Author: Sandra Watson Parcels – China & Asia Team

The Interim Report

Canada is currently facing a critical moment in its history as it grapples with the urgent need to protect its democratic processes and national security from foreign interference. The release of the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions on May 3rd has prompted focus on this issue. Over the past five years, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has reported on the increasing international activity of the People's Republic of China (PRC), including efforts directed at democratic institutions, government bodies, and communities in various sectors. The interim report clarifies: "Foreign interference is not done by just one country. However, China currently stands out as the most persistent and sophisticated foreign interference threat to Canada."

Chapter four of the interim report examines China's use of foreign interference tactics, highlighting intelligence data suggesting extensive use of these methods to advance its interests. The chapter details a range of interference activities targeting various entities in Canada, including government officials, political organisations, political candidates, and diaspora communities. CSIS identifies China as a significant challenge to Canada's electoral integrity.

The report focuses on the activities of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), a key entity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with a substantial budget. The UFWD plays a central role in China's foreign interference efforts,focusing on influencing the Chinese diaspora, shaping public opinion, and persuading politicians to support China's policies. It specifically targets individuals with status or influence, such as community leaders, academics, elected officials, and media members. The report describes the UFWD as employing a long-term strategy that utilises both overt and covert methods to cultivate and strengthen relationships over time.

The scope and scale of China's activities in the Canadian elections of 2019 and 2021 are reported to be more extensive than those of any other state, impacting not only federal but also local officials and indigenous communities. The report indicates the UFWD's activities blur the lines between foreign influence and foreign interference. It details clandestine,deceptive, and threatening activity around the world, often by leveraging influence and exerting control over some diaspora communities. Other PRC state institutions involved in foreign interference activities include the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Public Security, both of which reportedly operate covertly internationally and remotely from the PRC.

Canada's Reaction

This backdrop underscores Canada's urgency in strengthening its defences against foreign interference across all fronts. Canada recognises the evolving nature of these threats and the imperative to safeguard its sovereignty and interests. While the inquiry into foreign interference represents a significant step forward in Canada's response, whether the issue has been considered with enough timeliness and decisiveness still needs to be addressed. Conservative foreign affairs critic and MP Michael Chong stated that the report is a “damning set of conclusions and findings” and that it “contradicts much of what the government has told us over that period of time.”  New Democratic Party MP Jenny Kwan said there was a “systemic failure of communications by the government to those who are targeted or impacted by foreign interference.” 

The interim report provides a sobering glimpse into the extent of foreign meddling in Canadian affairs, with particular emphasis on activities surrounding recent federal elections. In response to these revelations, the Canadian government is addressing the issue through new legislation, such as Bill C-70, introduced on May 6th, which aims to update existing laws and improve Canada’s capacity to detect, disrupt, and defend against foreign interference. Additionally, the Canadian government's allocation of funds for establishing a National Counter-Foreign Interference Office underscores the seriousness with which Canada regards this issue.

China's Response

China has strongly rejected the allegations of foreign interference. On May 8th, the state-run Global Times published two articles on the subject. 

The first article criticised Canada's efforts to address foreign interference, describing it as "The so-called China's foreign interference is nothing but a lie to serve political purposes and a drama directed and performed by Canada itself." The preliminary report raises doubts about its validity, reflecting a broader trend in some Western states to attribute electoral outcomes to external influences. The article also accused Canada of interfering in China's domestic affairs. The paper also raised concerns about Canada's actions, suggesting they might hinder positive relations. It stated, "Canada's approach risks harming its relationship with China by aligning itself with US criticisms. We urge Canada to act objectively and avoid being misled by unsubstantiated reports."

The second article focused on Canada's introduction of draft legislation to counter foreign interference. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian was quoted saying, "China has never and will never have any interest in interfering in Canada's internal affairs," dismissing claims of foreign interference as politically motivated lies. A Chinese academic commented, "The introduction of the new law based on groundless accusations of Chinese interference in Canada's elections is once again the country's attempt to fuel unfriendliness and hostility toward China domestically and internationally." The article also mentioned that Canada's new draft legislation is driven by domestic political motives, with the opposition party pushing for tougher policies towards China to challenge Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau's leadership.

China's Grand Strategy

Despite China’s reaction, China's growing global influence and its strategic aspirations are a subject of extensive international discussion. It manifests through a multifaceted approach to enhance its global influence and secure strategic advantages. Politically, concerns exist regarding its role in other countries' elections, particularly through the United Front Work Department (UFWD). Allegations of such interference have surfaced in Canada, the US and Australia. Militarily, China's activities in the East and South China Seas create tensions with neighbouring states. These activities are challenging established international maritime norms, and contravening international laws and norms. Economically, the Belt and Road Initiative extends its reach across continents, fostering dependencies through infrastructure while facing criticisms of potentially resembling neo-colonialism practices. This economic outreach often seems to often complement its military ambitions, as infrastructure projects can double as strategic military footholds. Domestically, China's human rights record, particularly in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, is under international scrutiny. Issues surrounding limitations on freedoms are a source of international concern. In cyberspace, its strategic operations involve sophisticated espionage and potential disruptions of global infrastructure, raising international alarms over cyber warfare. China's cultural diplomacy and media expansion aim to shape global perceptions and address Western influence. These efforts can be seen as attempts to manage international reactions to its policies. Collectively, these strategies reinforce China's position on the global stage and intricately interlink to influence its relationships with major world powers, crafting a complex web of influence and control.

Source: Image created by the author.

China's Strategy in Canada

China's approach in Canada shares similarities with its broader strategies internationally. Both utilise a multifaceted approach to cultivate influence and achieve strategic goals. In line with its global political ambitions, China's engagement through the UFWD with Chinese diaspora communities raises questions about potential influence on domestic politics and public opinion. This comprehensive strategy presents significant challenges to Canadian sovereignty, security, and economic interests.

In the economic and technological spheres, China's tactics include cyber espionage and strategic investments in critical sectors, raising Canada's national security concerns. Notable incidents like the Microsoft Exchange server attacks have targeted essential Canadian infrastructure, undermining data security and intellectual property. Moreover, strategic investments in sectors such as natural resources and ports might be seen as signs of China's efforts to extend its geopolitical influence within Canada, mirroring its global economic outreach.

The involvement of Chinese companies like Huawei in Canada's 5G network raised concerns about data security vulnerabilities, prompting Canada to implement restrictive measures to protect its telecommunications infrastructure. Concurrently, Chinese investments in Canadian real estate and potential political influence attempts require careful monitoring.

In the areas of soft power and cultural influence, the presence of Confucius Institutes within Canadian universities raises questions about the promotion of a selective view of Chinese culture, potentially impacting academic freedoms and shaping public perception. These institutes, alongside other UFWD activities within diaspora communities, shape Canada’s political landscape to align with China’s interests. Surveillance efforts, such as monitoring the Chinese diaspora through organisations like the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs), complement China's control operations within Canada.

In response, Canada has taken steps to address these concerns, including updates to legislation, enhanced cybersecurity measures, and the establishment of a National Counter-Foreign Interference Office.

Canada…Moving Forward

As Canada navigates this complex landscape, vigilance in defending its democratic institutions and national interests is paramount. Public Safety Canada has affirmed, "The Government of Canada takes the threat posed by foreign interference seriously and has various tools and mechanisms in place to protect individuals and Canada's interests." CSIS’s recent annual report states, "the PRC’s negative perceptions of select Canadian domestic and foreign policy initiatives may also drive more foreign interference….in 2024.” The evolving nature of these challenges demands comprehensive and multifaceted tactics, which include legislative measures, diplomatic engagement, and international cooperation. By addressing these challenges proactively, Canada will not only be upholding the integrity of its democratic processes but also asserting its sovereignty against external pressures. Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly stated, “As with past crises, multilateralism and diplomacy offer our best hope for maintaining peace and stability.”  While Canada must take decisive actions to counter interference and protect its sovereignty, it should also engage in diplomatic efforts with other states, including China, to address the issue of interference. This balanced approach combines responses to interference with diplomatic engagement where possible. Strengthening alliances with Five Eyes and other global partners, specifically in the Indo-Pacific, is crucial for effectively confronting and mitigating these risks. As these strategies continue to evolve, transparency, accountability, and community engagement are pivotal to ensure that Canadians are protected and that the democratic framework remains resilient against the covert and disruptive tactics of foreign actors. By strengthening its defences and adopting a proactive stance, Canada safeguards its sovereignty and contributes to the broader global effort to preserve democratic values and institutions, consequently enhancing stability in the world order.

Check out another China & Asia Team article on China’s Belt and Road in the Maldives by Carlotta Rinaudo.