Skip to main content

China's Ambassador to Canada, Luo Zhaohui, attends a meeting with members of the Globe and Mail's editorial board at the newspaper's head offices in Toronto on Thursday June 26, 2014. He says if Ottawa has evidence that Beijing is responsible for a cyberattack on a top Canadian research body, it should turn it over to the Chinese government.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

China's ambassador to Canada says if Ottawa has evidence that Beijing is responsible for a cyberattack on a top Canadian research body, it should turn it over to the Chinese government.

"If you have evidence, credible evidence, we will be happy to see that," Ambassador Luo Zhaohui said in an interview.

"Show me the evidence and then we can do something to investigate," the Chinese envoy said.

This week, for the first time, the Canadian government publicly singled out China for hacking, announcing in a statement that computers at the National Research Council were breached, and pointing to "a highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor."

China denies the allegation, calling it "groundless," and the matter injects extra tension into Canada-China relations just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to make another visit to Beijing this fall.

Mr. Luo, who said Ottawa's public statement on Monday "really gave me a surprise," advised journalists to ask the Canadian government why it went public with this accusation rather than complaining through diplomatic channels.

He found it odd that Canada "would use the media, the TV to … publicly accuse the Chinese government." He said this is "not the normal practice."

Mr. Luo said it was unfortunate the allegation hit the news when Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Beijing helping prepare for Mr. Harper's trip – a visit in which Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao talked about being ready to "lift the strategic partnership to the next level." The Prime Minister is expected to visit China around the time of an APEC leaders meeting, although the Prime Minister's Office will not confirm it.

"This was quite a crucial moment. It was quite a positive moment – and then [this] negative accusation happened," Mr. Luo said of Mr. Baird's visit.

The Chinese envoy said media in his country are asking questions about the timing of the accusation. Distancing himself from these media reports, Mr. Luo said Chinese journalists wonder whether somebody in Canada leaked the hacking story, which broke on Sunday night, to "undermine Canada-China relations." He said Chinese media also want to know whether Canada is raising the matter to serve U.S. purposes, adding that some journalists in China are even wondering what secrets Canada has that are worth stealing.

Beijing's top envoy repeatedly emphasized that he does not want what he called a "serious accusation" to distract from progress in the relationship between China and Canada.

"I think we should deal with this matter with a lower profile and focus our energies on co-operation."

The Conservative government's relations with China have been up and down. They started off chilly after Mr. Harper took power in 2006 and made much of Beijing's poor human-rights record, but the Tories later warmed to the economic juggernaut and sought to expand investment and trade. However, Ottawa in 2012 imposed a cap on state-owned foreign investment in the oil sands, a measure that was aimed largely at Beijing.

On Thursday, Mr. Luo called the 2012 restriction on oil sands investment an "old story." He said he wants to focus on expanding trade, including energy, adding a delayed foreign investment protection and promotion treaty between Canada and China "is not enough" progress.

From Beijing on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang said it is "irresponsible for the Canadian side to make groundless allegations" and called on Canada to reverse itself and repair the damage to relations.

"We urge the Canadian side to correct their mistakes, stop making baseless accusations and redress the negative impacts incurred by their statement," Mr. Qin said.

Canada has been on guard against Beijing for some time. In 2007, the head of Canada's spy agency named China as this country's top espionage threat.

This is not the first penetration of Canadian government computers by hackers from the People's Republic of China. Past targets are believed to include Parliament Hill, the Finance Department, and Treasury Board, the agency that tracks spending and priorities. In previous cases, government officials did not publicly lay blame for the attacks.

Ottawa says the latest intrusion was discovered by the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the country's electronic spying agency.

The Canadian government has not said whether Chinese hackers made their way beyond the research council's computers and into the federal government's wide computer network.

Separately, Canada's privacy watchdog says the research council computer system that was breached contained personal information.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada says it was alerted on July 23.

"At this point, what we can say is that this appears to be a serious security issue. However, we understand the full extent of the impact still has to be determined," said Tobi Cohen, spokeswoman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.