The snap federal election in September was largely forgettable, given that it produced a second straight minority Liberal government and left Parliament essentially unchanged.
There was another side to it, however – a disturbing one that Parliament needs to address urgently: Was an online disinformation campaign that targeted an incumbent Conservative MP in British Columbia the work of the Chinese government?
The Conservative Party has been asking questions about it for months. An independent American body, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, raised the possibility in November. And now, McGill University researchers Sze-Fung Lee and Benjamin Fung have published a paper arguing that the case of former MP Kenny Chiu clearly demonstrates that “Canada remains vulnerable to the security risk constituted by foreign interference.”
There is no smoking gun connecting Beijing to what happened in Steveston-Richmond East, a B.C. riding whose population is about 50 per cent ethnic Chinese.
But there is also no question that the interests of whoever it was that spread disinformation about Mr. Chiu aligned with those of the Chinese government.
It’s also clear that one of the chief means of spreading the disinformation was WeChat. The social-media app has more than one billion users, is widely used by many Canadians of Chinese origin, and is heavily censored by Beijing.
Mr. Chiu, a Hong Kong native who emigrated to Canada in 1982, and was elected Conservative MP for Steveston-Richmond East in 2019, has been a thorn in Beijing’s side. A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, he was also vice-chair of the Parliamentary Sub-committee on International Human Rights, which in 2020 declared that China’s maltreatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority amounted to genocide.
Last March, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs imposed retaliatory sanctions on the MPs on the sub-committee, after the House of Commons passed a Conservative motion that said the Uyghur persecution met the United Nation’s definition of genocide. Under the sanctions, Mr. Chiu cannot travel to Hong Kong, his birthplace.
Mr. Chiu subsequently tabled a private member’s bill that would have required anyone working for a foreign government, or for a company controlled by a foreign government, to register with Ottawa when lobbying Canadian officials and elected members.
Bill C-282 never got past first reading. But during the election, as the researchers at McGill and at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab documented, it was used to attack Mr. Chiu on WeChat and other Chinese social media.
According to the Digital Forensic Research Lab, “the principal actor behind the Canadian election case” was HuayiNet, a translation company that does work for Chinese consulates in Canada and the United States.
Using a WeChat account misleadingly called “Toronto consulate,” a HuayiNet employee pushed out stories that falsely claimed that Mr. Chiu’s bill was designed to suppress pro-China opinions in Canada, and that anyone who so much as attended a cultural event at a Chinese consulate would have to register with the federal government. Mr. Chiu’s “anti-Chinese communist party background” was used to buttress the false information, according to the McGill researchers.
Some Conservatives believe the disinformation campaign caused Mr. Chiu to lose the seat of Steveston-Richmond East (the new MP is a Liberal), though that’s impossible to prove conclusively.
What is indisputable is that there was a concerted effort, using a social-media platform beholden to Beijing, to discourage people from voting for a Canadian MP whose positions were unpopular with Beijing.
To date, the case has barely caused a ripple in Ottawa. That has to change. This should not be a partisan issue. The Trudeau government needs to let Parliament investigate what happened, and take steps to block foreign meddling in Canadian elections.
One very good place to start would be with the resurrection of Mr. Chiu’s foreign influence registry. It should become law, and soon. As the McGill researchers wrote, “disinformation campaigns and their potential to manipulate diaspora communities could generate waves that would drown Canada’s democracy.”
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