Given rising Sino-Canadian tensions, Ottawa needs to contend with the possibility of election interference by Beijing, writes J. Michael Cole. 

By J. Michael Cole, July 9, 2019

Following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US elections and growing evidence of interference by authoritarian regimes in other democracies, it is now feared that Canada’s federal elections in October could become the latest target in a mounting challenge to democratic processes worldwide.

While attention has rightly focused on Russia, Ottawa also needs to contend with the possibility of interference by Beijing. At the heart of rising apprehensions about China’s interference is the escalating dispute over the arrest and possible extradition to the US by Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 on suspicion of fraud and breaching US sanctions on Iran.

Canada’s arrest of one of its “princesses” is seen as an affront to Beijing’s dignity by what the Chinese regime regards as, at best, a “middle power.” Indeed, it seems to have convinced senior cadres in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the need to teach Canada a lesson. Among the retaliatory measures adopted by Beijing, two Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, have been detained by Chinese authorities and face charges of engaging in espionage. In addition to hostage-taking, the CCP has weaponized trade by banning imports of canola oil, primarily from parts of Canada that have historically been a vulnerability for the Liberal Party in election time.

Beijing’s arguably disproportionate response to the Meng incident seems to have failed to compel the Trudeau government to intervene in judicial processes surrounding Meng’s extradition. As a result, the Chinese regime now has every reason to regard the upcoming elections as an opportunity to secure Meng’s release and to engineer the election of a future government that is more to its liking.

The CCP can draw from a variety of techniques it has already perfected in its efforts to sway other democracies, among them Taiwan, the island-nation whose territory it covets and whose people have stubbornly refused to yield to Beijing’s designs. If past practices are any reflection of its strategy, it is conceivable that the CCP will escalate its economic warfare against Canada by targeting other sectors of the economy and export-reliant parts of the country, with the aim of alienating those ridings from the current government in Ottawa. Given the large number of accredited Chinese “diplomats” in Canada, we can assume that Beijing has thoroughly studied those areas of vulnerability so as to maximize the weaponization of trade in an electoral context.

Using the age-old divide-and-conquer approach, the CCP could also seek to exacerbate polarization within Canadian society, between contending political parties in the elections, and within the parties themselves. This may be carried out through a combination of sticks and carrots – the incentivization of candidates who hew closer to Beijing’s line (e.g., Meng’s release, a more accommodationist stance on China, etc.) through the promise of greater Chinese investment or targeted purchases in certain ridings; conversely, candidates who are critical of Beijing on various issues, from human rights to territorial ambitions, or who support continued defiance in the Meng dispute, will ostensibly face investment denial and additional boycotts of export products upon which a community’s economy may depend.

Universities, whose prosperity increasingly relies on full-tuition-paying students from China, could also become tools of influence in the lead-up to the elections, with centres of learning in municipalities governed by politicians despised by the CCP possibly facing the threat of boycotts. The weaponization of Chinese students, which obviously ignores the needs of the students involved, has already been used by the CCP on several occasions worldwide in retaliation for various “affronts” to CCP sensibilities.

Additionally, the CCP may rely on its various proxies in the business community (such as large Canadian corporations, local chambers of commerce, trade associations, business councils and so on), captured elites in academia, think tanks and retired government officials, as well as communities with large concentrations of ethnic Chinese, to undermine the electoral prospects of politicians seeking election.

The CCP also enjoys near-total control of Chinese-language media in Canada, added to the rampant disinformation being circulated on social media apps such as WeChat, which is popular among ethnic Chinese across Canada. With this in mind, the potential for an effective propaganda/psychological campaign boosting the chances of election for certain candidates while hurting that of others is a real possibility. It is easy to conceive of a “fake news” campaign being engineered by the CCP to spread rumors (e.g., improprieties, racism, etc.) about certain candidates who are not favored by Beijing. The regime has perfected this practice over many years in its attacks on politicians in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Besides traditional social media like WeChat, Facebook and Twitter, research demonstrates that the CCP has also increasingly relied on “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) and information saturation (“swarming,” often through automation) to spread dis/misinformation, cause confusion, and embattle a targeted government by forcing it to dedicate large amounts of resources to debunking the false claims. Studies in Taiwan and elsewhere also have shown that for dis/misinformation to be successful, it needs (1) a basis in reality (i.e., existing contradictions within society) and (2) vertical corroboration provided by traditional media. Although there is no perfect prophylactic against such measures, fact-checking apps and media literacy are among the best-known defences at the moment.

If successful, a “fake news” campaign can influence the results of an election in a direction which is favorable to the perpetrator; at the very least, it can undermine confidence in the legitimacy of an election in a way that can also be beneficial to the foreign agent.

To exacerbate the pressure on certain targeted candidates or political parties, the Chinese embassy and consulates across Canada can also issue orders to its United Front elements, such as captive “civil societies” that act at the behest of the CCP, to mobilize and hold protest campaigns. The CCP has already done similar actions over the pushback against Confucius Institutes, for example, or the election of Chemi Lhamo, an ethnic Tibetan, as president of the student union at the University of Toronto.

Cyber attacks against political parties, local governments, Elections Canada websites and other critical sectors can also be utilized as a means to interfere with elections and, as with disinformation, erode public confidence in the integrity of an election.

As mentioned above, the Liberal Party itself, which traditionally has enjoyed cordial relations with Beijing due in large part to its closeness to large businesses, will itself become a target of influence operations by the CCP in the upcoming elections, especially as Beijing knows that the more conservative alternatives in Canadian politics are likely, for ideological reasons, to have even more critical views of Beijing.

Now reviled as a leader who refused to interfere in the affairs of the judiciary in the Meng case, Prime Minister Trudeau will become the object of an intense pressure campaign aimed at his own party. Donors to the Liberal Party within the business community, as well as former leaders of the party who have become captives of the CCP, may be used for leverage against Trudeau. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s proposal earlier this month to visit Beijing and negotiate a deal with CCP officials, whereby Meng would be returned to China in return for the release of Kovrig and Spavor – an idea that would ensure the future capture of Canadian nationals whenever Beijing entered into a dispute with Ottawa – illustrated the potential for a serious split within the Liberal Party and how this could be exploited for electoral gain.

We cannot rule out the possibility that the CCP will seek to buy outright certain candidates with promises of money or lucrative deals at some point in the future.

Whether, and if so to what degree the CCP will seek to interfere with the next elections in Canada remains to be determined. Moreover, to date no study has conclusively demonstrated the extent to which “sharp power” has succeeded in swaying elections in, say, Beijing’s or Moscow’s favor. There is a real possibility that Beijing will somehow seek to shape the elections, especially given the current nadir in the bilateral relationship. Yet one factor in Canada’s favor is that the CCP, as an ideologically driven authoritarian political entity, still fails to understand the workings of democracy, its inherent resiliences and checks and balances, and could ultimately overshoot in a way that backfires against it. Vigilance will be key, and every effort must be made by our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, the judiciary and other government agencies to track suspected foreign interference and implement appropriate mitigatory measures.

Given the size of the ethnic Chinese communities across Canada and the important role that they play as members of our society, much greater efforts must also be made to combat the disinformation the CCP directs at them through Chinese-language media and social media apps, and to counter the constant intimidation they face at the hands of United Front proxies within their communities as well as Ministry of State Security agents who, under the guise of businesspeople, penetrate their communities, conduct surveillance against them, and threaten their livelihood or family members back home.

In other words, Canada must do its utmost to protect Canadians of Chinese origin, who are full citizens in their own right, against efforts by the CCP to weaponize and use them against our democratic institutions; our agencies should in fact turn to these communities – a large number of them having left China because of their dislike for the CCP – and make greater use of their language abilities, cultural affinities and understanding of the CCP’s modus operandi to learn from them on how we can better combat Chinese interference in Canada’s affairs.

Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC, and deputy coordinator of the Prague-based International Committee for Democratic Renewal/Forum 2000 – China Working Group.

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