How deep and widespread are the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) foreign influence campaigns in Canada? Which institutions have been among the greatest impacted?

The CCP’s United Front activities, coordinated through the embassy and consulates in Canada, are designed with three objectives in mind. First, the CCP seeks to influence persons who have an impact on Canada’s China policy. Several former politicians and senior civil servants are often invited to join boards of Chinese-affiliated associated businesses and law firms that do a lot of business with China. Some have benefited directly or indirectly from the Chinese PRC, military-civil party, and state regime. Thus, they become inclined to act on behalf of the regime as there is an expectation that Canadians who engage in lucrative arrangements with China show friendship towards the regime by promoting Chinese aims in Canada. This matter is a big concern to the common Special Committee on Canada-China relations.

There should be a degree of transparency regarding persons of political influence receiving benefits from foreign states. We should consider developing an equivalent to the Australian Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act so that we can determine if people are speaking out in ways that are consistent with the interests of the Chinese state. Canadians should know if politically influential individuals have received benefits that could potentially influence their decision-making ability. There is a lot of resistance to this kind of legislation being enacted in Canada.

The Chinese United Front Work Department also seeks to shape discourse on China within Canada, which often involves generous donations from Chinese sources to Canadian think tanks. The idea being that, if Chinese-funded think tanks were to publish a report that reflected negatively on Chinese interests in Canada, the Chinese might withdraw their funding. Sources of funding to think tanks should be completely transparent. 

The third objective is referred to as Overseas Chinese Work. This involves engagement with persons of ethnic Chinese origin who “owe” allegiance to the motherland and serve the Chinese State. There have been speeches by Chinese officials abroad which suggest that the adopted Chinese children of Canadian families should be loyal to the Chinese state based on ethnicity. It is an extensive operation, occasionally involving serious harassment of persons of Chinese origin who may be active in protesting the policies of the Chinese government. We have seen some stark testimony in Parliament by Hong Kong activists, who are protesting the Chinese government’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong, and by the Canadian Uyghur community, who are protesting the genocide in Northwest China. There has been harassment, menacing death threats, rape threats, and threats against family members of the diaspora that are still living within the PRC’s borders. Policymakers, opinion leaders, and persons of Chinese origin are the primary targets of the United Front Work Department operations here in Canada. From a Canadian perspective, this is very troubling. The use of very sophisticated long-term influence operations on policymakers and attempts to suppress free reporting on China by think tanks is a serious cause for concern. 

Have these measures benefited China? How successful have influence operations been?

There is no question about it. Particularly with regard to constraining Canadian policy. For example, Canada, up to now has not banned Huawei 5G from our telecommunications network, despite various experts citing Huawei as a significant threat to Canadian security. Huawei 5G could be used to download databases, which the PRC military agencies have done in the past. There have been allegations that PRC military agencies were involved in the hack of several government departments about eight years ago, which resulted in the treasury and finance departments being unable to communicate through the internet for several months. Allegations have also been made that PRC agencies were involved in hacking Northern Telecom, as evidenced by listening devices found embedded in the walls of company headquarters, after having been purchased by DND. 

Canada has not declared any diplomats persona non-grata for engaging in influence operations, Agents of the Chinese state operating in Canada, who do not have diplomatic status, have not been held accountable in court. This is indicative of the success of these operations. The high degree of tolerance for Chinese cyber espionage, and other forms of espionage in Canada, and our reluctance to follow other nations in developing foreign influence transparency legislation suggests that the influence on policymakers in Canada has been effective. There are very few significant think tanks in Canada that are not recipients of Chinese associated funds. 

The Chinese community in Canada is largely prevented from expressing its strongly felt concerns over the Chinese regime’s activity in Hong Kong, and in mainland China, because of intimidation tactics employed by the PRC. Even though the public believes that our government should be engaged in a more vigorous defence of Canada’s national interests, the government continues to essentially virtue signal and make promises about possible foreign influence legislation, and possible measures against Hong Kong. When it comes to condemning the genocide in Xinjiang, the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet abstained from the vote. From that point of view, they are very effective. The question is, can we turn things around?

A common narrative we hear is that, as a middle power, Canada must be very careful and measured in our dealings with China. How much truth is there to this assertion? Can Canada afford to take a tougher stance on China?

Our current policy towards China has largely been one of appeasement. When China engaged in arbitrary non-tariff barriers against our agricultural commodity exports to coerce the government into releasing Meng Wanzhou, we did not engage in any retaliatory measures whatsoever.

If the Chinese were to engage in economic retaliation for increased Canadian assertiveness, our reciprocal measures would be much more damaging to them. Canadian exports to China are largely agricultural commodities and minerals—these all have a world market. If China were to bar Canadian commodity exports, which would be part of their flouting of the international rules-based order and their commitment to the WTO, simply to express political displeasure with Canada, the damage to our economy would not be that great. Certainly, countries that have shown much more backbone in dealing with China, such as Australia and New Zealand, pay a much greater price, as they have about a third of their external trade going to China. 

The weak policy of Canada towards China, which most Canadians disapprove of, does not appear to be beneficial. It gives the Chinese government the impression that Canadians can be freely manipulated, because we never seem to do anything that would damage Chinese interests, of any kind, in response to China’s outrageous treatment of us. It is asymmetrical, but I do not agree with the notion that we must give in to China’s incursions on our security and sovereignty due to our weaker position.

What would need to be a part of a comprehensive foreign interference framework to address foreign influence? Do you have any policy measures you would recommend?

We must enact legislation requiring that recipients of benefits from a foreign state make those benefits transparent. Secondly, we need a reorganization of our Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Security Intelligence Service to better respond to the coordinated activities of the Chinese state in Canada. Right now, the RCMP complains about underfunding. The structural organization and the division of labor within RCMP investigations are not able to pick up on the coordinated nature of the Chinese threat. They also lack the expertise, linguistic ability, and knowledge of how the Chinese integrated party-state functions in Canada. The nature of the Chinese state is highly incompatible with the norms of most states. They do not have an independent judiciary. Their army is not loyal to the state, but a political party. All their economic enterprises are coordinated by CCP branches.  

Amnesty International and the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, have advocated for the importance of a dedicated unit designed to address harassment and menacing activities of the Chinese state against persons in Canada. Those who have been subject to harassment in Canada by the CCP rarely receive adequate help. These are Canadian citizens and should be fully protected by our state against hostile activities. There are a lot of things that could be done immediately, and it requires political will. Recommendations and requests have been sent to the Prime Minister’s Office addressing the kind of restructuring I am talking about, but they have been shelved. This suggests that Chinese influence activities are causing policymaking agencies to refrain from engaging in activity that would displease the Chinese government. If we did start to build cases against agents of Chinese influence in Canada, the Chinese Embassy would be very unhappy about it. Nonetheless, we must think of Canadians first and protect our population from this sort of activity, regardless of any consequences that the Chinese regime might inflict on us for doing so.

The inability of Canada to effectively counter the activities of a much stronger power alone could be mitigated by Canada acting in concert with other countries to develop ways of addressing China’s flouting of the international rules-based order. There is discussion of a D10, which would be a coalition of democracies based on the G7, plus India, Australia, and South Korea. This would allow us to take advantage of our united strength and more effectively deter China from using its asymmetrical bilateral relations to engage in violations of international norms. While Canada called upon the global community to defend us over Kovrig and Spavor, we do not do much about hostage diplomacy in other countries, due to concerns over what would happen if the Chinese perceived that Canada was ‘ganging up’, as they put it. 

Ultimately, we must go beyond the UN and develop an institutional basis to reinforce the values of international discourse, which protect Canada as a middle power, and which have led to wonderful prosperity and justice in the world since the end of WWII. We do not want our values and institutions destroyed by the agenda of a hostile, autocratic Chinese regime that seeks to remake global institutions in a way that will better serve the interests of itself and not the common benefit of all of humanity. I believe that there is some hope that this will come to pass, and that Canada will be forced to change our policies towards China under pressure from our like-minded allies. 

Charles Burton is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and non-resident senior fellow of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague.