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

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

David Mulroney, Former Canadian Ambassador to China

Could describe some of the tactics Beijing uses to interfere in our government and civil society? Could you also comment on how systematic this interference is in Canadian society?

David Mulroney: One of the things that I have seen happen is that China essentially insinuates itself into levels of governance. It convinces people, including Canadian politicians, that it has a role in the governance of certain parts of Canadian society, particularly in areas where there are diaspora communities. Among the things I found most unsettling were descriptions of alleged Chinese police stations, that you will recall were operating, I think, in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. These were places where members of the diaspora were interrogated, often for financial crimes, but also for other issues with the Chinese state. One of the things that unsettled me was that some of the people in the diaspora who were asked about it afterward said they called Canadian police, only to be told that this was an issue for Chinese police as if Chinese police have some authority in Canada.

So, one of the things that I think is most dangerous is false authority. In a recent Op-ed, I described the scene at Chinese New Year’s events in Canada, where Canadian politicians join in paying tribute to the presiding Chinese functionary and the Chinese anthem. Chinese New Year isn’t a political event, and it shouldn’t be politicized, but our own politicians contribute to that. We are also seeing reports that the Chinese consulate and embassy are reaching out to Canadian businesses to say, “You are seeking to build your business in China, but the MP in your riding is unhelpful. You should think about whom you donate to.” That’s a sophisticated, pernicious, and dangerous new development, but it shows what happens when you don’t pay attention to Chinese interference.

There has been some debate over expelling Chinese diplomats. In your estimation, would expelling Chinese diplomats be worth the potential ramifications or retaliation that might ensue? Beyond diplomatic expulsion, could you describe some of the other measures the federal government could employ to address foreign interference?

David Mulroney: It drives me crazy, to tell you the truth, when I see people writing and saying we can’t afford to expel Chinese diplomats, because of the tit-for-tat retaliation. If you’re not prepared to do that, then you’re completely supine, and you’re leaving yourself open. Any Chinese diplomat who’s involved in interfering in Canadian society and threatening Canadians should be expelled. Yes, it would lead to retaliation. And possibly the Chinese would over-retaliate—they might expel two Canadian diplomats. But the benefit of breaking up a Chinese interference operation, and the message it sends to Beijing, would be more than worth the effort. So, I really don’t understand why that’s not possible.

The other thing you can do is use the law itself, particularly when it comes to consulates. I can recall a case that I was involved in many years ago, where a Chinese diplomat slandered a Canadian citizen in the pages of a Canadian newspaper. The issue related to Falun Gong protests, and the diplomat was at the consulate, not the embassy. Ultimately, the diplomat was sued by the Canadian. The Chinese embassy contacted us in Ottawa – I was running the Asia branch – and said, “Well, please make sure that this goes away because this is one of our diplomats.” And I had to say, “No, he’s one of your consular officials. Consular immunity does not extend as broadly as diplomatic immunity, and the lawsuit can proceed.”

The Chinese went ballistic and raised hell with us for a month, but we did not attempt to intervene. We had no standing to intervene. The result was that the Chinese, at the last minute, pulled the consular official. Something similar just happened in Manchester in the UK, so you can use the law if you stick to your guns and are tough enough, and it has the desired effect.

According to some reports that are coming out, Beijing did have an interest in ensuring that the Liberal Party was re-elected. If reports are true, and the CCP did indeed attempt to interfere with the 2019 and 2021 elections, what strategic value does the current government have for China, if any? Why would Beijing be interested in ensuring that this current government was re-elected, in your opinion?

Two reasons. One is that the Prime Minister has made no secret that he’s long been enchanted with China. He tried to walk back his earlier statement that he admires China’s basic dictatorship. But I believe that he’s always shown an alarming degree of naivete with respect to China. This was most evident to me when he went to China to negotiate a “progressive” free trade agreement, one that would therefore require China to change many of its laws and customs. The PM actually believed that he could persuade the Communist Party of China to do that. And then he proceeded to try and negotiate the text by himself. We see here the marks of a rookie, and the marks of someone whose approach to China is hugely uncritical. The other vulnerability we have is that this government is not particularly competent. Moving against existing PRC influence and interference will require a high degree of coordination and coherence across government; something that is completely lacking. So China, which is adept at finding open doors left unattended, or weak points, exploits Canada in ways that it probably couldn’t in a country that is better governed.

More generally, why do you think Canada might be an attractive target for interference? How vulnerable do you think we are now, and do you have faith in our resilience to combat this foreign interference in the long run?

David Mulroney: Canada is a target because we’re a source of technologies. We’re an increasingly important resource partner for China, and China is going to face major resource shortages in the not-too-distant future. We’re a target because we have a large diaspora community. Because we are very lackadaisical when it comes to enforcing laws on things like money laundering, or trafficking in women, crimes that nest alongside interference operations. But mostly because we also represent an amazing window of opportunity on the United States.

I have to say, quite honestly, that my confidence in our ability to withstand Chinese interference and influence operations is declining. And one of the things I found most shocking captured my attention during the Meng Wanzhou affair. You will recall that Canada arrested the CFO of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms company because she was wanted on charges in the United States. We were following our extradition treaty. I was shaken by the number of prominent Canadians, who seemed to be saying, “Resistance is futile. China’s simply too big and powerful. We’re going to have to set aside our extradition treaty with the United States, our most important ally, to really dance to Beijing’s tune.” There was a sense of moral fatigue and defeatism in the country that I hadn’t detected before. So, whereas even five years ago, I would have expressed confidence, I do think there has been a steady erosion of backbone among people who have a profound influence in Canada. And it worries me, it worries me deeply.

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