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Chinese President Hu Jintao waves as he exits his plane upon arrival in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Chinese President Hu Jintao waves as he exits his plane upon arrival in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

China's diplomacy skirts the boundary of lobbying and espionage Add to ...

For Chinese officials eager to win friends and influence politics on a world stage, the trick for avoiding the attention of Canada's spy agency is simple: stay obvious.

Under the legislation that governs the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, only when foreign influence is "clandestine or deceptive" does the agency get involved. In those cases, they investigate people suspected of attempting to lean on politicians, but it can't investigate the politicians themselves.

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China has a long track record of putting pressure on Canadian politicians, working relentlessly to burnish its image by attempting, for instance, to brand the Falun Gong movement as a heretical cult.

They wine and dine Canadian officials. Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan (who speaks Cantonese) and Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien both visited China and later blocked Falun Gong demonstrations, citing diplomatic and economic interests. A council in tiny Port Alberni, B.C., in 2008 rejected a request for the town to recognize Falun Gong month at the urging of a Chinese diplomat who had visited the town earlier.

"This is normal diplomacy," says Paul Evans, director of the University of British Columbia's Institute of Asian Research. "With any country's public diplomacy, there are many layers to the cake."

But there may be a fine line between lobbying and espionage.

This week, CSIS director Richard Fadden said foreign "agents of influence" were putting pressure on Canadian politicians. The remark was widely interpreted as a reference to China, a country whose activities occupy half the time of CSIS, former director Jim Judd has said.

If so, observers overwhelmingly agree China is enlisting the help of Chinese Canadians by citing common heritage and personal relationships, or guanxi, and using them as intermediaries to gather information and shroud Beijing's involvement.

"[China]just will do anything - and everything - to get their point across," said David Matas, a Winnipeg lawyer and Falun Gong advocate.

"They're busy doing that [diplomacy] of course, but they're also using these networks they've set up," added Steven Mosher, a U.S.-based China scholar.

But while some see these networks as improper, others see it as old-fashioned diplomacy.

"It depends on the gradation of this, if there's threats … rather than encouragement," Dr. Evans said. "But there's a fair bit of grey area in between."

With a report from Colin Freeze

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

 

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