I’m far removed from Parliament Hill where the beat goes on with what has become known as the “Chinese election interference scandal.” Bearing in mind that a scandal is in the eye of the beholder, and posting one day before the much anticipated committee testimony by the Prime minister’s top staffer, I would venture optimistically that the efforts of the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois to make damaging political hay out of the issue are flagging.

One reason for the cooling off is the grudging concession by Katie Telford, Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, to put in an appearance Friday before one of several committees looking into activities in this country by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The concurrence by Telford follows Trudeau’s appointment of former Governor-General David Johnson as a “special rapporteur” to look at the evidence of foreign interference. He is supposed to report back by May 23 with his recommendations, including whether to hold a public inquiry, as per the demands of all opposition parties.

Although the ex-G-G’s appointment hasn’t mollified the Conservatives or the Bloc, other events have also served to lower the temperature on a weeks-long contretemps that at times seemed to have the Liberals on the ropes. The government managed to change the channel with the visit of President Joe Biden, the tabling of the budget and a scheduled parliamentary recess. But even before the House of Commons went on a break, the scandal was looking threadbare, an impression strengthened by this week’s foray into the workings of the Trudeau Foundation (more on that below).

Despite the best efforts of the Conservatives, the Bloc and media leakers the closer we look the less credibility attaches to the repeated claim by Pierre Poilievre that Trudeau failed to act against PRC interference in the past two federal election campaigns because the meddling was to the Liberals’ political benefit.

Poilievre may yet find some facsimile of a smoking gun to revive his efforts to paint Trudeau as a version of Donald Trump, willing to sell out his country for personal and political gain. If so that would be paradoxical. As with the convoy last year, this episode is about Poilievre importing Trumpist politics into Canada by vilifying Trudeau and casting doubt on the elections that kept him in power. But in an even greater irony, Poilievre is being aided by elements of the “liberal” mainstream media, an institution that he generally treats with disdain.

McCarthyism meets Poilievreism

Before Trumpism a similar disease infected the U.S. body politic, McCarthyism. There has been a strong element of McCarthyism in the way this “scandal” has developed.

Named after the mid-20th century U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism emerged from circumstances similar to current events. During the Great Depression of the 1930s some disillusioned Americans looked to Soviet communism as an alternative to a capitalist system that was failing. Affinity increased when the U.S. and the Soviet Union became allies during the Second World War. But the good relations did not last. The Cold War changed that, providing an opening for McCarthy – aka “Tail gunner Joe” from his alleged wartime service – to make a name for himself by going after anyone who had earlier shown communist sympathies.

The current version with a Canadian slant- Poilievreism does not easily roll off the tongue – started with another Pierre, Justin Trudeau’s father. Trudeau Sr. first toured “Red China” in 1949 and co-wrote a book about the experience. As prime minister Trudeau Sr. established diplomatic relations with Mao’s China 1970 and later made an official visit. Over the next 40 years or so economic and cultural ties with China grew. Trudeau Jr. showed that an affinity for China ran in the family when during a fund-raising event in Toronto in 2013 he responded to a question about what country he admired with this:

“There is a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say we need to go green, we need to start, you know, investing in solar.” 

The first part of the quote has often been cited. But the bit after “on a dime,” which puts the comment in the context of how hard it is to convince voters to “go green,” has usually been left out – this despite the fact that Trudeau’s entire tenure has been dominated by a rightwing-inspired populist backlash against his government’s feeble attempts to reduce fossil fuel consumption with a carbon tax.

But the die was cast. Trudeau’s parentage and his use of the word “admiration” in conjunction with an increasingly autocratic regime in China made him, in McCarthyist terms, at worst a “fellow traveller” at best “soft on China” to hard-liners.The political perils of being “soft” (or naive) on the PRC became much more acute in December 2018 when the Chinese government took the “Two Michaels” hostage.

Different approaches to PRC 

By the time the 2021 election campaign came around, with the two hostages still being held, Canada’s approach to China had taken on partisan overtones. The Conservative election platform expressed an eagerness to pick a fight, vowing to “face down the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party….a clear and rising threat to Canadian interests.” The platform declared the Conservatives “the only party willing to state the obvious facts…The Liberals, NDP and Greens don’t take these threats seriously.” The platform contained a 20-point plan, including a crackdown on “China’s foreign influence operations on Canadian soil.” Among other measures, Conservatives promised to warn diplomats that threatening Canadians could lead to expulsion and they vowed to revoke licences of state-run or controlled broadcasters that spread false information.

The Liberal platform also promised to respond to misbehaviour by authoritarian states, including “foreign interference in democratic processes.” But the document did not single out the PRC, mentioning it only once and that was in the same breath as Russia and Iran.  

The scandalmongering that has dominated political news over the past several months has generally failed to mention that, at least rhetorically, the government and the official opposition have taken quite different approaches to handling the issue of PRC influence – the kind of  hawk-dove, left-right debate that’s usually conducted without challenging the patriotism of one side or another. Nor has there been acknowledgement that the Liberals may have avoided inflammatory campaign rhetoric out of concern for Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who were in custody in China during both the 2019 and 2021 elections.

The coverage has also left out or downplayed other relevant pieces of background, including the fact that the Liberals have taken unprecedented steps to increase oversight of national security issues, including foreign interference in elections.

  • In 2017, in response to recommendations going back more than a decade, the Liberals established the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP). With its chair chosen by the Prime Minister, the committee has ten members, three from the Senate and seven from the House of Commons, with at least two of those from opposition parties. Committee reports, available online, are vetted for security reasons by the the PMO before being released, something that has been criticized by Poilievre and his crew.
  • In 2019, in response to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, the government established a Critical Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP), a group of high-ranking public servants tasked with alerting Canadians to any incident during an election campaign they deem would jeopardize a free and fair election. No alerts were issued during the 2019 or 2021 campaigns, another bone of contention.
  • In conjunction with the CEIPP the government established the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election (SITE), with representatives from agencies like CSIS and the RCMP, to monitor the election and provide information to both the CEIPP and any affected political campaigns.      

These initiatives stayed largely under the radar, as did some actual complaints about PRC interference during and after the 2021 election campaign. On a June 2022 podcast hosted by Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, ousted Conservative leader Erin O’Toole had claimed the Conservatives lost “about eight or nine seats” due to interference by China. Only three seats have ever been mentioned, however, two in the Vancouver area and one in Greater Toronto. In all three cases, Conservative incumbents lost to Liberal challengers.

There was not much reaction at the time, but O’Toole’s comments seem to have been enough to turn on the taps – and feed the notion that the Liberals were the beneficiaries of alleged Chinese interference.

Leaks to Global news

In November 2022 the first of the security service leaks began with a report from Sam Cooper of Global linking PRC interference directly to Trudeau. Global reported that in a series of briefings beginning in January 2022, Canadian Intelligence and Security Service (CSIS) officials informed Trudeau that the PRC has been targeting Canada with an interference campaign, including funding the campaigns of at least 11 federal candidates in 2019. (Subsequent reporting suggested there were nine Liberal and two Conservative candidates, all in the Toronto area).

For reasons that are unclear, Trudeau declined comment on the Global report for over a week, until at a meeting of the G20 in Indonesia he had an exchange with the Chinese president, supposedly telling him to quit interfering in Canadian elections. President Xi ’s response suggested he was miffed at being part of a photo-op for Canadian consumption.

If Trudeau believed that stunt would put an end to the matter, he was mistaken. His refusal to respond to the Global reporting – while suggesting that the real problem was a leaky  CSIS – backfired. By clamming up he turned a story that could have been about concrete steps taken to deal with foreign election interference – NSICOP and the different protocols provided examples – into a story about what Trudeau knew about PRC  interference and when did he know it. His continual refusal to answer those questions began to look like a cover-up. So did his non-denial denial when he responded to questions about PRC funding of campaigns by saying he received no briefings about candidates receiving money from China. Thus, a story that had been simmering along on the back burner turned into a media barn burner.

The Globe joins the fray

The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa reporting duo of Bob Fife and Stephen Chase are long-time PRC interference sleuths, and the newspaper they work for had over the years done extensive reporting on PRC involvement in Canadian politics, particularly in Ontario. The Globe duo got big into the current game on February 17 of this year with a front page story that added little new to the Global reporting of three months earlier. But it was apparently based on leaked documents and included the claim that PRC meddlers preferred a Liberal minority government in 2021, and the defeat of Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing. Most Canadians would likely be onside with at least the first item on the wish list, and the combative tone of the Conservative platform would be reason enough for PRC to prefer the Liberals – but never mind, there’s a scandal here somewhere.

While Trudeau aptly dismissed the Globe report about interference as “not new and not a secret” some opposition politicians described the rehash as “shocking revelations.” The Conservatives and the Bloc demanded a recall of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee which had already spent a few sessions examining foreign interference, before and after Global’s November scoop.

Aside from the not-surprising reveal that China preferred the Liberals over the hawkish Conservatives, the Globe report also introduced elements that, if they did happen, were clearly illegal. But it’s not clear from the report whether actual events were being described, or whether it was simply a blue print for action. This is what the Globe reported:

CSIS also explained how Chinese diplomats conduct foreign interference operations in support of political candidates and elected officials. Tactics include undeclared cash donations to political campaigns or having business owners hire international Chinese students and assign them to volunteer in electoral campaigns on a full-time basis. Sympathetic donors are also encouraged to provide campaign contributions to candidates favoured by China – donations for which they receive a tax credit from the federal government. Then, the CSIS report from Dec. 20, 2021 says, political campaigns quietly, and illegally, return part of the contribution – “the difference between the original donation and the government’s refund” – back to the donors.

If CIS was reporting something that actually happened, it would not have been particularly newsworthy to anyone who had been closely reading regular reports from the all-party National Security and Intelligence and Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP). The Committee’s second report, tabled in Parliament in March 2020, cited “ample evidence” that Canada is the target of significant and sustained foreign interference by the PRC, Russia and other states.

“The Committee believes that these states target Canada for a variety of reasons, but all seek to exploit the openness of our society and penetrate our fundamental institutions to meet their objectives. They target ethnocultural communities, seek to corrupt the political process, manipulate the media, and attempt to curate debate on postsecondary campuses. Each of these activities poses a significant risk to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and to the country’s sovereignty: they are a clear threat to the security of Canada.”   

The report goes on to provide additional details of the actions of the PRC.

“The PRC utilizes its growing economic wealth to mobilize interference operations: with deep coffers and the help of western enablers the Chinese Communist Party uses money, rather than Communist ideology, as a powerful source of influence, creating parasitic relationships of long-term dependence.”

Other than the stuff about the shell game with donations (a matter for Elections Canada and the police) there’s nothing in the Globe report that isn’t in the report from NSICOP, a document that has been public for almost three years.

Recalling ghosts

Given the opposition’s rapturous response to the “shocking revelations” it’s not surprising that Fife and Chase would be encouraged to keep going. They did that by conjuring up the ghost of Tail Gunner Joe with some guilt by association as a reminder that Justin Trudeau could not be trusted to keep the PRC wolf from the door.

On February 28 another ghost appeared when the Globe ran a story about a donation by a Chinese businessman to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, an organization to which Trudeau Jr. claims no affiliation. Here is what the Globe reported.   

The source said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service captured a conversation in 2014 between an unnamed commercial attaché at one of China’s consulates in Canada and billionaire Zhang Bin, a political adviser to the government in Beijing and a senior official in China’s network of state promoters around the world. They discussed the federal election that was expected to take place in 2015, and the possibility that the Liberals would defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and form the next government. The source said the diplomat instructed Mr. Zhang to donate $1-million to the Trudeau Foundation, and told him the Chinese government would reimburse him for the entire amount.

The Trudeau foundation provides scholarships and has nothing to do with elections. The Foundation received only a portion ($140,000) of the donation and tried to return it days after the Globe story broke. This week, with Fife and Chase closing in, the foundation’s president and board of directors resigned, citing the controversy around the donation.

The Globe was so caught up in the rightness of its cause that in its March 17 edition it gave the leaker – described as “a national security official”- the rare opportunity to explain his or her actions in an anonymous opinion piece. The gist of the piece is the whistle blower’s belief that even as “the threat of interference in our democratic institutions” has grown “it had become increasingly clear that no serious action was being considered….Worse still, evidence of senior public officials ignoring interference was beginning to mount.” We’ll come back to this justification later.

Global Ups the Ante

Meanwhile, on February 25 Global reported on the case of Han Dong, defeated in his downtown Toronto provincial seat in 2018 who landed on his feet by securing the nomination for the 2019 federal election in suburban Don Valley North. He went on to win the seat in 2019 and again in 2021.

According to Global, citing “national security officials” (how many whistle blowers are there anyway?) Dong allegedly won the nomination in 2019 over the incumbent Liberal with assistance from two busloads of seniors transported in courtesy of the Chinese consulate with orders to vote for Dong. There were also allegedly some international students involved, ordered to vote for Dong or lose their visas.

The story claimed that a few weeks before the 2019 election CSIS conducted a classified briefing with “senior Liberal party officials” to warn that Dong was a “witting affiliate” of China’s election interference efforts. The story also linked Dong with Michael Chan, a cabinet minister in the McGuinty-Wynne Liberal governments of Ontario. Instrumental in fund-raising and recruiting Chinese-Canadians to run for office, Chan was alleged by CSIS as early as 2010 to be under the influence of the Chinese government. He was the subject of a Globe expose in 2015, but regarded as a link to Chinese investment, he remained in the Ontario cabinet until retiring in 2018. He is now is the deputy mayor of Markham.

Over the next few weeks, as Poilievre sharpened his question period attack, talking about “how Beijing helped the Liberal Party in multiple elections,” Global continued with more leaked revelations about various briefings by various security agencies that may have come to Trudeau’s attention. But more recent reporting has complicated Poilievre’s narrative.

Inconvenient facts and opinions

On March 10, Ontario MPP Vincent Ke left Doug Ford’s Ontario PC caucus after Global alleged that he was one of those involved in the 2019 scheme. Ke, whose supposed close ties with the Chinese consulate in Toronto were the subject of media scrutiny for several years, has denied the latest allegations. However, the accusations make the point that whatever PRC interference may have taken place was bi-partisan in nature. That was further illustrated when on March 16 the Globe reported, based on a CSIS document, that the PRC’s then consul-general in Vancouver actively interfered in Vancouver municipal politics. The report implied that activities included targeting incumbent mayor Kennedy Stewart, a former NDP MP who lost his bid for re-election to Ken Sim, a first generation Chinese Canadian.

As for Vincent Ke, he is the provincial member for Don Valley North, a 30 percent ethnic Chinese district represented at the federal level by Han Dong, the Liberal MP allegedly outed by CSIS weeks before the 2019 election. Shortly after its story about Vincent Ke, Global took another run at Dong, alleging that he met with China’s consul-general in Toronto in February 2021 and advised against releasing the two Michaels because it would benefit the Conservatives.

Dong has confirmed he met the diplomat, but denied he advocated against the release of the two hostages. In an emotional speech in the House of Commons he announced his resignation from the Liberal caucus, and later launched a libel suit against Global. On the face of it, he may have a case. The advice he allegedly provided doesn’t seem sensical – given the partisan politics surrounding the hostage affair, the government, not the Conservatives, stood to benefit from the release of the hostages. And other reporters – including the Globe duo – who have read a transcript of the meeting did not reach the same conclusion as Global did about what was said.

The Joe McCarthy legend has it that the demagogue’s downfall began when he went too far by looking for communists in the U.S. army. Global and the whistle blower may be facing the same fate with the latest episode involving Han Dong. Clearly the Liberals have some explaining to do around the 2019 warning about his being a “witting affiliate” of Chinese interference. But the second round of allegations have made him into a more sympathetic figure. It has also left some MPs wondering whether they may become targets of CSIS.

“I am very concerned about the allegations against Mr. Dong, but also what that was leaked to the public and for what reason,” New Democrat Charlie Angus told the Hill Times. “Are we to understand that security officials are taping the Chinese consulate? Are they tracking individual MPs? Mr. Dong has no way of defending himself against allegations that are leaked like this.”

In the same Hill Times piece, Elizabeth May of the Green Party declared herself “scandalized that anonymous smears from CSIS end up destroying reputations with no real opportunity to respond. It is not like CSIS ever get anything wrong. Just ask Maher Arar. What the hell is going on here.”

Retired members of the national security establishment also pushed back at a session of the House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (henceforth the Ethics committee) on March 31. Two former CSIS officials, Dan Stanton and Michel Juneau-Katsuya, testified that CSIS has been warning governments about foreign interference for years – going back over 30 years according to Juneau-Katsuya.

They both bemoaned the failure of successive government to act, but Stanton in particular was critical of the whistle blower and the media’s “leaker idolatry” and embellishment of the leaked intelligence to attach “nobility to it.” Stanton and Juneau-Katsuya also expressed doubt the leaker was a member of CIS, with Stanton speculating that it was someone who had seen only a small piece of intelligence and is using the leaks to “further an agenda.”

Artur Wilczynski, a former director-general in the Communications Security Establishment, was also harshly critical of the illegal leaking of classified documents. “You cannot say you are working to protect democracy while  breaking laws that have been passed by Parliament, ” he testified to the Ethics committee.

There was no coverage of the meeting in the on-line edition of the Globe and although Global reported on the meeting, its online report did not mention the pointed criticism of the leaker or the media.

The damage done

Reaction to the alleged interference has had an impact, none of it good. The scandal and its coverage has coincided with a rise in the polls for Poilievre and the politics of angry division that he represents. The affair has stigmatized Chinese-Canadians and according to some experts compromised national security. It also has Canadians questioning the integrity of our elections.

Nobody, not even Poilievre, is claiming that interference by the PRC affected the overall outcome of either the 2019 or 2021 elections in which the Liberals won with 36 and 41 seats more than the Conservatives. At most, the leaks have produced a claim that 11 candidates (including two Conservatives) were targeted for support in 2019. But according to the head of CSIS, David Vigneault, there is no indication the efforts helped elect any of them.

For the 2021 election we have Erin O’Toole’s unsubstantiated claim that PRC interference cost his party eight or nine seats, but only three have been identified and just one defeated candidate, Kenny Chui, has come up with a theory about what cost him his Vancouver-area seat. He told the Ethics committee last month that he was defeated by a flood of misinformation about him and the Conservatives in Chinese language media. But that simplistic explanation has been contested, including by Chui himself. In an interview shortly after the 2021 election he suggested part of the reason for his loss was the failure of the Conservatives to better explain that their criticism of the Chinese Communist Party wasn’t an attack on China.  

The problem is the Conservatives have rarely prefaced their attacks with the caveat about the overall outcome. The result is that some Canadians seem to believe that the Liberals were re-elected thanks to the PRC. An Abacus poll conducted in early March found that among the small number (eight per cent of 2,600) who were “very closely” following news about “Chinese Election Interference” 38 per cent believed that another party would have won had the PRC not interfered. Those were political junkies – overall 13 percent believed another party would have won the election had “the Chinese” not interfered. Another sizeable chunk was not sure.

An Innovative Research poll conducted from March 16-29 also found a low level of awareness, with only 10 percent of respondents closely following the issue. But 29 percent of the sample of over 2,300 believed the alleged interference may have “impacted” which party formed government, another 29 percent believed interference may have affected a few specific ridings. Most alarming, the mere mention of the allegations made 64 per cent feel angry.

And finally, there was an Ipsos poll, done for Global news and released last week. With that poll, Global has taken its advocacy to a new level, already discrediting David Johnson’s findings before they even exist – nearly half of the 1,001  people surveyed said they had been following the story, and 52 per cent of those believed Johnson’s appointment was part of a cover-up rather than a sincere attempt to get at the truth.

The conclusion so far 

One of Poilievre’s political pit bulls, longtime Ottawa Valley MP Cheryl Gallant, was Marjorie Taylor Greene before the Georgia Republican media sensation was invented. In a speech in the House of Commons Gallant went a little further than her boss in suggesting traitorous behaviour by their political opponents.

“Of course, the Liberals do not want to admit that they put their partisan interests ahead of national interests. The worst case scenario is that they put the interests of an authoritarian Communist regime ahead of our national interests. The truth lies somewhere between the two.”

Unfortunately, some Canadians, more than we would  like to think, may agree with Gallant and Poilievre given Trudeau’s failure to respond to the criticism of inaction in the face of publicly-available allegations from NSICOP of PRC interference.

But on the issue of inaction, the discussion so far has a Willy Wonka quality about it – as in “just don’t stand there, do something.” The something is not entirely clear. Conservatives have suggested at times that we should deal with the issue by expelling some diplomats. The whistle blower (or blowers) risking prison want to “begin a much deeper conversation about what it is that we expect of our government…. a conversation about how to improve transparency, how to enhance accountability, how to protect all members of our society against external threats, and ultimately, about how we continue to pursue a system of governance that best serves all of its citizens.”

That plea is not far from what the National Security and Intelligence Committee (NSICOP) was asking for following its review of foreign interference discussed in its 2020 report to Parliament. Reading through that report and two NSICOP annual reports that came later another explanation for Trudeau’s defensiveness on the issue emerges. NSICOP’s 2020 report was gung ho about dealing with foreign interference, calling for a “whole of government strategy.”

“The review found that: the interdepartmental coordination and collaboration on foreign interference was done on a case by case, even ad hoc basis; there are differences in how individual organizations interpret the gravity and prevalence of the threat; and the federal government’s engagement with provincial and municipal governments and the Canadian public on the threat from foreign interference has been limited. That is why the Committee recommends a whole-of-government strategy to counter foreign interference and to build institutional and public resiliency.”

The recommendation from the non-partisan committee landed in March 2020, just about the same time as the COVID pandemic. The Trudeau government became pre-occupied with the pandemic and, to its discredit, called an election in the summer of 2021 in a futile attempt to get a majority while still trying to cope with the pandemic and its aftermath. Small wonder that, to NSICOP’s disappointment, Trudeau didn’t get around to the hard work of cajoling  the different players with conflicting views on the “gravity and prevalence” of the issue into working together on something so distant from everyday concerns.  

In one sense that is putting politics ahead of threats to national security – something old CSIS hands say has been going on for decades. But unless they have more evidence than has come forward so far, the leakers, the Conservatives and their allies in the media should stop with the McCarthyism before they cause even more damage.