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China has set up a sophisticated network in this country to harass people of Chinese ethnicity and Uyghur- and Tibetan-Canadians, distort information in the media, influence politicians and form partnerships with universities to secure intellectual property, a new study says.

A report by Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK) that was tabled on Monday evening at the special House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations warns that the influence operations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are widespread, but have gone largely unnoticed. Alliance Canada Hong Kong is an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates in this country.

“In Canada, individuals and groups are targeted by [Chinese] party state actors and Chinese nationalists, both directly and indirectly,” said the report titled In Plain Sight: Beijing’s Unrestricted Network of Foreign Influence in Canada. “Chinese authorities co-ordinate intimidation operations and use families who are in PRC-controlled regions as bargaining chips.”

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Cherie Wong, executive director of ACHK, said the human-rights group is trying to draw attention to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) surveillance and intimidation without fanning the flames of xenophobia.

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The report details how the United Front Work Department – the agency responsible for co-ordinating Beijing’s overseas influence operations – guides and controls an elaborate network of proxies and front organizations to intimidate and co-opt Chinese-Canadians as well as politicians, academics and business leaders.

“The United Front has created and mobilized shell groups, registered [non-governmental organizations] and civil societies in Canada. These groups are designed to mimic legitimate community programs …while aggressively spreading pro-Beijing messages and party lines, whether in praising Hong Kong’s national security law or condemning dissent against the Beijing Olympics.”

Harassment and intimidation campaigns are organized by United Front-affiliated community groups, and misinformation is directed from WeChat and Chinese-language media against Uyghurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese, pro-democracy Hong Kongers and dissidents from mainland China, the report said.

“WeChat is among the top news sources for Chinese-Canadians, and social media apps may be the single most effective and concerning factor in the CCP’s arsenal over Canadian-Chinese language media, simply for the PRC’s direct ability to censor and monitor WeChat, Weibo, Youku, TikTok [Douyin] and other Chinese media entities.”

The report said Canadian universities and research institutions are especially vulnerable to foreign influence, citing Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes that spout Beijing propaganda, and partnerships with Canadian academics to obtain intellectual property.

“Various Canadian universities are known to collaborate with potentially compromising entities like the People’s Liberation Army,” the report said, noting that many academics don’t understand China’s efforts to blur the line between civilian and military research.

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Alberta recently ordered its four major universities to suspend the pursuit of partnerships with people or organizations linked to Beijing or the Chinese Communist Party, citing concerns over national security and the risk the research could be used to facilitate human-rights abuses. The order came after The Globe and Mail reported on the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China that involves sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

The report by Ms. Wong’s group also warned about Chinese foreign influence operations that attempt to win over politicians and business leaders through all-expense-paid trips and lucrative investment projects. WeChat is often used to mobilize volunteers and donations for politicians who are sympathetic to Beijing’s interests, the report added.

“Though the majority of these operations are not considered criminal or direct threats to national security, these patterns of behaviour are inappropriate and should be disclosed to the public,” the report said.

Ms. Wong told the committee these influence operations will continue until the federal government takes the kind of actions to limit them that the United States and Australia have adopted, and stops worrying about angering Beijing.

She called for an Australian-style law that requires people and organizations acting on behalf of a foreign state to register as foreign agents. A government agency on foreign influence should be established with powers to investigate and enforce the law as well as initiate public inquiries and collect data on foreign influence.

Ms. Wong said Ottawa should also ban Canadian innovative research from being shared with the military and security apparatus of hostile states, such as China. Restrictions should also be placed on sharing Canadian data and private information that could be exploited by China.

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