Skip to main content

Western democracy is under attack from authoritarian states like China and Russia, and Canada must do more to defend our freedoms

Open this photo in gallery:

Pro-China counterprotesters confront a demonstration in Vancouver in 2019 about Chinese extradition laws in Hong Kong. Later that year was a federal election where Chinese officials are alleged to have tried to influence the outcomeDarryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent and non-partisan think tank based in Ottawa. The following essay is adapted and updated from a speech delivered April 29.

Chinese election interference is a hot topic in Canada. Yet, while it is indeed a matter of enormous importance, its real significance can only be understood in the context of the new Cold War against the West.

This conflict is one in which China and Russia have long been engaged, while here at home our bien-pensant elites have continuously warned against us adopting a supposedly outdated “Cold War mentality.” The only ones who are out of date, however, are those whose understanding of recent history ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the “end of history,” in which the values of liberal democracy and the West reign undisputed forever and ever.

History never stops, nor does the competition between states with diverging interests.

The tentacles of Cold War Mark II, between an aggressively imperialist China and a revanchist Russia on the one hand and a naive and credulous West, reach deeply into Canadian society, endangering our citizens, our economy and our interests.

Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, like China’s imprisonment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and its suborning of the very machinery of our democracy, has shone a bright light on this conflict. It is vital that we now harness this attention to concentrate the minds of Canadians on the scale of the attack on our institutions and freedoms, and how to defeat it.

Open this photo in gallery:

Michael Kovrig waves alongside Michael Spavor at an address to the Canadian Parliament by U.S. President Joe Biden in March.Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Authoritarians learned long ago that people in the West will generally resist bald military threats to their domestic freedoms and democracy. The world’s bullies have now understandably shifted to working tirelessly to weaken the West’s moral resolve.

Misinformation and disinformation about us, delivered to our television, social-media feeds and inboxes by armies of internet trolls, are thus today’s front line in the struggle to defend freedom and democracy.

Authoritarians use the social-media megaphone to repeat that the West and democracy are vicious, corrupt and indefensible; our adversaries stoke conflict within our societies and sap our will to defend our values and our way of life. If our societies are nothing but vile repositories for all that is worst about human society – racism, sexism, white supremacy, homophobia, societies built on the legacy of slavery and colonial exploitation – then our adversaries hope we will conclude that we are not worth defending.

Our adversaries understand that Western military superiority over the world’s authoritarians is meaningless if we lack the political resolve to use it, if we think there is no moral difference between free democracies and authoritarian despotisms. That is why China and Russia take aim at our culture, our beliefs and our institutions. Their objective is nothing less than to cause us to lose faith in ourselves and the society we have built.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Russian flag flies at its embassy in Ottawa in 2018.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

There are other ways in which our adversaries are using our own strengths against us.

In the trade sphere, for example, we assume other countries sign trade deals in the same spirit of openness as we do. There can be no doubt, however, that China has used industrial espionage and trade agreements for the explicit purpose of achieving industrial and economic domination over the West, destroying Canadian industrial giants such as Nortel along the way. The result has been the deindustrialization of our societies.

In Canada’s case we have aided and abetted our adversaries’ ambitions by allowing them to launder and then invest money on an industrial scale. We have, moreover, been complaisant in the face of foreign efforts to coerce and intimidate Canadian citizens and residents seeking to alert Canadians to the dangers posed by China, Russia and other authoritarian regimes.

China, however, has the resources and the will to go beyond destabilizing disinformation. They have for years pursued a policy of suborning a wide range of Canadian institutions, from our political parties, civil service and police to our research labs, universities and business leadership. To do so they have employed the traditional tactics for exploiting human weaknesses, such as divided loyalties, the fear engendered by threats and intimidation, the active corruption of institutions by the placement within them of agents loyal to Beijing, and that old standby, greed.

Canada’s security services have been sounding the alarm on China’s growing interference and nefarious activities for decades; indifference and hostility have been Ottawa’s official response.

And while interference in our democracy seems to have captured the public imagination, it is easy to demonstrate that China’s efforts are much more ambitious than influencing voters in a handful of constituencies. Elections, however, are a good place to start inventorying the rot.

Open this photo in gallery:

David Johnston, middle, leaves the news conference in Ottawa where he presented his first report as special rappoteur on foreign election interference in Canada.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Democratic institutions

Recently leaked intelligence assessments claim that Chinese Communist Party United Front Work Department (UFWD) operatives worked actively to influence the results of elections at every level. Justin Trudeau’s government has responded to such reports with obstruction and obfuscation.

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have been trying fruitlessly to highlight Chinese foreign interference for many years. Numerous security briefings were delivered to the Office of the Prime Minister claiming that China actively attempted to influence the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

The mere potential of widespread interference should be reason enough for investigation, but not on Mr. Trudeau’s watch. He has dodged questions about his knowledge of the foreign interference and stoutly assured us that it didn’t affect the outcome of the elections in a “significant way.” How he knows this, in the absence of a proper and thorough investigation, is mysterious.

He has also said that calls for such a thorough investigation stemmed from “anti-Asian racism” and that the real villains are the security services that leaked the information. They are the ones, in Mr. Trudeau’s universe, who should be investigated.

As we know, the Trudeau Liberals were narrowly re-elected in both 2019 and 2021 – an outcome that Beijing preferred and allegedly promoted. Beijing used tactics such as Chinese-language social-media campaigns to sling mud at Liberal opponents, and pressing businesses to sponsor Chinese international students to canvass in support of Beijing’s preferred candidates.

The Chinese Communist Party sees the Conservative Party as actively hostile because of its somewhat tougher stand on China, its support for a foreign-agent registry and other measures. Chinese efforts appear to have helped the re-election of Liberals in ridings where they faced strong Conservative challenges, or reinforced the victory margins of Liberals allegedly beholden to Beijing. Intelligence reports claim the former Chinese consul-general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, openly claimed she helped engineer the defeat of two Vancouver-area Conservative MPs, including a Chinese-Canadian who championed a foreign-agent registry. Eleven or more ridings in the Greater Toronto Area may also have been targeted.

Sadly, after the last election the talk within the Conservative Party wasn’t about pressing the government to come clean about Chinese election interference. Instead it was about how electorally unprofitable a “tough on China” stand had proven and how they wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Open this photo in gallery:

Erin O'Toole, then leader of the federal Conservatives, arrives with his wife, Rebecca, at a Bowmanville, Ont., polling place in the 2019 election.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The PMO was not the only government agency told about potential Chinese election interference. Also informed was the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol, a non-partisan panel of senior civil servants charged with ensuring the integrity of Canada’s elections process, specifically with foreign interference in mind. They concluded, after a lot of bureaucratic buck-passing, that the foreign interference observed during the election period didn’t hit the very high legal threshold needed to warrant action by the panel. No one should feel reassured.

The intelligence community’s allegations are consistent with numerous warnings about Canada’s vulnerability to Chinese interference in recent years. These warnings have come not only from intelligence sources but also accounts from Chinese-Canadian communities about the bullying of their members by representatives of Beijing and the Communist Party’s UFWD. Two reports on this very topic – one by the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, co-ordinated by Amnesty International; the other by Alliance Canada Hong Kong – documented many of these activities.

Mr. Trudeau doesn’t want a full and independent inquiry into the integrity of Canada’s democracy, so he has resorted to a transparent bit of legerdemain. A “special rapporteur” was appointed to “help combat foreign interference and strengthen confidence in our federal electoral process and democratic institutions.” The rapporteur, former governor-general David Johnston, is a friend of the Trudeau family, has close connections to China and, predictably, just this week did exactly what Mr. Trudeau hoped he would. He created a poorly documented diversion by claiming that media leaks from our specialized intelligence agencies were “misconstrued” and that at worst there might be some work to be done to make sure intelligence agencies communicate better with the PMO. No public inquiry to clear the air is needed, however.

Pursuing the government’s strategy of ragging the Chinese interference puck, government MPs and PMO representatives have enthusiastically defended Mr. Trudeau’s foot-dragging. Filibustering and stonewalling have been the order of the day on Parliament Hill.

The intelligence leaks have nonetheless rocked Canadian politics. Two legislators – Liberal MP Han Dong and Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Vincent Ke – withdrew from their caucuses to sit as independents after the leaks raised questions about their possible involvement with Chinese election interference. Both claim innocence.

No one should be under any illusions that the Tories are any less tainted by Chinese influence than the Liberals. Beijing’s elite capture reaches across the political spectrum. Fixing this problem will require more than a simple change of government.

Open this photo in gallery:

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this past March.Rich Lam/The Canadian Press

Beijing even has municipal politics under its watchful eye. In Vancouver, Mayor Ken Sim rejects charges that China secretly backed his election, after intelligence reports that China’s consul-general had interfered on his behalf. The leading candidate for the mayoralty of Toronto, Olivia Chow, has acknowledged meeting publicly with representatives of the Chinese Communist Party’s UFWD, speaking to their group and receiving a gift from them.

Sadly, this political controversy has sullied the reputations of institutions beyond our political parties, most notably the RCMP. In the face of credible public reports of Chinese election interference, and what we now know of the secret reports of Canada’s intelligence agencies, the RCMP did not launch an investigation to determine the truth of these potentially devastating allegations. If anything, they were dismissive. Nothing to see here.

To election interference must be added other assaults on our democratic institutions, including recently revealed efforts by China to threaten and intimidate the Hong Kong family of a Chinese-Canadian Conservative MP, Michael Chong, in retaliation for his leading the successful effort to have Parliament declare China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority as genocide.

Canada’s intelligence services knew of this effort, led by a Chinese diplomat who continued to be accredited by Ottawa long after his nefarious activities were reported to our political authorities. Mr. Chong, when informed of the intelligence dossier on the matter, rightly complained that he was not informed by either the intelligence agencies or the Prime Minister’s Office, despite their having been in possession of the facts for two years.

The Prime Minister improbably claims that he was never informed. As Norman Spector, a former chief of staff to a former prime minister, wrote, however, “Let’s be clear about accountability in Ottawa: the Prime Minister’s national security advisor reports directly to the Prime Minister and receives all CSIS intel. And, as the PM’s Chief of Staff [Katie Telford] testified, nothing is kept from Trudeau.”

Moreover, Mr. Chong informed Parliament on May 4 that he was told by the national-security adviser that her office was informed two years ago by CSIS about evidence that Mr. Chong’s family was being targeted.

Despite this, Mr. Trudeau blames CSIS for failing to alert Mr. Chong, ignoring the fact that CSIS would have required political direction to reveal such sensitive intelligence.

Open this photo in gallery:

Conservative MP Michael Chong speaks in Question Period on May 2, three weeks before Mr. Johnston's report explored the Chinese campaign to target his family in Hong Kong, and what CSIS knew about it.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Labs, universities and police stations

More than our democracy is under siege, however. The fact is, China’s interference and espionage activities are hiding in plain sight in many of our institutions.

There has been no public accounting of events at Canada’s infectious-diseases lab, for example, where now-sacked Chinese scientists appear to have been sharing research secrets with Chinese authorities.

Charges were recently dismissed against an agriculture scientist accused of being paid to deliver Canadian lab research to China. Why were the charges dismissed? The RCMP officer charged with preparing the case was told to work from home during the pandemic, where he had no access to investigative files needed to prepare the case. Eventually the clock ran out.

As for our universities, The Globe and Mail has reported that University of Waterloo researchers have been formally advised by their university they are not required to talk to CSIS investigators about their collaborations with China, as if the premier organization charged by Parliament with safeguarding the interests of Canadians against foreign corruption were somehow an unwelcome and illegitimate interloper.

China has enjoyed enormous success in transferring research data from Canadian universities in strategically sensitive areas that serve PRC purposes. According to former CSIS director Richard Fadden, these areas include avionics, space technology, nuclear science and high-level optics research.

Under an agreement with China’s Minister of Science and Technology, for example, University of Alberta researchers have had access to at least 50 state labs in China since 2005, while upward of 60 professors have received funding for more than 90 joint projects with Chinese state and national labs. Likewise, at the University of British Columbia more than 300 professors have significant professional interest in China, and faculty have partnerships with over 100 Chinese institutions.

But agreements through China’s Ministry of Science and Technology are not like those with partners in democratic societies. These are not benign collaborations between independent scholars seeking to expand the frontiers of science and human understanding. In China, professors are state employees vetted by the CCP, their research dictated by the state ministries to which their universities and labs are subordinate. They must advance the Chinese Communist Party’s five-year plans for domestic development and global geo-strategic advantage.

China would not fund Canadian researchers if it couldn’t gain access to their work. Obtaining information or intellectual property that serves the PRC’s economic and military objectives is the whole idea. Moreover, some Canadians receive significant Chinese income beyond their university salaries, through lucrative PRC-associated board appointments and commercial inducements.

Meantime, large numbers of students from the PRC – most approved and sponsored by the state, and paying hefty foreign student fees – have become a major revenue source for Canadian universities. Add to this the many Chinese researchers and graduate students (shut out of the United States for security reasons) at Canadian universities, which have open research ties with both their American counterparts and research institutions in China.

All of this makes our universities yet another set of Canadian institutions vulnerable to Chinese pressure and manipulation.

Open this photo in gallery:

This business park in Markham, Ont., is one of those identified in a report from Safeguard Defenders about 'overseas police service centres' run by China.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Canadians of Chinese origin have for years been vainly flagging the presence of CCP security agents who threaten citizens and permanent residents if they do not do Beijing’s bidding. This is documented in several public reports, including the aforementioned two by Alliance Canada Hong Kong and the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, and another by the European organization Safeguard Defenders. The Safeguard Defenders report documents that China’s Fuzhou Public Security Bureau has established more than 50 “overseas police service centres” in cities around the world – including three publicly documented ones in Toronto, home to Canada’s largest Chinese diaspora.

This is an outrage. Chinese police setting up offices in Canada to “persuade” alleged criminals to return to the motherland to face “justice” – while our own government and security services apparently choose to look the other way – represents a gross violation of Canada’s sovereignty, international law and the norms of diplomacy. China’s Orwellian police state is reaching into our country, with little concern about being confronted by our own security agencies.

There has been a single expulsion of a Chinese diplomat for co-ordinating this kind of thuggery despite the fact that China has the second largest diplomatic contingent of any foreign government in Canada. What are all those diplomats for? Apparently harassing Canadians keeps at least a few of them occupied.

Beijing describes these global police outposts as administrative centres to help Chinese nationals renew driver’s licences and other domestic banalities back home. But the Safeguard Defenders study found that they also hunt down political dissidents, corrupt officials or alleged Chinese criminals and urge them to return home.

This bold strategy is consistent with China’s propensity for routinely flouting international laws, including requirements that any foreign police service wishing to gather evidence in Canada must work through the RCMP.

In the case of these “police service centres,” Safeguard Defenders reports that agents press their targets to return home, sometimes offering vague promises of leniency or pressuring families back home to “encourage” them to do so. Tactics for repatriating these alleged criminals include seizing their families’ assets, denying children in China access to schools and terminating family members’ employment.

Ottawa wants Canadian businesses to be able to tap into the world’s largest market, but China’s price for this access appears to be ignoring Beijing’s Canadian agenda – from military and industrial espionage to harassing Canadian Uyghurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners or ethnic Chinese and Taiwanese who reject Beijing’s hectoring that they should be loyal to China instead of Canada.

Open this photo in gallery:

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki appears before a House committee on Canada-China relations this past February.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

When asked by The Globe and Mail about the police service centres, RCMP spokesperson Camille Boily-Lavoie originally said the force would not comment on “uncorroborated media reports or statements.”

Brenda Lucki, then RCMP commissioner, attested that she put her foot down on these police stations. What does that mean? According to her testimony before a parliamentary committee, the RCMP in Toronto and Vancouver “… did a disruption by going in uniform, with marked police cars, to speak with the people involved in those police stations, or those locations.” Apparently those media stories were corroborated after all.

On the other hand, two such offices in Montreal didn’t even rate a visit. No one has yet been arrested or expelled from Canada for activity that is plainly illegal and intended to intimidate Canadians, although Ms. Lucki asserted that investigations continue. Based on our track record to date, I doubt the Chinese agents are quaking in their boots. If they have been watching how Canadian authorities deal with any CCP bad behaviour, they know it is winked at until there is media scrutiny. After the media spotlight moves on, it is business as usual.

One more Canadian group that deserves to be called out in this sad litany of leadership failures is Canada’s business elite. The late David Kilgour told me that when he was appointed minister of state for Asia-Pacific under Jean Chrétien, his first visit was from a representative of the PMO who wanted to make sure that Mr. Kilgour would not get ideas above his ministerial station. Our policy toward China, he was told in no uncertain terms, is set not at our foreign ministry or the PMO, but at the headquarters of Power Corporation in Montreal.

Power Corporation is perhaps the leading Canadian corporate investor in China. I attended an Ottawa talk in 2012 by one of the Desmarais family, owners of Power Corporation. This executive hectored the audience that he didn’t understand the hostility that China sometimes evoked in the minds of Canadians. He condescendingly assured his listeners that if only they understood China as he did, they would see that there was absolutely nothing to fear.

But lest you think that that is merely the Liberal Laurentian elite talking, rest assured that my experience was no different among Western Canada’s energy sector leadership. I was persona non grata with them for several years after my institute argued against the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation’s bid to acquire Alberta energy firm Nexen. National-security concerns were to take a back seat to Nexen, and any later oil patch sales, fetching top dollar from the Chinese.

Open this photo in gallery:

Mr. Trudeau, his wife and cabinet ministers applaud Mr. Biden's address to Parliament on March 24.Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

The Canada-China-U.S. triangle

Canada is one of America’s closest allies, a member of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance. If any significant part of the leaked intelligence briefings on China’s Canadian presence turns out to be founded, Ottawa’s reaction reveals a country that can’t protect its own interests let alone those of its allies.

This tale of corruption and elite capture has far-reaching consequences. For example, our Five Eyes intelligence-sharing allies quietly wonder if it is safe to share sensitive information with Canada.

This is not speculation. This has been a concern in the U.S. intelligence community going back decades. It was recently confirmed in the cache of secret U.S. national-security documents, illicitly revealed by a Massachusetts national guardsman and published in The Washington Post. In those documents the usual bland reassurances that Washington has full faith and confidence in Canada as a friend and ally are revealed to be mendacious smokescreens. Canada is now regarded as, at best, a useless member of the alliance and, at worst, a country whose institutions are so compromised that it is dangerous to share with them things America doesn’t want its adversaries to know.

So Ottawa’s complaisance as regards the rot in our institutions endangers not only Canadians, but the solidity of our most important relationship, that between Canada and the U.S.

Indeed there is a strong case that the recent leaks from CSIS, and possibly other intelligence-gathering and -analyzing agencies in Ottawa, are volleys in a civil war now raging at the heart of the Government of Canada over this country’s slow-motion defection from the alliance of liberal-democratic countries and its abandonment of defending its own institutions.

This civil war pits those charged with the security of Canada and Canadians against the country’s political leadership, whom some in our security agencies have now decided are unwilling or unable to act on the voluminous evidence of China’s malevolent intentions toward Canada.

Not for nothing did a former senior CSIS official recently shock the nation with his testimony that the behaviour of our political leadership over the past 30 years on the China file borders on the treasonous, and warrants serious jail time for the perpetrators.

Especially in the wake of Mr. Johnston’s attempt to change the channel this week, expect more leaks documenting our leaders’ duplicity and recklessness and more effort by the politicians to deflect suspicion and blame back on the intelligence services.

Open this photo in gallery:

Mr. Trudeau thumbs through Mr. Johnston's report in Ottawa on May 23.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In sum: Job one of any government is to defend its citizens from foreign threats, a task at which Ottawa is failing miserably. So, what to do? Here is my short list. Canada must:

  • Create a foreign-agent registry with real teeth. Politicians or civil servants with even the slightest role in shaping Canada’s foreign, industrial or defence policy should be prohibited – including after they leave the public sector for retirement or the private sector – from receiving payments or gifts for supporting a foreign nation’s agenda in Canada. Every individual who deals with Ottawa should be required to declare all foreign sources of income to allay any concerns about a possible conflict of interest. Australia and the U.S. have such laws in place; the U.K. will soon enact its own legislation.
  • Dispense with the farcical special rapporteur and appoint an independent, non-partisan national task force of unimpeachable integrity to lay bare all the ways in which China (and others) have infiltrated our institutions, lay out an energetic plan to purge them of these influences, return the control of those institutions to Canadians and prevent their subverting in the future.
  • Beef up the capacity of both our intelligence services and armed forces.
  • Strengthen anti-money-laundering laws and enforcement.
  • Treat our natural resources as both a national treasure and a shield for the democratic world against economic coercion such as Russia and China have both tried to exercise by dominating markets for energy in Europe and strategic minerals globally.
  • Finally, ensure that legitimate free trade is not used as a cover for the deindustrialization of our economy and the transfer of thousands of jobs to China. Free trade is incompatible with national governments directing their country’s companies to act as instruments of foreign and security policy. It is entirely possible to be both hard-headed free traders and staunch defenders of Canada’s national interests.

This is an ambitious agenda, but the threats posed by our adversaries, the safety of Canadians and the integrity of our institutions require nothing less.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this essay stated that the Chief Electoral Officer did not launch an investigation into allegations of Chinese interference. Such an investigation would be the responsibility of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.

Foreign interference: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

Senior parliamentary reporter Steven Chase breaks down special rapporteur David Johnston’s decision on how to investigate foreign interference in Canadian elections. Subscribe for more episodes.


Campbell Clark: Gentleman Johnston pushes back at politicians, but problem lingers

John Ibbitson: Sorry, Mr. Johnston: Public hearings into foreign interference are inadequate to the task

David Salvo: Politicians making partisan attacks on foreign interference are falling into a trap

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe