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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping after taking part in the closing session at the G20 Leaders Summit in Bali, Indonesia on Nov. 16.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Much was made this week, here and around the world, of the dressing-down Prime Minster Justin Trudeau received from Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday at the G20 summit in Indonesia.

Mr. Xi was angry that Mr. Trudeau had released details, via an unnamed government source, of an informal chat held a day earlier on the sidelines of the summit, and at which the PM was said to have expressed “serious concerns” over allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 federal election.

There was no official government readout of the meeting by either side; Mr. Xi appears to have thought it was off the record. He was caught by surprise and made a point of saying so to Mr. Trudeau, knowing full well there was a news camera recording the moment.

There is much about this that leaves a person with the uneasy feeling Mr. Trudeau clumsily leaked the claim that he pressed Mr. Xi about Chinese election interference to cover for the fact his government has long declined to do anything about the issue.

Wind the clock back to the months after the 2021 federal election, when suspicions were raised that the Chinese government had tried to sway the outcome in as many as 13 ridings. The Conservative Party was thought to be the target of the campaign, because of its call for a harder stance on China.

The strongest allegations came from the British Columbia riding of Steveston-Richmond East. The incumbent MP, Conservative Kenny Chiu, a pro-democracy activist and Beijing critic from Hong Kong who emigrated to Canada in 1982, had 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.

Voters in the riding, nearly half of whom are Chinese-Canadians, were bombarded with disinformation about Mr. Chiu’s bill, claiming it would mean Chinese-Canadians would be treated as “spokespersons of the Chinese government” and forced to register with the Canadian government. The fake news was largely spread by Beijing-linked accounts on the popular Chinese messaging app, WeChat.

Mr. Chiu ended up losing to a Liberal. It is impossible to say how much of an impact the Chinese online campaign had on that outcome, but it was clear to experts and researchers at the time, including two at McGill University, that China meddled in Canada’s election.

Fast forward to this month, when Global News broke the story that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told the Trudeau government last January that China had interfered in the 2019 federal election, in significant and insidious ways.

CSIS said the Chinese consulate in Toronto had funneled – via a member of the Ontario legislature and a local businessman – $250,000 to candidates in 11 ridings, and to Beijing operatives working on their campaigns.

This is shocking and unprecedented. On Monday, MPs in Ottawa agreed to hold Parliamentary hearings into the allegations. It will call, among others, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Mr. Trudeau’s national security adviser.

And that brings us back to Mr. Trudeau, who the next day let it be known that he brought the touchy subject up with Mr. Xi in a hallway in Bali. It was performance over policy of the worst kind.

The first question at the hearings ought to be, why has the government done nothing to act on the concerns raised after the 2021 election, and on what CSIS told it – nearly a year ago – about outside influence in the 2019 election?

Mr. Trudeau’s government has had plenty of time to revive Mr. Chiu’s foreign registry bill, and to follow the lead of Australia, which in 2018 adopted a law that criminalizes the act of foreign meddling in that country’s democracy.

Instead, Canada is a place where proxies for foreign governments can funnel money into election campaigns with little scrutiny, and zero legal consequence.

The Trudeau government is in the midst of a long-overdue reappraisal of its previously naive relationship with China. It has in recent weeks been making a great deal of noise about this, and leaking details of a brief chat with Mr. Xi, and then having a public contretemps with him, is just more noise.

What Canada needs on this file is not loud political marketing but quiet, substantial action – to change our laws so that foreign powers cannot mess with our democracy.

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