How Pervasive and Systematic is Beijing’s Interference in Canada’s Democracy?

Charles Burton, Joshua Kurlantzick, David Mulroney, & Clive Hamilton

In this Expert Series, we delve into the growing concern over China’s alleged interference and influence operations in Canada. Our roster of experts includes MLI senior fellow Charles Burton, former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney, founder of the Australia Institute Clive Hamilton, and Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book “Beijing’s Global Media Offensive.”

We discuss the extent of China’s interference attempts in Canada’s democratic processes, the government’s response to it, and Canada’s ability to counter attempts by foreign actors to influence its politics, government, and elections. Additionally, we examine the efficacy of Beijing’s global media offensive and what lessons Canada can learn from other countries like Australia, which have faced similar challenges with Chinese foreign interference.

Charles Burton, Senior Fellow, Macdonald-Laurier Institute

Could you describe what Beijing’s foreign interference looks like in Canada? For instance, how systematic or pervasive do you think this interference is, and what do you think it might look like across our various levels of government?

Charles Burton: One is election interference, which has been documented in the CSIS documents and is inclined to be more pervasive at lower levels of government. This is because of the lack of monitoring of local elections, and the Chinese Communist Party United Front Work Department’s strategy of trying to make people at lower government levels beholden to the Chinese regime, in the hopes they will assist China in implementing its agenda in Canada when they reach a higher office. So, illegal campaign contributions, and assisting in other ways in elections are certainly what we see a lot of and have been a major feature of the recent leaks of CSIS documents.

There is also a tendency to target people who have influence in the policy process, through the promise of lucrative opportunities for those who are seen as not having opposed China’s agenda in Canada while in office. We see a number of former cabinet ministers and senior civil servants who dealt with China ending up on boards, directorships, and receiving business opportunities, in which they can significantly enrich themselves after leaving public office. However, people who would be associated with countering China’s malign activities in Canada would not be extended these opportunities.

This has been quite effective for the Chinese regime and has had the effect of dampening criticism of Chinese malign activities. It could also be the reason behind these leaked intelligence assessments, where the leaker typically explains that they are leaking because they are so frustrated by the lack of governmental response even after briefings. It really is a matter of getting to the bottom of this and clearing it up. I am confident that it could be done relatively easily if there’s the political will to address this serious issue.

CSIS documents allege that China sought to ensure the Liberal government won a minority government in 2021. What interest would Beijing have in ensuring the current Liberal government stays in power? What is the strategic value to China?

Charles Burton: There is the idea of elite capture, where the influential people in the Canadian policy process become beholden to Chinese interests because they can receive benefits associated with that regime. The promise of benefits after leaving public service is significant, and that extends to both the Liberal and Conservative parties. But there is maybe a greater consolidation of this issue in the current government, which could explain why we are seeing such resistance to Canada enacting legislation comparable to Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, which would require people who receive benefits from a foreign state to publicly declare them.

It came out relatively late in the game when Jean Charest was running for the Conservative Party leadership, that he had been the recipient of a retainer from the Huawei company for some time, being the benefactor of considerable amounts of money. If we knew that when Mr. Charest was holding the position that Canada should support Huawei’s bid for access to our 5G telecommunications networks, that might have coloured people’s perceptions of whether this was something that would be good for Canada or not.

People who are receiving benefits from a foreign state should declare it publicly, however, we don’t know the extent to which this is going on. If the Australian example is any indicator of similar activities in Canada, it would be quite significant, and that may explain why we see so much disinformation and delay in bringing such legislation to the fore. The disinformation being that enacting this legislation would lead to anti-Chinese racism, comparable to the Exclusion Act of the 1920s, whose 100th anniversary is just upon us. This is complete and utter nonsense, but it’s certainly an effective device to try and convince people to stay away from any act that requires politically influential people to reveal their foreign sources of income.

With the government’s response to these alleged interference attempts in mind, could you comment on the appointment of David Johnston to head the inquiry into Chinese interference allegations?

Charles Burton: I was surprised that Mr. Johnston accepted the role, considering that he’s on the record as having stated his close friendship with the prime minister, who is certainly one of the targets for investigation. He is also on the record for his extensive dealings with China, not to speak of his membership in the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, which had to return a $200,000 donation from a Chinese source, because of perceptions of improperness in accepting Chinese regime-associated money.

If I had been Mr. Johnston and had been asked by the prime minister to undertake this role, I would have turned it down simply because of the perception that there may be a conflict of interest and that he cannot be fully unbiased. It’s not necessarily a suggestion that Mr. Johnston would not be able to overcome these perceptions of bias. However, the perception is there, and that debases any conclusions he comes to during the investigation. If he says there is no need for a public inquiry, people may assume that’s because he wants to protect friends. If he says there is a need for a public inquiry, it could be seen as him trying to overcompensate for the perception that he has a conflict of interest in this matter.

I think he’s a problematic appointment and am sorry that he is the one. That being said, we don’t have a tradition of Special Rapporteurs in Canada—that role has never existed before. Its language is used to refer to unpaid investigators on behalf of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. The job itself is problematic. What we really need is a special prosecutor, not a special rapporteur.

You said in a previous article of yours, “Canada’s Relationship with China,” that “the history of Canada-China relations to the present day can be characterized by a push and pull dynamic of contradictory forces of economic attraction and political repulsion.” Could you elaborate upon this for context?

Charles Burton: There has always been a split in Canadian cabinets, Liberal and Conservative, between those who feel that the main priority of Canada-China relations is to promote Canadian prosperity through enhanced trade and investment with China. And the idea that all the other issues in the relationship, such as Chinese espionage, state harassment of people in Canada, and violations of the universal norms of human rights as identified by the UN, including the genocide in the Uyghur regions, should be subordinated to this larger issue of diversifying Canada’s economic dependence away from the United States, and creating more jobs.

Maybe within the Liberal government, there’s been a greater consensus on this point that Canada can’t do anything significant about these issues, or that they are worth paying the costs to ensure we have markets in China. This has been a dynamic that’s gone back and forth. I think a lot of it is based on false assumptions about the significance of our relationship with China, economically, to Canadian economic prosperity.

Less than 5% of our external commodity trade goes to China, and most of it comprises minerals and agricultural products. The need for us to compromise Canadian values in the interest of economic benefits is not actually borne out by the fact of the matter. A lot of Canadians believe that Canada’s economy is much more dependent on China, and therefore, we are more open to China’s economic coercion than is, in fact, the case.

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