CSIS says China 'weaponized' WeChat to defeat conservatives in 2021: report

The October 2022 CSIS document detailed China's plot to interfere in Canada's recent elections using traditional media and WeChat, a Chinese instant messaging service.

CSIS says China 'weaponized' WeChat to defeat conservatives in 2021: report
The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press / Frank Gunn, and The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick
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An October 2022 CSIS report confirmed that China 'weaponized' an instant messaging service to target the 2021 conservatives and secure Trudeau a minority government.

According to The Bureau, the CSIS document validated concerns held by former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole and former MP Kenny Chiu, both alleged victims of Chinese 'disinformation.' 

DisinfoWatch, a foreign disinformation monitoring watchdog, also warned of a coordinated campaign against the conservatives in 2021. Experts said the movements stemmed from WeChat.

O'Toole informed the Commons in May that he received a CSIS briefing on a Chinese plot to promote false narratives about his policies while party leader. 

According to O'Toole, China funded a "sophisticated misinformation and voter suppression campaign" on WeChat that neither CSIS nor the federal government flagged at the time.

"The briefing from CSIS confirmed to me what I suspected for quite some time, that my parliamentary caucus and myself were the targets of a sophisticated misinformation and voter suppression campaign orchestrated by the People's Republic of China before and during the 2021 general election," he said.

In a June 2022 podcast, the former Conservative leader claimed his party lost "about eight or nine seats" due to Chinese interference, adding he could have had a stronger case to remain party leader had the party won those seats.

The CSIS document detailed China's plot to interfere in Canada's recent elections using traditional media and WeChat to affect political outcomes.

Across multiple ridings, Conservative candidates received significantly fewer votes at the polls in 2021 compared to 2019.

In 2019, Ontario MP Bob Saroya received over 26,000 votes. His support plummeted by 7,000 in the next election, leading to his defeat. His Liberal counterpart, Paul Chiang, earned nearly 22,000 votes — only 1,500 more votes than the previous Liberal candidate.

In B.C., former Conservative MP Alice Wong won the seat for Richmond Centre in 2015 with more than 17,000 votes and in 2019 with more than 19,000 votes. However, her vote count fell to 13,440 votes in 2021, and she lost her re-election bid.

Conservative MP Kenny Chiu lost after receiving 4,400 fewer votes in 2021 than in 2019. Nearly half translated into swing votes for his Liberal challengers.

The lame-duck MP claims his private member's bill to establish a foreign-agent registry provoked China's network in Canada to ensure he did not win in his re-election bid.

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

"Between 2015 and 2019, there are four years. Between 2019 and 2021, there are 22 months, and all of that [time] it's all pandemic and full of government scandals." 

The CSIS document adds further clarity to findings from a new Australian government report that cited Chiu's WeChat allegations and questioned the federal government's response to foreign meddling by China.

An August 2023 Australian Senate Committee report concluded that Chinese foreign interference is a 'principal national security threat,' and that Chinese social media apps pose "unique national security risks."

The committee described interference as secretive foreign activity meant "to corrupt our decision-making, political discourse and societal norms."

"The scale, speed and ease at which these activities can be conducted online means social media is increasingly being weaponized to spread disinformation to deliberately mislead," it said.

According to the intelligence assessment, Chinese interference has increased as more immigrants from Mainland China settled in Canada.

"WeChat is a Chinese-language social media platform that is widely used by the broader diaspora to maintain links back to family in China and to consume Chinese-language media and news," reads the CSIS document.

"However, the platform is subject to the CCP's cyber regulations and is heavily censored. During GE44 [Canada's 2021 election], disinformation activities targeting the Conservative Party of Canada and a CPC candidate were [conducted on WeChat]."

O'Toole believes Chiu is the first Conservative candidate to be the victim of Chinese 'disinformation.'

O'Toole said that the 2021 Conservatives asked Canadian officials to intervene and warn Chinese communities of 'disinformation' on WeChat, but SITE, Ottawa's election-interference monitor, dismissed the party's complaint.

Under a federal protocol, if an incident or an accumulation of incidents threatened the integrity of Canada's electoral process, the feds would have made a public announcement.

"This [October 2022 CSIS] document shows the government has not only been deficient in countering this threat," O'Toole said, "but they actively worked to minimize concerns about it."

The third is MP Michael Chong, who Global Affairs Canada (GAC) told that China conducted a 'foreign smear campaign' against him through WeChat.

As first reported by The Canadian Press, the department claims a coordinated network of news accounts dispersed a large volume of false or misleading narratives about Chong from May 4 to 13.

While the information didn't directly threaten Chong or his family, GAC said it made false claims about his background, political stances and relatives.

GAC stumbled across the messages coincidentally during the spring as part of their ongoing efforts to monitor foreign interference on social media.

They said it is 'highly probable' that China orchestrated the false and misleading postings, though the claim cannot be verified as of writing.

On May 1, the MP learned of a coordinated campaign against his person and family by diplomat Wei Zhao — unbeknown to him for years — over his parliamentary motion condemning Beijing's treatment of the Uyghurs as a "genocide" on February 18, 2021. 

One week later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered the expulsion of the Chinese diplomat.

The CSIS document also invalidated the report by Trudeau's special rapporteur David Johnston, who relied on SITE's rejection of WeChat 'disinformation' evidence.

He concluded that Beijing did not disfavour any party in the 2021 election.

"There is certainly a possibility that some part of the Chinese Canadian community did not agree with the (Conservative party's) position on China […] this is not foreign interference; it is the democratic process," said Johnston's report on Chinese election interference.

On May 23, he said it was 'unclear' if the information campaigns against Conservatives came from a state-sponsored source and if Chinese Canadians legitimately disagreed with the Conservative's hardline stance on China.

He later attributed that to the "democratic process," not foreign interference.

According to prior media reports, CSIS has been aware of Chinese interference since before the Soviet Union collapsed, according to a report released last month.

A February 1986 intelligence report warned of China 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.

Security officials in the nearly four-decade-old report advised they "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 operations...to achieve those ends," it read.


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