China’s political interference in Canada is pervasive, and likely goes well beyond what has already come to light, former prime minister Stephen Harper is warning, calling for an end to what he calls “naive globalism.”
The Chinese government has sought to influence elections in Canada, channel money to curry political favour and seek vulnerabilities in politicians who have family living in China, according to secret intelligence documents reported by The Globe and Mail in recent months.
But Mr. Harper said there is reason to think the full extent of Beijing’s encroachment on Canadian political life is more severe than what is already known.
“I suspect it is far worse than we think,” he said Thursday, offering rare public remarks to an audience at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver at an event organized by the Fraser Institute. The Globe obtained an audio recording of his comments, which included a sweeping condemnation of Beijing and its conduct – and a warning about what China is seeking to achieve.
“Let me tell you, the Chinese government has never had any restriction in its behaviour in terms of interfering in the Canadian political system,” Mr. Harper said. “They do so all the time, in all kinds of different ways.”
Mr. Harper did not shed any new light on Beijing’s efforts in Canada, nor what he might have learned during his time as prime minister. He did not comment directly on the approach taken by his successor, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who entered office determined to pursue a new golden era with China, although his government has more recently called out Beijing’s “coercive behaviour” and flouting of international norms.
Mr. Harper was more blunt in his assessment, calling China’s authoritarian leader a danger to democracies.
“Xi Jinping is a much more long-term, serious threat than [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said. Under Mr. Xi, Beijing wants “to create a new world order, a hub-and-spokes global economy where all authority is ultimately centred in Beijing,” he said.
Were China to attain Western standards of lifestyle and output, he said, its size means it would be three times more powerful than the U.S. at the end of the Cold War.
So Mr. Xi’s vision for his country is “not an idle ambition.”
Inquiry or not, foreign interference in Canada’s elections is part of a new Cold War that we cannot hide from
Early in his term as prime minister, Mr. Harper condemned China’s selling “out to the almighty dollar,” then skipped the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Summer Olympics. He subsequently pivoted to a more accommodating stand, making an official visit to Beijing in 2014. Since leaving office, he has travelled to both Taiwan and China. “They love me when I go there now,” he said of China.
Even so, he said, a proper recognition of Chinese power and Beijing’s aspirations should drive a broader reconsideration of how Western democracies approach international affairs and foreign trade. In Mr. Harper’s lexicon, it should prompt a retreat from “naive globalism.” He recalled how, as prime minister, he received pressure from the corporate sector to mute his criticism of China’s human-rights record.
But the deal to allow China into the World Trade Organization “was the worst commercial arrangement in the history of mankind,” he said. “It essentially has allowed the Chinese unfettered access to our markets,” with no reciprocal guarantees of access to China’s own enormous population of consumers.
Western leaders, he said, should approach trade with China in the same way it has itself approached trade.
“I don’t think we should allow an import into this country, or an investment, unless it is specifically approved – and unless we are sure we are getting something in return,” he said.
And “we need to unite. Western countries need to act in concert.”
Mr. Harper was critical of Canada’s current approach to global affairs and economic management.
Canadian foreign policy has been too soft, he argued, built around an idea of “go along to get along. Just being friends with everybody at all costs is kind of the objective.” It would be better, he said, to see more “hard thinking” in the Canadian approach, one propelled by the country’s values and interests, which include both security and economic priorities.
That economy, he added, has become deeply imbalanced, insufficiently productive and too focused on demand policy. “You can’t solve the problem of stagflation by manipulating interest rates or deficits,” he said. “You need serious supply reforms to kickstart growth and encourage entrepreneurialism.” His proposed solutions echoed those of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, saying it is time to remove bureaucratic barriers to construction, housing, infrastructure and resource projects.
“The kind of supply reforms you focus on are things that are going to attack – in this country – both bureaucratic and corporate, oligopolies, and monopolies that are holding back growth,” he said.
Since leaving office, Mr. Harper has started a private consultancy, worked for Denton’s, the international law firm and taken advisory and oversight roles with companies in the venture capital and real estate sectors. He also created an activist investment fund alongside Courtney Mather, a protégé of financier Carl Icahn, Bloomberg News reported in 2021.
Although little has since been said publicly about that fund, Mr. Harper said Thursday it is located in Florida. “Florida is booming,” he said, citing “low taxes, low regulation, lots of spending on police and falling rates of crime.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis formally launched his campaign this week to become the Republican presidential nominee, although Mr. Harper said he expects the next U.S. election to be a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump – “two candidates that neither party nor the electorate want” – with Mr. Biden once again winning.
He nonetheless offered a note of optimism at a time of deep political division and war. Look to history, he suggested: In 1979, inflation rates were near double-digits, unemployment was far higher, and the U.S.-led West “was losing every conflict around the world. The Soviet Empire was growing everywhere. It looked absolutely hopeless.”
A decade later, with a new generation of leaders in power, the world was being remade.
“By 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet empire was collapsing,” Mr. Harper said. “And we were back to some of the best growing years we have had in the post-war period.”