Canadian intelligence has tracked Chinese interference for nearly four decades: report

Security officials, in the 37-year-old report, advised that China 'continued its efforts to influence the many large Chinese communities abroad and exploit those communities for economic and political purposes.'

Canadian intelligence has tracked Chinese interference for nearly four decades: report
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese and THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
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Canadian intelligence has been aware of Chinese interference since before the Soviet Union collapsed, according to a newly released report.

The February 1986 intelligence report warned of Beijing using open political tactics and secret operations to influence and exploit the Chinese diaspora in Canada. It said China was using new and potentially more potent techniques to accomplish these goals.

In a February 21, 2020 memo, cabinet learned of a "subtle but effective foreign interference network" allegedly operated by China. 

Global News reported that according to the document, "community leaders and 'co-opted' political staffers 'under broad guidance' from the Toronto consulate serve as intermediaries between Chinese officials and the politicians Beijing was seeking to influence."

The 2020 secret memo detailing the alleged interference by the Chinese Communist Party in Canada is heavily redacted on national security grounds.

Release of the heavily redacted report, China/Canada: Interference in the Chinese Canadian Community, comes amid intensifying pressure on Parliament to hold a public inquiry into foreign interference.

The Canadian Press obtained the report through an access to information request of the federal Intelligence Advisory Committee.

The 1986 committee report "demonstrates that this issue has been on the radar of Canadian intelligence for decades," said Alan Barnes, a former intelligence analyst.

"Its reports were sent to a wide range of senior officials across government," he said, including the Privy Council Office.

Security officials in the nearly four-decade-old report advised that China "continued its efforts to influence the many large Chinese communities abroad and exploit those communities for economic and political purposes."

"In Canada, as in many other Western countries, the PRC uses both overt political activities and covert intelligence achieve those ends," it read. 

In addition to alleged foreign interference, China also has taxpayer-funded 'police stations' operating in the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal of which a few have been shut down by the RCMP.

After the public disclosure of two suspected Chinese police stations' in Québec, the RCMP unveiled it "shut down illegal police activity" in Ontario, Québec and B.C. However, the federal police service did not confirm whether they made any arrests.

In mid-March, the RCMP told reporters it looked into reports of stations operating in Vancouver and Montreal.

Alongside the Service à la Famille Chinoise du Grand Montréal (SFCGM), the RCMP investigated the Centre Sino-Québec over suspicions they fronted for China to identify, monitor, intimidate or silence critics of the CCP.

Conservative MP Michael Chong learned on May 1 that China targeted his family as part of an intimidation campaign, receiving two anonymous threats from suspected Chinese agents on the evening of May 2.

Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole informed the Commons on May 30 that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) briefed him on a Chinese-led campaign determined to discredit him and promote false narratives about his policies while party leader.

"New, potentially more effective, techniques are being used to influence the Canadian Chinese communities," read the report.

Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu believes a coordinated campaign from Beijing cost him his seat in the 2021 federal election, owing to his private member's bill on establishing a foreign-agent registry. He said it likely provoked China's network in Canada to ensure he did not win in his re-election bid.

"When I [went] door knocking…there have been supporters of mine who just shut the door in my face," said Chiu. "There [was] so much hatred that I sense."

DisinfoWatch, a foreign disinformation monitoring watchdog, also warned of a coordinated campaign against the Conservatives in 2021. Experts said the campaigns stemmed from WeChat, a Chinese instant messaging service.

Cheuk Kwan, co-chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said the report's contents do not surprise him.

Kwan said China's efforts to influence the Chinese diaspora to interfere in Canadian affairs date back to the early 1980s and intensified following the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

"But certainly, they knew what they were trying to do. It was not an accident," he said. Though he contends the interference happened at "a very low level" in those days.

In February, The Globe and Mail cited allegations from CSIS that China used a "sophisticated strategy" to interfere in the 2021 federal election.

Top-secret CSIS documents outline how Beijing directed Chinese students studying in Canada to work as campaign volunteers and illegally returned portions of donations. They also explained how China spread misinformation and provided undeclared cash donations in the 2021 election.

According to anonymous security sources, Chinese diplomats and their proxies worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered "hostile" towards Beijing during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. 

A series of security leaks to the media from anonymous sources have prompted CSIS to investigate who leaked highly classified information on Chinese election interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Kwan said while a public inquiry could help document the history of Chinese interference in Canada, it would be "looking backwards," not "[helping] going forward."

On May 23, special rapporteur David Johnston reached several conclusions about the allegations of foreign interference, including the "growing threat" posed by foreign governments attempting to influence political candidates.

He acknowledged that common interference tactics included 'disinformation' campaigns and the "abuse of human relationships" but clarified that "individual pieces of intelligence must be viewed with skepticism."

However, Johnston did not recommend a public inquiry as a public review of classified intelligence "cannot be done."

He did articulate that the media "misconstrued" leaked materials without the "benefit of the full context," adding, "Foreign interference is not usually embodied in discrete one-off pieces of intelligence."

Barnes added that the partial release of the 1986 intelligence report demonstrates that Canada needs a proper system to declassify historical intelligence and security records after some time.

He noted that Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance — including the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand — without a declassification process for historical records.

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