Why Did Trudeau Dawdle on Chinese Election Meddling?
A new inquiry may expose Beijing’s reach in Ottawa.
After months of resisting the idea, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a major public inquiry tasked with investigating how China has meddled in Canadian politics.
After months of resisting the idea, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a major public inquiry tasked with investigating how China has meddled in Canadian politics.
The reversal, amid miserable domestic polling numbers and intense pressure from the opposition parties and media, comes after more than a year of revelations about Beijing’s efforts to interfere in Canada—largely to the advantage of Trudeau’s Liberal Party.
The forthcoming report promises to be deeply uncomfortable for the Canadian government in Ottawa. Since he first came into office, Trudeau—like his predecessors—has attempted a tricky balancing act with the Chinese regime, promoting trade and diplomacy with Beijing whilst trying to find some recourse for human rights abuses, illiberal trade practices, and foreign meddling.
Trudeau has styled himself as a global crusader against foreign meddling—at least when it carried Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints. Now, like Australia and the United States before it, Canada is grappling with tough questions. How was such a brazen interference campaign allowed to continue uninterrupted for so long? Why was the public kept in the dark about it? And did Trudeau’s own policies encourage these covert operations?
Just as it was beginning to tackle these questions in earnest, Ottawa made the stunning accusation that New Delhi was also meddling in its affairs in a far more severe manner — by, allegedly, murdering a prominent activist. Now it must figure out how to assert its sovereignty again. And the best place is to start is by understanding how it got here.
Canada’s intelligence agencies have been warning for decades that China is running covert affairs inside Canada. And, for just as long, there has been a dogged rejection of those warnings from politicians who see China as key to Canada’s economic future—or who fear alienating ethnically Chinese voters.
There was a 1997 report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)—responsible for espionage and counterespionage efforts in the country—and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, warning that a confluence of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, organized crime bosses, and business tycoons were cooperating to infiltrate Canadian businesses and steal intellectual property and “interfere in the management of the country.”
It should not have been a great surprise. China and Canada have been friendly since then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau established relations with Beijing in 1970—two years before then-U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China. By the 1990s, about two percent of Canadians were either Chinese-born or descended from Chinese immigrants. (That percentage would more than double by the 2000s.) Beijing saw the diaspora as owing loyalty to the Chinese state. Chinese operatives tried to use the diaspora to advance its foreign policy, both overtly and covertly, sometimes threatening people with consequences for family back home if they didn’t cooperate.
But Ottawa didn’t want to hear it. A final version of that 1997 report was sanitized, and the direct allegations against Beijing were removed. Years later, in 2010, the head of CSIS tried to raise those concerns again, teasing that there were sitting politicians “who we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government.” For that, he was excoriated. A committee of parliamentarians accused him of xenophobia and demanded he be fired. (The government of the day, itself skeptical of China, kept him on.)
In the years that followed, evidence of Chinese operations mounted. There were accusations that Chinese state news agency Xinhua was trying to spy on the Dalai Lama’s trip to Ottawa and a suggestion it directed the seduction of one member of parliament. There is a credible allegation that Chinese spies bugged the offices of former telecommunications giant Nortel, using the ill-gotten technology to launch Huawei. There was a Beijing-backed hack of a government research facility, and an espionage effort run out of Vancouver to steal F-35 fighter jet secrets.
Yet when Trudeau first ran for high office, he did so on a plan to deepen trade ties with Beijing—in contrast to his predecessor, who had taken a more cautious approach. Trudeau fixed his gaze on an elusive project: becoming the first country in the G-7 to sign a full free-trade deal with Beijing.
He hit the ground running.
Trudeau made his first visit to China in 2016, less than a year after his election. There, he gifted Chinese President Xi Jinping a medallion of Norman Bethune, a Canadian surgeon and personal friend of CCP leader Mao Zedong. It was identical to a medallion that Trudeau’s father, as prime minister, gifted Mao himself in 1973.
Trudeau’s cabinet of ministers quickly got to work putting that rejuvenated relationship into action. His government began negotiating an extradition deal to deport alleged money launderers back to China. In 2017, Trudeau sent a junior minister to Beijing to attend the first-ever Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. And Ottawa purchased 1 percent of the shares in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up to finance much of the Belt and Road Initiative’s work. (Ottawa has committed itself to about $1 billion, but has only paid in around $200 million.)
The Belt and Road Initiative was not just a far-off exercise. Beijing’s dream of a global trade network went right through Canada’s thawing north. If it were to secure ports and infrastructure through the Arctic, China would manage a set of global trade routes rivaling those of the United States. Indeed, Chinese firms moved to acquire a port in Churchill, Manitoba, and a gold mine in Hope Bay, Nunavut, which sits right along the Northwest Passage, soon to be navigable year-round.
For advice on how to get these deals done, Trudeau turned to groups such as the Canada China Business Council (CCBC), helmed by the powerful Desmarais family, owners of the Power Corporation of Canada—a major energy business that is also a minority shareholder in one of China’s largest mutual funds. The council itself is made up of Chinese companies such as Huawei and Canadian firms such as Teck Resources, which once boasted a member of China’s National People’s Congress on its board.
Trudeau appointed the CCBC head, Peter Harder, to the Senate of Canada in 2016. Both he and CCBC informed Ottawa’s China policies throughout Trudeau’s time in power.
Trudeau’s first mandate was a flurry of negotiations and relations-building exercises, meant to position Canada as China’s key ally in the West. Washington’s hawkish tone on Beijing did little to dissuade Ottawa, as diversifying Canada’s economy away from the United States was explicitly part of the reason for cozying up to China.
Over Trudeau’s first years in office, exports from Canada to China blew past 20 billion Canadian dollars (about $15 billion).
Right up until December 2018, it seemed that Canada was managing to thread the needle with China. The United States was taking a cautious approach, informed by waves of intellectual property theft, trade grievances, and security fears in the Indo-Pacific; and Europe was a jumble of competing interests. Ottawa had the natural resources to sell, and a nearly limitless desire for investment capital.
But then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, on a warrant from U.S. officials, arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The daughter of the company’s founder, and herself its chief financial officer, Wanzhou was accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Nine days later, China arrested two Canadian citizens: Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat; and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur. Beijing accused them of espionage.
The ensuing diplomatic spat—which lasted until Meng’s case was dismissed in 2021, precipitating Kovrig and Spavor’s release not long after—put much of the Canada-China relationship building on ice.
Talking points prepared for government ministers shifted from lauding the economic opportunity of better ties to Beijing to highlighting the “unprecedented crisis.” The extradition deal, once a priority, became a “challenge.” Publicly, Ottawa began calling out what had become a well-documented genocide in Xinjiang. The free trade deal was off the table, for now.
When Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, John McCallum, mused publicly that it would be “great for Canada” if the United States simply abandoned its effort to extradite Meng, Trudeau promptly fired him.
But Trudeau replaced McCallum with Dominic Barton, who had been a Shanghai-based managing partner at consulting giant McKinsey. Barton was effusive about China’s global ambitions while feverishly plugging the firm’s clients into Beijing’s sprawling procurement process. It was his job to get Kovrig and Spavor home—but also to quietly get the trade negotiations back on track.
Even as the talking points emphasized Canada’s rejection of China’s hostage diplomacy, internal memos obtained through freedom of information requests recommended that “Canada communicate to China its interest in participating” in the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing—despite Ottawa being uninvited.
The 50th anniversary of Canada’s establishment of diplomatic relations with China, in 2020, was “an opportunity for reflection rather than celebration,” the internal briefing notes read. It would be the occasion to “signal the coming policy reset” on China, while simultaneously “reassur[ing] stakeholders of the value of ongoing engagement with China bilaterally, where it is in Canada’s interests. (e.g. commercial relations).”
At the CCBC annual general meeting in Beijing in 2020, Trudeau’s trade minister was slated to participate by videoconference to, as the internal briefing notes described, “raise the complementarities and opportunities with regards to Chinese [foreign direct investment] in Canada.”
The G-7 leaders gathered for their 2018 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec. It was Trudeau’s first time hosting, and he had come up with the perfect signature initiative to put forward.
That summer, a steady stream of details was emerging about Russian efforts to propel then-U.S. President Donald Trump into the White House. The news had reached Canada, too: Trudeau’s right-hand woman, Chrystia Freeland, had been targeted by a smear campaign run out of the Russian embassy in Ottawa: As a result, a press attaché identified by the Canadian government as an intelligence operative was booted from the country.
At the G-7 summit, Trudeau proposed that the world’s richest countries ought to form a bulwark against this kind of foreign meddling. Under the plan, each country would set up its own “rapid response mechanism,” creating a mesh network designed to identify and expose those interference efforts before they could do real damage.
The mechanism would be, a joint communique boasted, “strong action in response to foreign actors who seek to undermine our democratic societies and institutions, our electoral processes, and our sovereignty.”
At home, Trudeau took it a step further: He created the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) task force, a team of senior bureaucratic and intelligence officials tasked with identifying foreign meddling efforts and alerting the public.
Yet from the outset, it seemed Ottawa’s focus was almost exclusively on Russian interference.
When asked by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018 about the external threats to Canadian democracy, and what he could do to prevent them, Trudeau said there was an effort by “certain countries, including Russia, to weaken institutions in the West, weaken democratic foundations, weaken people’s confidence in their institutions, in their governance, in their governments, is something we’re very, very alert to.” China wasn’t mentioned, which was fairly standard in those years. (Later in the conversation, asked about the brutal repression of the Uyghur minority in China, Trudeau demurred: “We recognize nobody’s perfect, but we are going to bring it up.”)
Trudeau was up for reelection for the first time in 2019 and came out ahead—albeit with a severely reduced majority and a hung Parliament. He went back to the electorate two years later, in 2021, and got almost exactly the same result. Over the course of the two elections, Trudeau continued to take a softer line on China, at least in contrast to the hawkish Conservative Party. In the first election, the Conservatives wanted a “reset” on Canada’s China policy, refocused on human rights and fighting unfair trade practices. In the next race, they proposed a more complete decoupling. And in two successive elections, the Conservative vote declined in jurisdictions with large Chinese Canadian populations. “When you keep attacking China, it sometimes translates as attacking the Chinese community,” Joe Li, a municipal politician, told the National Post at the time.
Erin O’Toole, who led the Conservatives into the 2021 election, said he suspected a deluge of negative posts targeting his party on the Chinese social media app WeChat played a role in his party’s declining fortunes in communities of Mandarin speakers.
But there was no formal accusation that Beijing was to blame. And the SITE task force assured everyone that things were fine.
“When the Protocol was introduced in 2019,” reads a postmortem of the task force’s work, “the concerns seem[ed] to be with large scale foreign interference along the lines of Russian actions in the 2016 U.S. election. … The Panel did not find that there was interference of that magnitude in Canada either in 2019 or 2021.”
He may not have acknowledged it publicly, but Trudeau and his government were being briefed consistently about the threat posed by Chinese meddling.
“When I first became aware of the significance of the threat posed by outside interference to our democratic institutions,” an anonymous national security official wrote in the pages of the Globe and Mail in March this year, “I worked—as have many unnamed and tireless colleagues—to equip our leaders with the knowledge and the tools needed to take action against it.”
Two elections came and went, the official wrote, and it became “increasingly clear that no serious action was being considered. Worse still, evidence of senior public officials ignoring interference was beginning to mount.”
The official provided ample documentation to the Globe highlighting the contours of this plot. Complimentary revelations appeared in the Global News. Broadly, the two news outlets reported a concerted and clandestine effort by the Chinese government to help politicians friendly to Beijing and hurt those who were more skeptical.
Some of these details were known at the time. But these leaks tied all those individual stories together, alleging a network-building effort coordinated from the Chinese consulate in Toronto.
For example, Trudeau went to a $1,500-per-ticket fundraiser, also attended by Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin, at the home of a Chinese Canadian businessman. Weeks later, Zhang made a $1 million donation to the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, a non-partisan charity named for the elder Trudeau, and Université de Montréal, his alma mater. At the time, the prime minister defended the fundraiser as a way of “drawing in global investment,” while the foundation said Zhang’s donation had come after he was inspired by a Chinese student studying at the university.
But the leaks revealed that CSIS had, in fact, intercepted a conversation between Zhang and Chinese diplomats discussing a plan to make the donation and to have the Chinese government repay that hefty sum, according to a security source who spoke to the Globe.
CSIS also had reason to believe that Chinese operatives in Toronto had spent the years after Trudeau’s victory setting up an influence network of politicians, from major parties and at all levels of government. That network helped certain politicians win primary contests, the spies alleged, by bussing in students. They drew up plans for an illicit financing regime to help their favored politicians. Some of those Canadian politicians developed close ties to the consulate, holding unreported phone conversations with Chinese diplomats—conversations picked up by Canadian wiretaps.
What’s more, CSIS had obtained intelligence suggesting that Chinese operatives, including diplomat Zhao Wei, were collecting information on at least two members of parliament, including Conservative Michael Chong and Jenny Kwan, a member of the New Democratic Party. The aim, CSIS believed, was to threaten those members’ families in China in order to cow the members into silence on matters regarding Beijing’s human rights record.
Canadian intelligence was aware of the threat, as evidenced by its extensive wiretaps of a foreign government’s diplomatic missions. Internal CSIS memos and briefing documents reveal that Ottawa sought to curtail some Chinese efforts to track and intimidate its citizens living in Canada. There had been high-level warnings. David Vigneault, director of CSIS, called out China in stark terms in a 2021 speech, accusing Beijing of wanting to “instill fear, silence dissent, and pressure political opponents” in Canada. Unclassified briefing notes, published online, single out the CCP’s United Front Work Department as being particularly culpable, especially on university campuses.
But a former Canadian intelligence source says there was frustration inside the team responsible for foreign interference, confirming the sentiment expressed in the anonymous official’s op-ed in the Globe. The spies felt they had identified the threat but were being held back from tackling it.
The Trudeau government had never publicly accused China of the particulars of these meddling operations. Nor did Ottawa raise the alarm about these efforts during the two elections in which China tried to fiddle with the results. Neither Chong nor Kwan were briefed on the specific threats to their families, for example—nor were the opposition parties told about these plots.
These revelations set off a political firestorm.
The board of the Trudeau Foundation resigned en masse after the shady donation was revealed and the foundation returned the money. Member of Parliament Han Dong, accused of being a beneficiary of the meddling and of maintaining an inappropriate relationship with the consulate, resigned from Trudeau’s party and filed a defamation lawsuit against Global News.
The opposition quickly escalated its attacks. First, it alleged Trudeau was ignorant to the meddling; then it accused him of willful blindness; ultimately, it accused him of actively working to advance Beijing’s interests in Canada.
Trudeau repeatedly said either that he had been unaware of the allegations made in these leaked intelligence assessments or that they contained “inaccuracies.” After months of pressure, he tapped David Johnston—a former governor general, the British crown’s representative in Canada—as a special rapporteur to study the matter. It was not the independent public inquiry that opposition parties had been calling for. It was, instead, a much smaller and informal process.
In a report, released this May, Johnston made a hash of things. He confirmed that the Chinese missions in Canada developed a plan to clandestinely fund politicians from the two largest political parties, with the help of a provincial politician. (“Possibly unwittingly,” Johnston noted.) But, he reported, Canada’s spy agencies could find no evidence the money was actually distributed. And citing a significant body of intelligence, Johnston wrote that he could find “no examples … of Ministers, the Prime Minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence, advice or recommendations.”
But the report did not actually declassify any of the intelligence, nor did it offer much clarity on the investigation into the Chinese-led conspiracy. Beyond Johnston’s vague assurances, general dismissals of the media leaks, and broad summaries, it cleared almost nothing up. It seemed designed more to defend and excuse the Canadian government than to get to the bottom of things.
“I don’t think there was any conscious desire to suppress and diminish this,” Johnston told me at a press conference after the report was released. “I think it was clear that we have not acted as quickly and as thoroughly as the threat has been growing. And the Chinese one is one that came into prominence in the last three or four years.”
When I pressed Trudeau at a May press conference about why his government failed to disclose any of the particulars about this meddling plot until they were leaked, he bristled. “The subject of foreign interference isn’t something that suddenly sprang up over the past months,” the prime minister said. “This is something we have been taking seriously as a government for years. … So maybe you’re just waking up to the fact that there’s foreign interference, but I’ve been talking about it for years.”
Trudeau’s government has moved quickly to roll back its advances to Beijing. In June, despite actively pursuing greater cooperation until then, Ottawa announced it would cut ties with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The long-pursued extradition deal seems finally dead; and despite Beijing-directed police stations on Canadian soil having been open for years, federal police are “actively investigating” them just now. Zhao, the diplomat accused of threatening families of members of parliament, was finally expelled from Canada in May.
Johnston’s report did little to quell the matter. Johnston, a friend of the Trudeau family, was dogged by accusations that he was covering up government complicity. The Conservatives accused him of being Trudeau’s “ski buddy.” Revelations that Johnston had hired the same personal relations firm tapped by Dong, as he fought the allegations of conspiring with China, made his position untenable. He tendered his resignation before embarking on the next phase of his study.
Trudeau now says the public inquiry will move forward. On Thursday, he announced that Judge Marie-Josée Hogue, from the Quebec Court of Appeal, would head up the inquiry. Her appointment comes after weeks of wrangling with the opposition parties in Parliament.
But Ottawa still has a fundamental problem: China has spent decades intimidating Canada’s citizens, stealing its intellectual property, and meddling in its politics. That campaign reached feverish new heights over the past few years. Today, even after a national panic over it, Ottawa seems bewildered as to how it could thwart such efforts in the future.
Some of the best advice came from Johnston. “One of the most important ways to counter foreign interference is for the public to understand what it looks like and how to be resilient against it,” he wrote in the report. “The public is often on the ‘front lines’ of foreign interference activities, as private citizens and the public at large can be the targets of foreign interference activities.”
Yet that is the opposite approach from the one taken by Ottawa. Rather than alerting the public to this meddling effort, it kept it secret. And despite knowing the culprits, Canada has been slow and reticent to lay criminal charges: It laid its first-ever criminal case for economic espionage just last year, against a researcher accused of stealing secrets from a state energy company. The FBI, for the United States’ part, has charged dozens of alleged Chinese agents with harassment, intellectual property theft, and spying.
Canada will never be able to muster the manpower necessary to counteract this subterfuge if it exclusively relies on the secret-keepers at the top. Vague warnings about the general concept of foreign interference, with no specifics of how it is conducted, end up doing exactly what advocates feared: casting suspicion on the entire Chinese community.
Other countries are reckoning with similar problems. The United Kingdom has just been shocked by the revelation of an alleged Chinese spy inside the ruling Conservative Party—just as London was trying to rebuild a relationship with Beijing. But Canada has a unique opportunity to bring the messy ties of politics, money, and espionage into the open—if it doesn’t waste it.
Correction, Sept. 24, 2023: The governor general is the British crown’s representative in Canada, not, as originally stated, the United Kingdom’s.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2023: The original caption on a photo in this feature said Mao Zedong met with Pierre Trudeau in 1983. In fact, they met in 1973.
Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto. Twitter: @Justin_Ling
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