This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By Richard Fadden, May 10, 2023
There has been much discussion of late about Chinese interference, both in our democratic processes and directed at specific individuals. In both cases, concern has arisen because that information came from leaked intelligence reports. While no one has seen the leaked material, however, it is clear that Chinese activity has taken place – confirmed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and by testimony before a House committee.
But even more recently, The Globe and Mail reported that Conservative MP Michael Chong and his family had faced “a threat” after he sponsored a parliamentary motion condemning Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang, and that CSIS had known for two years. Again, this interference activity has become public because of intelligence leaks, not because the government told Mr. Chong at the time or, indeed, the public.
His case is attracting a great deal of attention, but we should not lose sight of the fact that many other Canadians have been subjected to similar targeting over the years. CSIS reporting and complaints from Canada’s ethnic Chinese community have been flagging these attacks on our sovereignty for years. Without the leaks, it is very possible the interference activities would have continued unnoticed.
The need for Canada to push back on countries engaged in foreign interference seems increasingly clear, yet it cannot be undertaken lightly. In this respect, Ottawa’s decision to expel Zhao Wei, the Toronto-based consular official alleged to have been the interference agent in Mr. Chong’s case, is a useful first step. It remains to be seen what Beijing’s full retaliation will look like. In any event, the expulsion was necessary in defence of our sovereignty.
But between the threats against Mr. Chong and others, the reports of Chinese-run police stations operating illicitly in Canada, and the various activities meant to influence the electoral outcome in specific constituencies along with other activities, a single expulsion is not an adequate reaction. So, what can Ottawa do?
First, it has to decide whether further response can be based solely on intelligence reporting. We have to acknowledge that we are dealing with a certain degree of uncertainty. In and of itself, the leaking of intelligence is no more in the national interest than foreign interference; our national security and our credibility with allies suffer whenever we prove unable to protect our secrets. The leaker may have acted only when it became clear the government has failed to act. The Prime Minister has rejected this, suggesting that the creation of the Committee of Parliamentarians on National Security and of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency were meant to deal with this. But it is perhaps more accurate to say that those bodies were created to deal with the much broader issue – the general accountability of national security actors – and not just foreign interference.
In testimony before a House committee, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs David Morrison stated that intelligence is sometimes wrong. That is true, but it is equally true that diplomatic and media reporting are sometimes wrong. Thus, there is a need for caution before sanctioning the interfering state, but the solution must involve careful judgment being exercised at all levels, and confirmation from other sources. The fact that Chinese interference has been going on for many years in Canada – covering the mandate of several governments – also suggests that in this case intelligence is not wrong.
Then, step one would be to acknowledge the issue and brief the public to the fullest extent possible. Then, a range of steps are available, including calling in the Chinese Ambassador, expelling additional diplomats, and limiting the number of diplomatic and consular officials allowed in Canada. Other possibilities include creating a foreign agents registry (not directed exclusively at China), making foreign interference a crime, closing down Beijing’s “police stations” and not leaving this task to the RCMP, and looking carefully at other Chinese organizations that may be serving as fronts for the Chinese Communist Party.
The central point is that there are a number of tools available to a government wishing to protect our sovereignty and to protect our citizens from harassment. What may be lacking is the will to open the tool box. Absolute certainty to the level of domestic law will never be possible, nor is it necessary. But action nevertheless needs to be taken. Some of our allies have shown this is possible.
China is a world power that is not going away. Through approaches set out in the Indo-Pacific Strategy – that is, through balancing the advancement and protection of our interests – we need to find a way to co-exist while pushing back when necessary.
Richard Fadden is an MLI advisory council member, a former national security adviser to the prime minister, former deputy minister of national defence, and former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).