Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim responds to questions about CSIS reports revealing China's consulate sought to interfere in the 2022 municipal election at a press conference near Vancouver city hall on March 16.Kayla Isomura/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim expressed outrage after the disclosure of Canadian intelligence reports that revealed China’s consul-general worked to interfere in the election Mr. Sim won last year.

Mr. Sim made no comment on the seriousness of foreign-interference threats to the city. Instead, he lashed out in the wake of a Globe and Mail report on Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents that cited Chinese consul-general Tong Xiaoling’s efforts “to get all eligible voters to come out and elect a specific Chinese-Canadian candidate.” The documents do not name any candidate.

“If I was a Caucasian male, we’re not having this conversation,” Mr. Sim said in response Thursday.

“This is the signal that we send to the community, that says you finally get a seat at the table, there are institutions that are going to knock you down,” he added. “I think it’s disgusting.”

Mr. Sim, however, said he supported “anything we can do to make our [electoral] institutions stronger.”

The Canadian-born Mr. Sim is the first person of Chinese descent to become mayor of Vancouver. On Thursday, he credited his victory to a years-long effort and a team that “ran the table” in the city’s Oct. 15, 2022 election.

The CSIS documents explain how in mid-November, 2021, Ms. Tong talked about orchestrating the Chinese diaspora to help elect a new mayor and a favoured city councillor.

The documents, viewed by The Globe, describe how Ms. Tong, who left Vancouver last year, also wanted to assess an individual to see if they were worth “grooming,” the document said. The aim was to discover if the individual was a “good sapling to cultivate.”

David Johnston too close to Trudeau family to oversee China interference review, Conservative, Bloc leaders say

Campbell Clark: There has to be a big broad inquiry on China’s election interference now

Mr. Sim defeated incumbent mayor Kennedy Stewart, who had drawn criticism from the Chinese government for suspending meetings with its diplomats and strengthening ties with Taiwan.

Mr. Stewart, who lost by almost 37,000 votes, told The Globe that he believes he was a target of Chinese government interference in the municipal election, saying his invitations to Chinese-Canadian events dwindled and campaign donations dried up three weeks before the vote. Mr. Stewart said he was briefed in late May, 2022, by CSIS’s regional director and one of the agency’s China specialists about foreign interference in municipal politics.

Since he took office, Mr. Sim said more than a dozen consuls-general have come to city hall, but he added that he does not know the name of China’s chief representative in the city. He said if there were proof of foreign interference “I would be as mad as hell as everyone else.” But he dismissed the possibility of such interference in relation to his own ABC Vancouver party.

“The next person who was not an ABC Vancouver person had to get 50 per cent more of their own votes to catch up to our last-place finisher,” he said. “So to say that any one person or group swung an election – I think it’s kind of crazy.”

Mr. Stewart said on Wednesday he would not go so far as to say he lost the election because of Beijing interference efforts.

On Thursday, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa issued a statement on Twitter, denying that its consular diplomats have interfered in local elections.

“Are there engagements by the Chinese side in various circles in Canada?” the embassy said. “Yes, there are, but none of them are interference in internal affairs. It is the responsibility of consular institutions to have extensive contacts and carry out friendly exchanges with local governments and all circles of society.”

In 2022, Mr. Sim was joined on city council by Lenny Zhou, who came to B.C. as a graduate student from Beijing. Mr. Zhou, a Canadian, was described earlier this week as holding views favourable to China by Vancouver activist Louis Huang. But Mr. Huang on Thursday apologized and said he was no longer certain it was Mr. Zhou who made those comments – and even Mr. Zhou’s political opponents leapt to his defence.

“I would describe him as very pro-democracy and pretty anti-CCP,” said Russil Wvong, who failed to win a seat last year alongside Mr. Stewart.

“I have no doubt that China and the CCP do not particularly respect Western democracies,” Mr. Wvong said. “I’m sure they would want to be pushing to support whoever they favour.”

But he expressed skepticism about the role China played in the outcome of Vancouver’s 2022 vote, saying “it was not a close election.”

“The Chinese,” he added, “are not omnipotent and omniscient.”

Mr. Zhou, however, said more scrutiny is needed of foreign interference. “I am 100 per cent behind a thorough and transparent investigation, he said.

The conduct by Ms. Tong described in the CSIS documents renewed calls in Ottawa for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take more action in response.

“The idea of a foreign government influencing our municipal elections is deeply concerning. It should not be happening and it is why we have been calling for a public inquiry,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who represents a Burnaby riding. “We want to make sure Canadians have confidence in our electoral system.”

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters in Ottawa Thursday that leaks of secret intelligence show deep concern within national-security agencies about Ottawa’s unwillingness to deal with Beijing’s influence operations.

“Something is wrong inside,” he said. “I am glad that they do [leak] because this is information that serves the public interest.” He added that it is impossible to know if foreign-influence activities affect the outcome of elections.

“This cannot be clearly demonstrated. Does it have an influence, I’d say yes.”

Some of those involved in Vancouver’s 2018 election also say they feared outside interference was contorting the democratic process.

“There absolutely was influence of the CCP in that election,” said Neil McIver, in a reference to the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. McIver has been involved in roughly 40 elections in B.C. since the 1980s. In 2018, he was strategy chair for Coalition Vancouver, a right-wing civic party whose slate included a Hong Kong-born candidate for mayor.

Mr. McIver described attacks on social media, in particular the Chinese app WeChat, that spread damaging information about Coalition Vancouver candidates. “It was a battle royale online. Rumours being started about candidates that they didn’t like. And positive stories being pushed.”

“It was designed to influence the Chinese community effectively towards all voting in one direction or another,” he said, adding: “Their preference seemed to be in this order: mainland-Chinese-born candidates that were left wing, then mainland-Chinese-born candidates that were of any party.”

None of the Coalition Vancouver candidates won; the party’s top finisher placed 27th.

Days before the 2018 election, RCMP in Richmond, B.C., launched an investigation into possible voter manipulation after the Canada Wenzhou Friendship Society urged its members to support Chinese political participation, suggesting on WeChat a number of candidates to vote for and offering a $20 “transportation subsidy” to those who cast ballots. RCMP subsequently said they had found no evidence of a crime.

Last December, RCMP visited the society’s Richmond office after reports of a secret Chinese police “station.”

Jason Xie was one of the Coalition Vancouver candidates named in the Wenzhou post in 2018. He says he has never been in contact with the group. On the campaign trail, however, he recalled being approached by people expressing concern that Canada’s role in the extradition proceedings against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou were damaging Canada’s ties with China.

“Most of them were actually businesspeople who benefit from a good trade relationship between Canada and China,” he said.

Mr. Xie also ran Coalition Vancouver’s WeChat page, where the party carried out a weeks-long campaign to push out articles about its platform. He recalled a tide of misinformation, “people trying to basically just make us look bad or trying to defame us.”

But, he said, “the negative information all came from our political adversary.”

Still, allegations of wrongdoing among Chinese candidates echoed widely, said David Wong, who watched his poll numbers fall in tandem with others who had Chinese surnames. “A number of people across party lines had the same effect. We all just dropped,” he said.

In 2018, no person of Asian descent won a Vancouver city council seat.

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe