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

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

Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations

From your observations, have China’s media influence campaigns reaped the desired benefits, in other words, achieved their objectives? Could you briefly touch on a few case studies and in speak to the Canadian context?

Joshua Kurlantzick: They have had some success with Xinhua, in getting picked up through content-sharing agreements with a lot of news outlets in a range of countries—although, not really so much in Canada, but more in developing countries. I do think it’s coming in richer countries because Xinhua is a cheaper alternative to newswires, like the Associated Press, or Reuters, and the journalism industry is seeking cheaper alternatives.

In other countries like Thailand, for example, elite media that are the equivalent of the Globe and Mail, the CBC, or the New York Times, are relying on Xinhua as a legitimate source. Xinhua then gets translated into Thai, then their stories are put into these prominent news outlets that are often either uncredited or have accreditation at the bottom, which people don’t pay attention to.

They have also had enormous success with taking over the Chinese language media in virtually every country in the world, including Canada. There has been a huge amount of reporting about this in Canada by the National Post, by the Vancouver Sun, Joanna Chiu, and many others, about how state entities have bought into Chinese language media. This is a substantial source of news for a fair number of people in places like Canada, the U.S., and particularly in parts of Asia, who get their news first in Chinese. Either state entities have bought into this, or pressure has been applied on the owners of Chinese language outlets in Canada and other places. These new owners have essentially fired all their independent columnists and reporters and produced essentially pro-Beijing content—that’s a huge win for China. That information then circulates on WeChat, which is a very prominent app based in China, but used by a lot of people in the Chinese diaspora community,

In my book, I use the term, “old fashioned influence,” which are things that existed since the beginning of time, before the internet, before disinformation, etc., like paying politicians, espionage, or secretly cultivating politicians. Another thing that China does is offer well-paying positions on the boards of Chinese companies, particularly Chinese state companies, to retired politicians from prominent countries.

New Zealand has been particularly vulnerable to this, where a number of prominent former New Zealand leaders, including a former prime minister, have sat on the boards of prominent Chinese companies, and that’s highly problematic. They’re not the only ones to do that though. Gerhard Schroder, the former chancellor of Germany, sat on the board of a massive Russian company, and almost until the last minute before Russia invaded Ukraine, was doing his best to defend Russia. I think China is becoming more successful with its old-fashioned influence tactics.

What are some of the tactics China has employed as it seeks to influence Canadian media, civil society, and politics? How vulnerable is a country like Canada and how could we become more resilient to China’s influence campaigns?

Joshua Kurlantzick: I don’t think there’s much Canada can do at this point about China taking over most of the Chinese language media. Most of the Chinese language media has been taken over by Canadian citizens – although there is some Chinese external influence – who, for whatever reason, are pro-Beijing. Maybe they have business interests there, or maybe they’re being pressured, but I can’t get to their mindset. You can’t stop a Canadian citizen from taking over a news outlet, and then altering the format and editorial content.

Once you start doing that, you run down an enormously slippery slope. Once you do that, what’s to stop someone from buying the National Post and switching its orientation from being fairly conservative to a completely different orientation? Once you have the government telling potential owners, who are citizens of the country, how to run the editorial policies of their news outlets, you have an even bigger problem than that of Chinese influence.

There are things you can do. The Canadian government could embark on a much more extensive digital literacy campaign, which is something that I recommend in my book. Every major developed democracy needs to make this a much higher priority, starting from kindergarten, to help people, not just Chinese language readers and speakers, determine what’s true and false in the media. It’s not only to protect people from Chinese disinformation or Chinese media but also to protect them from the netherworld of social media.

In terms of foreign influence, Canada should more aggressively move towards a situation in which they treat foreign investment in the media and communication sector, if there was to be foreign investment, as a potential national security risk, the same way it is treated in Singapore, Australia, and the United States. That doesn’t mean that deals should be rejected, but they should be treated with the same degree of caution as if a foreign company from any country was going to invest in a Canadian company whose technology could also be used for military purposes. In the past, Canada might have applied stricter scrutiny when someone wanted to make investments in airplane parts or certain types of metals that could be used in bombs and things like that. That same level of heightened scrutiny should be applied to any external investment in media and communications.

Third, Canada needs more robust information exchange between intelligence and law enforcement, and both members of parliament, and provincial and local officials, because China’s next step is to cultivate provincial and local officials who are even less knowledgeable about Chinese influence than members of parliament. Finally, I think Canada, like Australia, Singapore, the U.S., and eventually the UK and Europe, need to pass a more assertive foreign influence law that more clearly defines foreign influence in Canadian elections and civil society, as well as defines what it means for Canadian citizens themselves to advocate on behalf of a foreign power – which is a law that we have in the U.S. called the Foreign Agents Registration Act – and put those into place.

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