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Ai-Men Lau is a research analyst at Doublethink Lab and adviser to Alliance Canada Hong Kong. She is a contributor to Alliance Canada Hong Kong’s 2021 Report “In Plain Sight: Beijing’s unrestricted network of foreign influence in Canada.”

What needs to happen before Canada takes action on foreign interference? Apparently something as drastic as leaks of top-secret intelligence documents to the media.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to recent reports of Chinese foreign interference and disinformation campaigns in Canadian federal elections by announcing that his government would appoint an independent special rapporteur to investigate, provide recommendations and decide if a public inquiry is necessary. Further steps include reviews by intelligence bodies on such foreign-interference issues and new funding for civil-society organizations to combat disinformation.

Mr. Trudeau also announced consultations on a foreign-agent registry and the appointment of a new foreign-interference co-ordinator at Public Safety Canada. (Consultations on a foreign-agent registry – a policy previously pursued by Kenny Chiu, the former Conservative member of Parliament who was reportedly targeted by a Beijing-led online disinformation campaign – were actually announced back in December.)

This is all welcome news, and it signals that Ottawa may finally be taking foreign interference seriously. But the government continues to rely on top-down methods to address the issue, despite the fact that it alone cannot adequately take on the problem – and nor should it be the sole institution to take on the challenge. While funding is coming for non-governmental organizations to tackle disinformation, what is needed is a whole-of-society approach.

This includes engagement with a broader range of traditional and non-traditional stakeholders, such as academia, the private sector, media and local communities. Crucially, it prioritizes engagement with these stakeholders and with NGOs, aims to facilitate active participation in the decision-making process and strives to rebuild trust in our public institutions. In the specific case of foreign interference, it would allow the challenge to be tackled in ways that do not demonize equity-deserving groups.

In contrast, the current and proposed actions by the Canadian government overlook the targeted individuals and affected communities at the heart of China’s foreign-interference efforts. Canada’s response continues to miss opportunities to engage with the Chinese diaspora and dissident communities who have long been sounding the alarm on the Chinese Communist Party’s meddling in our democracy.

The issue of foreign interference, after all, goes beyond electoral meddling. It also involves the covert amplification of pro-Beijing narratives and the suppression of anti-Beijing ones. This has ramifications for the Chinese diaspora, which has found itself caught in the crossfire between two worlds and the geopolitical tension between them.

The status quo represents a silencing on two fronts. While the Chinese diaspora faces increasing anti-Asian sentiment and marginalization in Canada, the baggage of another home has followed them across oceans. Those who dare to speak out against the CCP, even on Canadian soil, endanger not only themselves but their friends and loved ones back in China or other PRC-controlled territories.

This is why the whole-of-society approach should centre on the Chinese diaspora – particularly the vulnerable communities within it, such as Hong Kongers, Uyghurs and Tibetans. While the diaspora and dissident communities bear the brunt of foreign interference by the CCP, these groups are often ignored when they could be helping to combat it. Many Hong Kongers, for instance, are well versed in tactics used by the CCP to target voters, having seen them in action firsthand in their own elections.

Canada must also engage with stakeholders who can communicate in the languages spoken in the community, who understand how cultural norms intersect with broader Canadian society, and who can meet members of the community where they are at. To increase civic engagement we must be able to communicate and educate in ways that are both respectful of one’s self-determination and understanding of the geopolitical tensions vulnerable groups must contend with.

National security concerns such as foreign transnational repression must be considered, too, to ensure that targeted communities can safely and freely engage in democracy without ramifications.

Foreign interference is a challenge that is here to stay. While the federal government is taking encouraging first steps, these can only be the beginning. A whole-of-society approach is required not only to address this issue, but to give a voice to those who have been silenced for so long.

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