When Member of Parliament Kenny Chiu was contacted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) ahead of Canada’s federal election in 2021, he was puzzled.
He had never expected to be part of a CSIS investigation, let alone one that required an in-person talk at the height of Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic.
“At that time, everything had moved online, so it was quite unexpected that they insisted on a face-to-face sit-down,” Chiu told Al Jazeera.
But the topic of the meeting was highly sensitive: alleged Chinese interference in Canada’s elections. And soon, it would be a dominant issue in Canada’s politics, shaping Chiu’s political fortunes – and eventually even the prime minister’s.
Intelligence reports leaked from the CSIS in recent months indicate that Canada’s intelligence community has been concerned about Chinese election interference for decades.
The documents suggest the Chinese government has not only been spreading disinformation but has also been operating a clandestine network to influence the past two federal elections, in 2019 and 2021.
The alleged network includes Chinese diplomats, Canadian politicians, business owners and international students. They are accused of using their influence to support pro-Beijing candidates and scuttle voices critical of China.
One of those figures is the former Chinese Consul General of Vancouver Tong Xiaoling. In a leak to the newspaper The Globe and Mail, Tong allegedly boasted that Chinese efforts resulted in the defeat of two candidates from Canada’s Conservative Party in the province of British Columbia. Chiu was one of them.
Disinformation on the campaign trail
Chiu started to note a shift six months ahead of his reelection bid, in the early months of 2021.
First elected to represent the district of Steveston-Richmond East in 2019, Chiu had recently introduced a private member’s bill called the Foreign Influence Registry Act.
It would have required individuals working for foreign governments and political organisations to register their communications with Canadian officials if they sought, for example, to introduce policy proposals or influence public contracts.
According to Chiu, the bill was intended to provide Canada with tools to combat foreign interference without singling out any country in particular.
“Yet, we saw a lot of disinformation being circulated about the bill, saying things like, ‘It is going to put Chinese-Canadians in jeopardy and that people with ties to China would risk being fined 400,000 Canadian dollars’ [about $300,000],” Chiu said. “Of course, none of that was true.”
Chiu himself came under fire. “There was also slander directed at me, saying that I am a sell-out and accusing me of racism in spite of my own Chinese heritage.”
But Chiu was not alone in noticing an increase in scrutiny after the introduction of his bill. The Canadian disinformation monitor DisInfoWatch closely reviewed the stories about Chiu and other Conservative Party candidates during the 2021 election.
It found there were strong indications of a coordinated campaign aimed at influencing Chinese-Canadian voters.
Benjamin Fung, a cybersecurity professor at McGill University, also analysed the disinformation disseminated during the election. He too concluded that there were links to Asia.
“It was widespread but a lot of the activity would be concentrated around a 9am to 5pm time slot – only not in Canada time, but in China time,” Fung told Al Jazeera. “So it was most likely being coordinated from somewhere in East Asia.”
Chiu’s district had a large Chinese-Canadian community and experts found that a sizeable proportion of the disinformation was being spread through WeChat, a Chinese social media app used widely in the diaspora community.
With an estimated 1 million users in Canada, WeChat was one of the few apps that allowed for communication between people inside and outside China.
Chiu subsequently lost his bid for reelection. And his private member bill on foreign interference was ultimately shelved.
Scandal for the Liberal Party
The precise effect of the alleged Chinese interference is difficult to measure, however.
While Canada’s government has acknowledged that China did meddle in the 2019 and 2021 elections, a report released in February concluded that those efforts did not meaningfully affect the outcome of either vote.
Chiu agrees that the Chinese interference might not have changed the result of his 2021 campaign. But, he insists, that does not mean that foreign meddling should not be taken seriously.
“It is not just our democracy that is under threat. It is our very sovereignty as a nation that is at stake,” he said.
The recent revelations about election interference have ignited a political firestorm for the ruling Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
One Liberal Party MP, Han Dong, was identified among the leaks as having private meetings with the Chinese consul general in Toronto, Han Tao.
National security sources quoted by CTV News accuse Dong of encouraging China to delay freeing two Canadians, Michael Sparov and Michael Kovrig, who were detained in 2018 on espionage charges.
Releasing them too early, Dong allegedly implied, would benefit the Conservative Party in the polls.
Dong has denied he made any such suggestions but confirmed that he did speak with the consul general. His office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment and Dong has since stepped down from the Liberal Party, serving instead as an independent.
Amid growing political pressure, Trudeau appointed an independent special rapporteur in March to examine the reports of election interference and determine whether a public inquiry was necessary.
His critics say it is too little, too late. They accuse Trudeau of being more fixated on stopping the leaks than addressing the interference itself.
Preying on anti-Chinese hate
Initially, Trudeau dismissed the allegations against Dong as evidence of anti-Asian racism.
“One of the things we’ve seen unfortunately over the past years is a rise in anti-Asian racism linked to the pandemic and concerns being arisen around people’s loyalties,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Mississauga.
Accusations that Dong was “somehow not loyal to Canada”, he added, “should not be entertained”.
But some experts say the issue of anti-Asian hate has been used as a smokescreen, in some cases, to disguise election interference efforts.
Reports have shown that cases of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia rose in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards, resulting in an increased sense of insecurity among Canadians of Asian heritage.
Beijing has been able to play on such concerns, dismissing criticism of its interference efforts as further evidence of anti-Asian bias, according to research analyst Ai-Men Lau. She works for the Doublethink Lab, an organisation that tracks influence operations.
The solution, she told Al Jazeera, is to engage directly with Chinese diaspora communities to build trust in Canada’s public institutions. But the government initiatives she has seen so far have been top-down.
“I still haven’t really seen anything that’s forward-looking in terms of what we are going to do for the next election,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we have a particularly nasty habit in Canada of being incredibly reactive to any allegations of foreign interference rather than being proactive.”
China, meanwhile, has consistently denied allegations that it interfered in Canada’s elections. On a message board on the Chinese embassy’s official website, a spokesperson called the accusations “pure slander and total nonsense”.
Al Jazeera reached out to the Chinese consulate in Vancouver and Toronto as well as the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, but none replied to requests for comment.
Beyond election interference
Some advocates believe the interference extends well beyond Canada’s electoral system. In 2019, Canadian activist Rukiye Turdush said she uncovered evidence that students planned to obstruct a talk she gave at Ontario’s McMaster University, in collaboration with Chinese officials.
Turdush, a member of the Uighur ethnic group, had given a talk about the situation in Xinjiang, the far western region of China where some 1 million Uighurs have been held in reeducation camps, according to the United Nations.
One Chinese student in attendance accused her of lying and swore at her before storming out. But afterwards, Turdush received a series of screenshots from WeChat purporting to show Chinese students gathering information about her and her son, ostensibly to intimidate her.
Based on the chats, shared with Al Jazeera, Chinese student groups reported to and coordinated with the Chinese embassy in Canada to disrupt her event.
“It shows how deep the Chinese interference goes in Canadian society today and how many different Chinese actors are involved,” Turdush told Al Jazeera.
In 2022, the Spanish NGO Safeguard Defenders released a report revealing a global network of more than 100 so-called overseas police service stations, operating on behalf of the Chinese government.
It identified three sites in Toronto alone, with other locations believed to be in Montreal and Vancouver.
The presence of such police stations does not surprise Toronto resident Mimi Lee, a member of the NGO Torontonian HongKongers Action Group.
The Chinese government’s influence is pervasive, she said. “The interference from the Chinese government exists from top to bottom in Canada today.”