Late in August of 1971, the Iowa Highway Patrol arrested two people for speeding and carrying a concealed weapon. The two were activists for The Black Revolutionary Party, a militant group formed earlier that year at a meeting of Canadian supporters of Chinese Communism, which was dedicated to armed resistance against discrimination and to the spread of Mao Zedong’s ideology.
In the car, the Iowa officers discovered an envelope addressed to Ottawa, to Bu Chaomin, a correspondent for China’s Xinhua News Agency. He was also, according to declassified FBI files, “reported to be a Red Chinese intelligence agent” – and later identified as one of the Chinese spies who spirited away Canadian nuclear technology, a record of covert work that forms part of an increasingly distant history.
But the Iowa police discovery a half-century ago underscores the long arc of Beijing’s efforts to shape politics and society across the Pacific, with Canada as a critical platform.
“The basic strategy is, identify the main enemy and move everybody from being aligned with the main enemy to the neutral position. And if they’re already in the neutral position, move them to the pro-China position,” said Charles Parton, a former British diplomat who is an associate fellow at the London-based Council on Geostrategy.
And “the main enemy is the United States.”
Secret intelligence documents viewed by The Globe and Mail have brought new light to how those efforts are taking place on Canadian soil, with attempts by Chinese diplomats to influence elections and shape policy. The documents describe Chinese diplomats directing money toward the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, working to defeat certain candidates for the federal Conservative Party and influencing the outcome of the Vancouver city election.
But for China, Canada has been a place of intense interest since the days of Chairman Mao’s rule.
“This goes back decades upon decades,” said Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat who is director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. Chinese intelligence operations in Canada began even before Beijing and Ottawa formally commenced relations, he said, recalling discussions about China with the RCMP security division prior to the 1984 formation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“It’s a bit like crabgrass,” Mr. Houlden said. “You pull it up, and it grows back again.”
The intelligence documents reported by The Globe provide new revelations of how China has interfered in Canada – but warnings of such activity have been consistent over the years.
In 2007, Chen Yonglin, who defected to Australia after a 14-year career in China’s foreign service, described Canada as a “second priority” for Chinese intelligence, eclipsed only by the U.S. Relative to its population, Canada has one of the world’s largest communities of ethnic Chinese people outside of Asia, far greater in percentage terms than Britain or other European countries.
Canada’s cities have been havens for Chinese dissidents and criminals alike. Canadian universities and scientists not only conduct leading-edge work, they often do so in conjunction with U.S. researchers – and have been willing to welcome colleagues from China to their laboratories. Some of those colleagues have come to Canada from military research institutions.
Canada, too, occupies a place of relative international influence: a member of the G7, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, NATO and with shores that touch three oceans – including the Arctic, which China increasingly sees as a place to extend its influence to protect vital future shipping lanes.
Canada and the U.S. “share intelligence, share intellectual property,” Mr. Chen said in an interview from Sydney. But China has perceived Canada and countries like it, Australia included, as “generally easy to break,” Mr. Chen said, in part by leaning on those it can sway.
“The Chinese government sees its citizens and even Chinese dissidents as its assets and easy to influence,” Mr. Chen said. Those people typically have connections to China, be they business interests or family.
“Dollar diplomacy” is even simpler, he said. When he served as a diplomat in Sydney, cash from an “ambassador’s fund” could be used to reimburse those who helped the embassy. “But of course the local donor can also be funded with business opportunity in China,” Mr. Chen said.
Influence efforts can be risky, and their outcomes not always as expected. Joseph Shi has been a municipal councillor in Cremona, Alta., where he is a restaurant owner and outspoken critic of Chinese human-rights violations. Weeks before the most recent municipal election there, in 2021, a pair of unfamiliar people – their faces captured on surveillance cameras but not recognized by local residents – distributed letters calling Mr. Shi an irresponsible and manipulative liar and urging others to run against him.
The letter had the “opposite effect,” Mr. Shi recalled. “People brought that letter to me and told me, ‘we never voted before. But if you need a vote, we will vote for you.’ ” He won back his seat by acclamation.
It’s not clear who was behind the effort; an e-mail sent to the address on the letter went unanswered.
Experts have dismissed the effects of Chinese interference on recent Canadian elections. An independent review of foreign election interference, for example, found nothing serious enough to change the overall result of the 2021 federal vote. Not even the incumbent mayor who lost in the 2022 city of Vancouver election believes interference tilted the outcome.
But such dismissiveness can be dangerous, cautioned Dennis Molinaro, a former national-security analyst with the federal government specializing in foreign interference. “If we’re only focused on the election as a whole, then they win,” he said. “Then they get to do what they wanted to do, and there’s no effort to really disrupt or challenge that.”
Electoral outcomes also constitute only one element of China’s overseas influence ambitions. In Australia, Sam Dastyari resigned from the Senate in 2018 after a series of controversies involving his relationship with a wealthy Chinese donor. At one point, Mr. Dastyari contradicted his party’s own policy on the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its own.
Most Western democracies, meanwhile, have found it relatively easy to respond to Russian interference through sanctions and other measures that have isolated Moscow. Doing the same to Beijing has been more difficult for most democratic leaders, including in Canada.
That in itself can point to China’s efforts.
“The cost of ‘pushing back’ against the PRC could be high,” said Akshay Singh, a research associate with the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, using an acronym for the Communist Party-ruled People’s Republic of China.
“This raises challenges for democracies that want to take actions against perceived ‘bad behaviour’ by PRC actors, as they must consider several factors – including economic ones – before publicly denouncing any aspect of PRC or party policy.”
China’s government does not generally admit any culpability in foreign interference, preferring to assign blame to others – and in particular the U.S. – for overseas meddling. “Are there any countries engaged in spying activities? Yes, there are, but China has never been one of them,” the Chinese embassy in Ottawa wrote on Twitter last week.
But the roots of China’s modern-day spying apparatus, the Ministry of State Security, predate the Communist Party’s rule of the country. So, too, does “united front” work, which uses intelligence and influence to act against those the party perceives as adversaries. Today’s United Front Work Department, established in 1979, has been reinvigorated under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
“Xi’s China Dream, though often vague, has at its heart a China able to match if not replace the United States as the world’s superpower,” Australian researcher Gerry Groot wrote in a 2019 paper.
China’s work to accomplish that has involved achieving more subtle aims, such as persuading others to put their faith in a more benign image of itself.
Beijing enjoyed a lengthy period of global warm feeling after it joined the World Trade Organization and then, several years later, played host to the Summer Olympics. The past decade under the leadership of Mr. Xi has brought a change in course, with individual freedoms constrained at home, outsiders treated with greater suspicions and the Communist Party exerting a tighter grip on society and the economy.
Beijing has sought to keep foreign governments from abandoning past policies toward it, said Alex Joske, author of Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World. That includes “thinking that China doesn’t pose a fundamental challenge to the existing international order, thinking that we need to welcome and encourage greater Chinese government involvement in the international system.”
In reality, it is better to understand Beijing’s view of the world as a place organized in concentric circles that mark its sphere of influence, said Paul Charon, a former intelligence analyst who is now director for intelligence, strategy foresight and influence at the Institute for Strategic Research in Paris. He co-authored a lengthy report on Chinese influence operations that devotes nearly 50 pages to Canada’s experience.
At the core lies the Communist Party. Beyond that are the people it governs directly inside China. Next are the Chinese diasporas, followed by the societies in which those diasporas live. “The goal is always the same: to control these populations,” he said, with the hope of extinguishing opposition that could challenge the party’s rule.
“They have to be able to prevent all potential enemies that can emerge in any country,” he said.