Activists, experts and policy makers speak out on Chinese state influence in Canada

Activists, experts and policy makers are speaking out on what they describe as an ever-growing “influence” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Canadian business, academic and political circles.

There has been mounting scrutiny on the CCP’s increased flexing of its intelligence muscles since the ascension of President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Canada’s intelligence agencies have taken the rare step of naming China as a significant threat to the country’s sovereignty, with CSIS director David Vigneault publicly saying in a February 2021 speech that Canadians are being “aggressively” targeted by foreign interests – and Beijing was engaged in “activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

The redacted version of the 2020 National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) annual report said “the threat from espionage and foreign interference is significant and continues to grow” and that “intelligence shows that China and Russia remain the primary culprits.”

In the recent parliamentary meeting of the Special Committee on Canada-China relations (CACN), Carolyn Bartholomew, chair of the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, testified that the “shared values” of Canada and the U.S. are “increasingly in conflict with and under assault” by the CCP.

Citing comments from FBI Director Christopher Wray, Bartholomew told the committee that there isn’t “any country that presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideals” than China.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists say they have been wary of reporting harassment and silencing tactics to Canadian authorities, that they attribute to CCP agents, because of “large scale infiltration” of Chinese state interests in Canada.

“Under the Chinese Communist regime, Chinese Communist Party members have an executive decision role in all of the companies and NGOs that operate out of China,” Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, explained to CTVNews.ca in an interview.

Wong’s observations were seconded by Charles Burton, senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute and an expert on Canada-China relations.

“All business enterprises in China, whether they're state-owned enterprises or non- state-owned enterprises, have at the peak of their organization the Chinese Communist Party branch, which coordinates the activities of every organization so that it serves the interests of all,” Burton said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca.

Burton, using the example of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, said that “under Chinese law, all Chinese citizens are required to cooperate with the Chinese intelligence and security services if asked…If the Chinese state wanted to use Huawei to obtain personal data files or to identify means to sabotage critical infrastructure, then they would be required to provide that.”

Huawei did not respond to repeated requests for comment from CTVNews.ca.

Burton said the ultimate goal of the CCP’s interference in Canada is to “render Canada subordinate to China as the superior power,” and supersede their cultural and political values to Canada’s which he describes as an “enormously ambitious scheme.”

“Whether it’s feasible in terms of implementation is highly debatable,” he said, adding that this belief hinges on CCP messaging that the West is in decline, and China will fill a power vacuum previously filled by the U.S.

UNITED FRONT WORK DEPARTMENT

A member of the pro-democracy group Halifax Hong Kong link, who CTV News has agreed not to name out of fear of reprisals, said a vast CCP network operating in Canada is the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

The UFWD was a Leninist concept adopted by the Chinese communists and what Chairman Mao referred to as one of the three treasures of the Dharma, or “magical weapons,” Burton explained. The other two treasures are the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the CCP itself.

The UFWD is “designed to sort of pave the way for the Chinese Communist Party’s longer-term plan,” he said.

CACN Chairperson Bartholomew called the UFWD a “major tool for CCP influence” which seeks to “co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of the CCP” and “influence non-ethnic Chinese foreign elites.”

The “elites” are usually politicians or businesses with a lot of social capital and influence, and are co-opted “through offering them benefits to at least passively collaborate with the purpose of the party,” Burton said.

“We do see the phenomenon of Canadian policymakers who are not aggressive in challenging the threats of the People's Republic of China in Canada, who after retirement receive board memberships and other benefits from Chinese Communist Party associated institutions that allow them to prosper in retirement,” he said.

However, Bartholomew added at the parliamentary meeting that in light of increasing anti-Asian hate crimes, any discussion of UFWD or CCP influence has to be “careful to always draw a distinction between the CCP and the Chinese people.”

Bartholomew said one of the major targets for the UFWD is Chinese-language media in non-Chinese countries, which they “seek to co-opt or outright control,” ensuring the CCP controls the flow of information available to Chinese speakers. She used the example of the China News Service as a media agency controlled by the UWFD.

MOBILIZING STUDENTS

The UFWD also “offers benefits and support” for Chinese students on campuses, Bartholomew said, and in return the students are “expected to rebut any criticism of the CCP and encourage the support for the CCP’s global rise.”

She said uncooperative students face “leverage” such as threatening family members back in China.

Stephanie Carvin, an ex-Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analyst and associate professor of international relations at Carleton University, said tracking and tracing activities by the UFWD are difficult.

“We have seen direct links between the [Chinese] consulate to the embassies and, for example, student groups,” Carvin explained, citing the 2019 case of Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush’s speech at McMaster University. WeChat messages from Chinese student groups showed they coordinated with the Chinese officials to try to stymie the talk and report on which academics attended.

“But other than that, when you see people protesting and stuff like this, how do you prove they're doing it on behalf of a government or on behalf of a government agency?” she said.

Burton said there are “an awful lot of Chinese diplomats in Canada” who have education offices that engage with the Chinese student and scholar associations to “obtain information about what’s going on on campus and possibly facilitate the transfer of technologies that are developed on campus to China.”

“They mobilize these students for various forms of protest, and I think it's very difficult for a student from the People's Republic of China in Canada to refuse a request of their local consulate or embassy because of the pervasive use of files…the embassy could put a negative note in someone's file that could inhibit their ability to have a successful career in China,” said Burton.

In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, CSIS said they “provide regular unclassified briefings to Canadian entities across a number of important sectors, including Canadian universities, research institutes, and businesses, to ensure they are aware of the threat environment.”

“These threats include espionage that targets sensitive data, technological innovation, intellectual as well as foreign interference through the covert manipulation, harassment, and coercion of students and faculty.”

CSIS did not respond to specific queries or allegations, but in its 2020 public report released this month, states “the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and other foreign states continued to covertly gather political, economic, and military information in Canada through targeted threat activities in support of their own state development goals.”

CONFUCIUS INSTITUTES

Every activist interviewed by CTVNews.ca alleged the Confucius Institutes sprinkled across Canada and affiliated with various Canadian academic bodies, had ties to the CCP and the UFWD and was an extension of the propaganda wing of the CCP.

Bartholomew said Confucius Institutes serve as a “tool” on campuses to control Chinese students who are there to spread the CCP’s “worldview” and serve as a “platform for espionage.”

There are approximately 13 active Confucius Institutes across Canada.

A member of the Halifax Hong Kong Link group said Confucius Institutes use all-expense paid trips to China for Canadian academics and school administrators as a way of gaining favour, trust and being able to ask for “favours” in return. They also allege that the classes offered or any other cultural exchange programs will show “alternative, revisionist” versions of historical events that are in line with CCP messaging – such as that Uyghurs are in “re-education camps.”

“Being associated with a propaganda wing of an authoritarian regime should raise an alarm in Canadian spaces, but yet we have accepted it because it is not really talked about in the mainstream,” Wong said.

A spokesperson for Renison University College in Ontario, which has a Confucius Institute operating on its campus, said in a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca that they “strongly reject the allegations” put forward by both the activists and the parliamentary committee.

Despite allegations against the Confucius Institute stretching back several years, the spokesperson for Renison said the allegations, “in our opinion, reflect the anti-Asian sentiment that has erupted in the wake of the global pandemic.”

The school did not return further requests for comment by time of publication.

The Edmonton Public School Board also defended its ties with the organization, saying in an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca that “Edmonton Public Schools has not experienced challenges with the Confucius Institute in regard to claims mentioned. Programming in our schools must align with our Division’s priorities of accountability, collaboration, equity and integrity.”

The statement did acknowledge that delegates from the Edmonton Public School Board have previously travelled to China to “review and sign” the agreements between the two bodies, which provided “enhanced learning experiences for our staff and in turn, our students.”

Burton, however, summed up the Confucius Institutes as “troubling.”

INSIDE CANADA’S RESEARCH INSTITUTIONS

Campuses and research institutions are a big arena for CCP state interests and the UFWD, said Executive Director of Community Family Services Ontario Anna V. Wong (no relation to Cherie Wong).

“I do know that there are faculties that are heavily supported by foreign funding and if we cannot manage that in a responsible way, they may quickly become a self-censored organization,” Anna V. Wong said in an interview with CTVNews.ca, saying the universities or labs may “censor” themselves or “dissenting” voices so as not to lose funding.

Bartholomew called UFWD’s actions on campuses a “direct threat to academic freedom.”

Cherie Wong highlighted the target that research funding presents to China and other state actors.

“As Canada cuts research funding for local researchers, they are looking elsewhere for the funding and very often Chinese researchers, specifically in the field of A.I. and tech and science research, they will come in with large amounts of funding and resources and data and whatever the researchers may want and say ‘no questions asked,’” she said.

According to Wong, after the funding and resources are given, the Chinese body will ask for the intellectual property rights to the project, and “ultimately our Canadian intellectual property [is] transferred back to Chinese property.”

Wong said this exchange creates a “dependency” where researchers in Canada will continue to seek foreign funding to continue their projects.

“This is where infiltration begins to happen, because once that reliance and dependency has been developed, that Chinese actor can say ‘we need you to also do this so that you could get your funding later,’” she said.

The NSICOP report reiterated Wong’s observations, saying CSIS has determined China and Russia “are targeting the same types of science and technology in which the Government of Canada is investing.”

The report said that “China uses ‘talent programs’ and academic exchanges to exploit Canadian expertise,” citing the “Thousand Talents Program” established in 2008 which is currently under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

The program is alleged to encourage ethnically-Chinese scientists abroad to bring their research to China and therefore transfer the intellectual property to CCP.

Bartholomew said post-secondary institutions have become “way too dependent” on foreign funding and called for transparency in what “scientists and researchers are taking money from what Chinese company or the Chinese government.”

HUAWEI AND 5G

Canada remains the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence group that has not announced a decision on whether to restrict Huawei from its 5G network.

Bartholomew said Huawei is at the heart of “China’s promotion of techno-authoritarianism,” and said that “smart cities” who use their service are “allowing the Chinese government access, directly or indirectly” to infrastructure like traffic control and water supplies.

“I think the concept that they are free and independent of the Chinese government is ridiculous,” she said, referencing recent reports that Huawei was allegedly able to monitor all calls made on the Netherlands’ largest mobile networks KPN.

In Canada, Cherie Wong used the example of the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), which is a federal agency, partnering with Huawei to invest $4.8 million into technology research, with fears that the research could serve Chinese interests.

In 2018, the University of Toronto renewed its research partnership with Huawei for another five years - the telecom company has funnelled millions of dollars into various university projects since 2016.

Huawei has been repeatedly criticized for its alleged role in the CCP’s internment of Uyghur minority Muslims in camps, where there are allegations of widespread abuse, torture and sexual assault. In January the company backtracked on a patent for facial recognition software that could identify Uyghurs and send out an “alarm” to authorities.

The Chinese government denies all allegations about the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, instead referring to them as “re-education camps.”

The federal Communications Security Establishment (CSE) declined to answer specific queries on Huawei or other cybersecurity threats due to the “sensitivities related to foreign intelligence and cyber security operations,” but highlighted their National Cyber Threat Assessment 2020 report, which outlines how state-sponsored activity, including from China, is "generally the most sophisticated malicious activity targeting Canadians and Canadian organizations."

The CSE said "the threat of cyber espionage is almost certainly higher for Canadian organizations that work abroad or work directly with foreign state-owned enterprises. In addition, online foreign influence campaigns are almost certainly ongoing and are no longer limited to key political events like elections.”

The RCMP said in a statement to CTVNews.ca the organization is “aware of foreign actor interference activity in Canada, from China and other foreign states. Various methods and techniques are in place to combat foreign actor interference within the RCMP’s mandate.” They did not address specific questions posed by CTVNews.ca or the allegations levelled by the activists.

TARGETING COVID-19 RESEARCH

In addition to academic circles and campus spaces, the NSICOP report and CSIS report highlighted that Russia and China were targeting Canadian COVID-19 research.

“Canada’s research, biopharmaceutical and life sciences sectors, while already of interest to foreign threat actors, became even more valuable targets as the world raced to develop a vaccine, therapeutics, and other measures to combat COVID-19,” the CSIS report says.

In March, a Canadian vaccine researcher alleged that Chinese government interference derailed a COVID-19 vaccine partnership between the two countries.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not answer queries on specific allegations levelled by the activists or the reports by Canada’s federal security agencies, emailing a one-line response to CTVNews.ca that “such allegation has no factual basis at all, it is nothing but self-hype and malicious slanders, attempting to sabotage prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Xizang [sic].”

IS CANADA’S POLICY LACKING?

Carvin said in light of CSIS and other security agencies naming state actors like China as direct threats to Canada’s sovereignty, there has been pressure to adopt an Australian-style law to address any gaps in the National Security Act.

Australia’s “Espionage and Foreign Interference Act” which was brought into parliament in 2018, strengthened their existing laws and introduced new offences for being “knowingly” funding or being funded by a foreign intelligence agency.

Burton thinks Canada “ought to initiate such legislation,” but warned that it would be very hard for political parties to initiate it as it “could lead to exposure of prominent…and very senior Canadian officials” who are implicated in CCP influence operations.

“There’s a tendency to turn a blind eye to this kind of activity,” Burton said, adding the fact that the federal government hasn’t censured any Chinese diplomats or arrested anyone involved in the harassment of people in Canada “on behalf of the Chinese regime is pretty telling.”

Bartholomew said that Canada should adopt a registration act, such as the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act – which requires the registration of all staff of Chinese state-run entities, media or otherwise – “given that Chinese intelligence gather and information warfare efforts are known to involve staff of Chinese state-run organizations.”

That idea was echoed by expert in CCP political interference, Professor Anne-Marie Brady from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury in the CACN meeting.

“We need the system of registering foreign agents, we need the right of transparency that would enable the public and companies to make good decisions about who they’re partnering with in China,” she said.

Brady said Canada can expect political interference and “mass collection” of intelligence by the CCP under Xi Jinping’s leadership “indefinitely,” and that Canada is in an unbalanced situation when it comes to what it will and won’t sanction in terms of intelligence operations – “we are not fighting equally.”

Carvin said there are some solid steps she thinks the government should take.

“I think we need to have a foreign interference coordinator, there’s little things being done in multiple departments across the federal government…but I don't know to the extent that someone is kind of coordinating across these various departments and agencies,” she said.

Carvin said the advantage of having a coordinator with an “oversight view of everything” is that they could take the intelligence and briefings done at the federal level and use the information to brief provincial and ministerial levels of government in turn to assist them in seeing the “bigger picture.”

INTER-AGENCY CO-OPERATION IS POOR

Former senior CSIS intelligence officer and manager Michel Juneau-Katsuya said at the CACN committee meeting that CSIS spends over half its time dealing with foreign influence from China.

“We see much more interference taking place, many more agents of influence have gained very strategic positions at all three levels of government, municipal, provincial and federal,” Juneau-Katsuya said. “When it comes to prosecution, one problem that exists is within our own system.”

He said that prosecution for foreign interference is the responsibility of the RCMP, but they have been “out of the game” and “lost the ability to investigate spy activities” since CSIS’ creation in 1984 - and inter-agency co-operation is poor.

“CSIS does not play well with the other kids in the schoolyard, they don't share information that well. They don't share information as they should be sharing information…we have to readjust this,” Juneau-Katsuya said.

Brady agreed, saying that CSIS does not share information publicly “as it should.”

She suggested Canada follow Finland’s example and provide regular courses on disinformation to the public.

Carvin said there’s still “a lot of room for improvement” with how Canadian security agencies operate, but that she believes they are “better than where they used to be.”

“We shouldn't confuse outreach with transparency, those are two very different things,” she said. “Transparency remains a problem in national security.”

Carvin said security agencies and the government have a balancing act when it comes to national security.

“Even as you recognize these threats, we need to do it in such a way that we're smart about our decisions, that we're not just panicking,” she said. “China, for example, is a sixth of the world's population. You can't ignore that, you can't cut yourself off from that.”

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Edited by Phil Hahn