The diplomatic expulsion from Canada of Chinese consular official Zhao Wei from China's consulate in Toronto marks a new nadir in Canada-China relations. The crisis began with Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 (enforcing a U.S. Justice Department arrest warrant under the Canada-U.S. Extradition Treaty) and China's subsequent retaliatory arrest of two Canadian citizens (Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig) for alleged national security violations. After Zhao's expulsion for bringing pressure on a Canadian Member of Parliament (MP) by making enquiries about that Member's relatives living in Hong Kong, China expelled a consular official from the Canadian Consulate in Shanghai. Tit-for-tat retaliation when diplomats are declared persona non grata is standard procedure in diplomatic practice. The question now is whether China will take any further action such as blocking Canadian exports, as it has in the past.
What became known as the Meng/Michaels crisis ended when the U.S. Justice Department reached a settlement with Meng and dropped the extradition request. Meng was then allowed to leave Canada to return to China and the two Michaels were released the same day, September 24, 2021. With the resolution of the crisis, Canada and China began to pick up the pieces of a frayed relationship, although Canadian public opinion was strongly anti-PRC. Canada then launched a new Indo-Pacific strategy in November of 2022, adopting a tougher public stance on China and calling it “an increasingly disruptive global power,” but at the same time indicated that it would continue to work with China on issues of mutual concern, such as climate change and pandemics. The strategy, while encouraging diversification of trade elsewhere in Asia, also avoided any suggestion of economic decoupling and continued to note the importance of the Chinese market to Canadian exporters. And why not? China’s other trading partners, including the United States, continue to promote exports despite ongoing U.S.-China trade and technology tensions. Some nine percent of U.S. exports go to China, whereas the corresponding percentage for Canada is less than half that number (around four percent) and much less in overall value (only 13 percent of the total dollar value of U.S. exports to China).
Meanwhile, repeated but unsubstantiated reports of Chinese interference in Canada’s national elections held in 2019 and 2021 began to surface. A defeated Chinese-Canadian Conservative MP who represented a district with a large percentage of ethnic Chinese voters claimed he had been targeted by the Chinese consulate in Vancouver through a WeChat campaign to ensure his defeat as he had been a strong advocate for the introduction of a foreign agent registry. Other reports of election interference poured out, fed by a series of leaks from Canada’s internal security agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). Then the bombshell about Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei’s activities surfaced, again through an unauthorized leak.
On May 1, citing a leaked 2021 CSIS document The Globe and Mail reported on activities by Chinese consular officials to counteract political support in Canada for issues or causes that China considers damaging to its interest, such as Taiwan or Tibetan independence, or treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. One of the targets was Conservative MP Michael Chong about whom, according to the CSIS report, Zhao made enquiries seeking information on his extended family’s whereabouts. This was apparently to intimidate Chong, an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record in Xinjiang. Chong had been sanctioned by China in retaliation for sanctions imposed by Canada on certain Chinese officials related to human rights violations against the Uyghur population.
If this was an overt attempt to influence or intimidate Chong, it wasn’t very effective since Chong was unaware of Zhao’s activities until the Globe published the CSIS leak. Apparently, no-one informed Chong of Zhao’s inquiries nor, it seems, was this information brought to the attention of Prime Minister Trudeau or any ministers. The report had been forwarded to the office of Trudeau’s national security advisor where it was deemed non-actionable. To say that the opposition Conservative Party has made political hay with these revelations would be an understatement. Under pressure, the Trudeau government instructed CSIS that any attempts to interfere with the rights of Members of Parliament, no matter how minor, were to be reported both to the MP and to ministers responsible, and belatedly announced it would fast track legislation introducing a Foreign Agents Registration Act. (The United States has had such legislation since 1938. It requires certain individuals who are engaged in lobbying or political activities on behalf of foreign governments or entities to register as a “foreign agent” with the Department of Justice. Australia introduced similar legislation in 2018.)
The repeated security leaks seem to have caught the Trudeau government off-guard; one response was to name respected former Governor-General David Johnston a “Special Rapporteur” to examine whether a public inquiry was warranted. Johnston’s report, delivered May 23, declined to recommend a public inquiry but stated he would conduct public hearings into what he called “ubiquitous” foreign interference, especially from the PRC.
After the press revelations about Zhao’s activities, (and despite being personally briefed on the CSIS report by the new national security advisor), Chong was not about to let the government off the hook, demanding Zhao’s expulsion. After wide media coverage, it became inevitable that Foreign Affairs Minister Joly would take action. Once Zhao’s expulsion was announced–which China naturally protested–China took reciprocal action to expel a Canadian diplomat. However, to date no further measures have been announced. Will China leave it at that and move on?
The lessons from this episode are still being digested. The first is that China will not hesitate to try to exert influence amongst diaspora communities to influence opinion in ways favorable to Chinese policies. This has been a longstanding practice of the United Front Work Department of the CCP and, as David Johnston pointed out, can be a legitimate diplomatic activity. However, when it involves “covert, deceptive or threatening” activities, that is crossing the line, as we have seen from allegations of foreign interference in the past U.S. presidential election. The second lesson is that the Canadian government needs to clearly communicate with the public about what is–and what is not–happening and take measures commensurate with any threat to the fairness or perceived fairness of the electoral process, or to interference with elected Members of Parliament. Clearly one or more disaffected employees within CSIS have been trying to force the issue and embarrass the government by selectively leaking documents, putting it in the defensive position of reacting to leaks rather than taking the initiative to control the issue. Finally, it demonstrates China’s extreme sensitivity to criticism of its policies and its willingness to push the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior in terms of trying to influence outcomes, even in a country like Canada that it considers a second-tier power.
While the Canadian business community would like to lower the temperature to keep trade flowing unimpeded, Canada-China relations are likely in for a further rocky ride. Even if the Trudeau government wanted to mitigate and manage its differences with China, China’s United Front activities combined with the selective leaking of information about such activities from the security agencies in Canada—with more likely to come—will ensure that relations with China will continue to be highly politicized domestically leaving the Trudeau government with little room to maneuver.