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The greatest enigma for the future of international politics is China. What role will this Asian giant play as an emerging superpower? China, already in American sights as a heavyweight competitor, is a country in uneasy transition, both politically and economically.

It holds a coveted United Nations Security Council seat but wields its power there in ways often not to the liking of the West. It has been less than helpful in resolving the threat posed by its client, North Korea. It has shown the capacity for deep-rooted belligerence aimed at Japan. It has staked a position on Taiwan that renders the Taiwan Strait one of the world's permanent hot spots. It has the bomb, and an expanding and modernizing military.

So, how friendly is China? How will it translate great new dollops of global power into action? Does it have global stability in mind?

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Our Prime Minister visited Beijing in January with a friendly China in mind, and a hope for greater trade relations. It now turns out he had another message for the Chinese government: Cut out the spying in Canada.

That message wasn't for public ears, reminding us that there is still something called secret diplomacy. But recent events in Australia have forced out the story.

Australia has become the destination of choice for defectors from the Chinese security apparatus. In recent weeks, two such defectors who have sought asylum in Australia have gone public with their stories. A third defector, a former Beijing University law professor, has supported their claims. All tell tales that are disquieting for Canada.

Chen Yonglin (a former first secretary at China's consulate in Sydney), Hao Fengjun (a former police officer with China's Public Security Bureau) and Yuan Hongbing (who had been imprisoned in 1994 for his support of pro-democracy activists) claim knowledge of Chinese espionage activities in the West, including Canada. They portray a massive spy operation that targets overseas Chinese communities, that seeks to disrupt dissident movements, especially the Falun Gong spiritual movement, and that engages in extensive scientific and commercial espionage.

Two of the defectors number the Chinese network in Canada at 1,000 spies and informants. If China is, indeed, mounting a spy operation on that scale, it will be the largest such clandestine invasion ever experienced by Canada. The Chinese government has been quick to deny these allegations and to smear the reputations of the defectors themselves.

We have been here before, grappled with similar allegations and concerns.

Chinese espionage came onto the radar screen of Canadian security as soon as we established diplomatic relations in 1970. John Diefenbaker warned at the time: "I can just imagine the deluge of spies who will come in here." He may have been right. On occasion, Canada acted to expel Chinese officials. But that was Mao's China and the Cold War, with its emphasis on the theft of military secrets.

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A new concern emerged in the 1990s that was more amorphous. It began, oddly enough, with allegations of an immigration scam at the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong. From there, it mushroomed into a concern that Chinese criminal gangs (triads) were trying to infiltrate Canada and might be in cahoots with Chinese security agencies. The RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service took the matter seriously enough to create, in 1996, a top-secret joint analytical project, called Sidewinder, to investigate the intersections between Chinese criminal penetration of Canada and Chinese espionage operations.

Sidewinder was a fiasco. The investigation degenerated into a slanging match between CSIS and the RCMP, with each calling the other's intelligence credentials into account. A draft Sidewinder report, completed in 1997, was stopped cold by CSIS. A much revised version was eventually produced in January of 1999 before the project was killed. RCMP analysts accused CSIS of watering down the findings.

The Sidewinder investigation was never meant for public ears, but so great did interagency rancour become that the story leaked to the press and to members of Parliament. The Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watchdog agency for CSIS, was forced into action by stories that appeared in The Globe and Mail. Its report, issued to the then Solicitor-General in September of 2000, did not hesitate to take sides.

SIRC found the RCMP work on the Chinese espionage threat contemptible and lauded CSIS for taking charge of the project and refusing to countenance what it referred to as reporting "rich with scare-mongering and conspiracy theory." SIRC noted in passing that the flame-out of Sidewinder had brought RCMP-CSIS collaboration on the China file to an abrupt end. SIRC also concluded that there was no "smoking gun" and no evidence of a "substantial, immediate threat, nor evidence that a threat had been purposefully ignored."

The defector stories from Australia cast a new, and less reassuring light, on SIRC's findings. A solitary defector's tale might be viewed as an understandable embellishment. Three defectors' tales, all corroborative, cannot be dismissed.

In Canada's security world, all eyes have been on counterterrorism since 9/11. The tales from Australia suggest that some of our very finite spy resources are going to have to be redirected to counterespionage, with particular attention to China. It would be nice, this time around, if CSIS and the RCMP could find a way to collaborate on this file.

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We cannot tolerate a massive intrusion by a foreign state into our society or disruption targeted at any group practising lawful dissent in this country. And we cannot countenance runaway scientific and commercial espionage. Canada wants a friendly giant China. Give us your markets and your trade, help yourself to joint ventures in the Alberta tar sands, oil pipelines, what have you. But keep your spies at home. Or at least, in a realistic world, keep your spying friendly.

There is, believe it or not, such a thing as friendly espionage. The variety that China currently practises in Canada and elsewhere seems far from that ideal.

Wesley Wark is a professor of history at the University of Toronto specializing in intelligence and security. He is working on a book on Canadian national security in the age of terror.

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