with untoward influence. So would the Conservative Party of Canada, which reportedly suffered from CCP interference in both the 2019 and 2021 federal election, losing numerous seats to the Liberals as a result.
The elephant in the room that stands to lose from a registry, or other measures designed to hinder the CCP’s ability to influence the outcome of elections, is the Trudeau government. It is widely believed to have been the main beneficiary of the CCP’s past political activities and it’s a good bet to be favoured by the CCP in the next federal election. With public opinion polls showing the Liberals and the Conservatives neck and neck, the Trudeau government has every incentive to delay taking any action before the next election is called.
Patricia Adams and Lawrence Solomon are directors at the Toronto-based Probe International.