A B.C. senator is casting doubt on the findings of two federal election-monitoring reports that suggest the Chinese government in 2021 may have targeted then-Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and former fellow MP Kenny Chiu through disinformation campaigns.
Yuen Pau Woo raised his concerns in a Feb. 6 submission to the foreign interference commission headed by Justice Marie-Josée Hogue that is preparing for hearings in March. The commission is probing meddling primarily by China in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
The two documents in question, written by the federal government’s Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force, were released in partly redacted form during preliminary hearings in early February.
“The conclusions reached in these two documents are problematic and that to accept the O’Toole/Chiu incidents as authentic cases of foreign interference and disinformation would be harmful to affected citizens and to Canadian democracy more broadly,” he writes.
One SITE document, dated Sept. 13, 2021, and titled SITE Update on Foreign Interference Threats to Canadian Democratic Institutions – 2021, reported on what it said may be a Chinese Communist Party “information operation that aims to discourage voters from voting for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).”
It pointed to social-media posts on two Chinese-language platforms, WeChat and Douyin, that it said were “widely sharing a narrative that CPC’s election platform suggests Erin O’Toole ‘almost wants to break diplomatic ties with China.’ ”
The SITE report said WeChat accounts that serve Chinese-speaking Canadians actively shared this narrative but did not credit the state-run Global Times newspaper for this, “obscuring the narrative’s point of origin.”
A second SITE document, dated Dec. 17, 2021, and titled Threats to Canadian Federal Election 2021, said the “People’s Republic of China (PRC) sought to clandestinely and deceptively influence Canada’s 2021 federal election.”
An example it provided, Mr. Woo said, is that SITE observed online media activities aimed at discouraging Canadians, particularly of Chinese heritage, from supporting the Conservative Party of Canada, Erin O’Toole and particularly former Steveston–Richmond East candidate Mr. Chiu.
The second report said numerous articles posted and shared among PRC-based and Canada-based Chinese-language news websites and WeChat news accounts contained “false claims” about Mr. Chiu and a private member’s bill he had tabled in 2021, C-282. The bill would have enacted a foreign-influence registry that required people working for foreign powers to register their activities with Ottawa.
The SITE report said the articles asserted that, if elected, Mr. Chiu would pass legislation that would designate “any individual or group connected with China as a spokesperson of the Chinese government.”
Mr. Chiu has himself rejected this interpretation of this bill and about 18 months after the 2021 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced it would begin consultations on bringing in a foreign-agent registry.
The second SITE report said the articles circulating on Chinese-language social media “portrayed Chiu and C-282 in a false or misleading way.”
Mr. Woo noted in his submission that in both cases of alleged interference, SITE acknowledged that it was unable to definitively ascribe the offending WeChat/Douyin posts to the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. The monitoring unit said it “observed indicators of potential co-ordination between various Canada-based Chinese-language news outlets as well as PRC and CCP” news outlets.
“By assuming that posts on Canada-based Chinese-language news outlets are examples of foreign interference without clear evidence of such is damaging to the reputations of the Canada-based news outlets and their users,” the senator said, adding that he found it “discriminating and stigmatizing.”
The senator also challenged what he called the premise in the SITE reports that the WeChat/Douyin posts “are in fact distortions of the positions held by Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Chiu.”
Mr. Woo said Mr. O’Toole’s position on China was already well-established by the time of the articles through the party’s election platform and through his public statements. He said Mr. O’Toole said during the campaign, “I am the only candidate with a plan to reset Canada’s relationship with the Chinese regime.”
Mr. Woo added that the party platform mentioned China 31 times in what he deemed a “negative light” – including the idea that Canada should “decouple” from China in certain supply chains.
He questioned SITE’s assumption that Chinese Canadians came to their views on Mr. O’Toole’s position regarding China because of foreign, rather than Canadian, sources of information.
Mr. Woo also challenged SITE’s characterization of WeChat criticism of Mr. Chiu’s bill, arguing that it was “reasonable non-specialist interpretations” of the proposed legislation and “legitimate political debate.”
Since the People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian state, Mr. Woo said, one could reasonably argue that all legally constituted entities in China – including corporations, educational institutions, alumni organizations, cultural groups and municipalities – fall under the definition of foreign principal and anyone working for these would be required to register.
“Even if one accepts that the WeChat posts were inaccurate or distortionary, it is troubling that SITE would list them as examples of foreign interference when the analysts could not establish that the posts were PRC-directed.”
These SITE reports were written before Mr. O’Toole revealed to the Commons in May, 2023, that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had informed him that he was the target of a misinformation and voter-suppression operation by the Chinese Communist Party in the 2021 election.
Mr. O’Toole, asked for comment recently, said: “I think that all participants in the inquiry should listen, learn and let the inquiry do its job. This is especially the case for parliamentarians.”
Mr. Chiu, asked for comment, said he believes Mr. Woo is unable to detect “well-resourced, experienced and sophisticated foreign state interference.” He said his registry proposal was designed to bring “what is shadowy and clandestine” into the sunlight.
Mr. Woo, an expert in Asian affairs, was appointed to the Senate by Mr. Trudeau in 2016. He has been accused by Conservative senators of being an apologist for Beijing after he opposed a motion that was critical of China constructing artificial islands and military airfields in the South China Sea. He has argued that a foreign-influence registry could do more harm than good.
In December, Mr. Woo and Conservative Senator Victor Oh threw their support behind two Chinese-Canadian community centres in Montreal who threatened to sue the RCMP over public comments about its investigation into whether these facilities were being used as illegal police stations by Beijing to intimidate or harass people of Chinese origin.
When China imprisoned Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Mr. Woo had advocated for a negotiated solution that included detained Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou – as did prominent Liberals from the Jean Chrétien era, such as former justice minister Allan Rock and former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.