Canada and China have become embroiled in a fresh diplomatic row after Ottawa summoned Beijing’s ambassador to respond to allegations that Beijing tried to intimidate a Canadian politician and interfere in its elections.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced the summoning of the ambassador Thursday, adding that Canada was considering taking retaliatory action over the allegations, which China vigorously denies.
“All options are on the table,” Joly said – including diplomatic expulsions.
Joly’s comments to members of parliament came during a heated exchange with opposition lawmaker Michael Chong – the alleged target of the intimidation, who has in recent days heavily criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for what he sees as their slow response to the allegations.
The news follows revelations, first reported by the Globe and Mail newspaper, that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) found an accredited Chinese diplomat in the country had targeted Chong and his relatives in China following his criticisms of Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur minorities.
The intelligence service also said that Beijing had tried to sway the outcome of Canada’s federal elections in 2019 and 2021.
China on Thursday insisted the claims were “totally groundless,” accused the Canadian media and politicians of “spreading disinformation,” and warned Canada against going “further down the wrong and dangerous path.”
During the summons, China’s Ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu “protested strongly” against the “threat to expel the relevant Chinese diplomatic and consular personnel based on rumors of so-called ‘China interference’ hyped up by some Canadian politicians and media,” according to a statement from the Chinese embassy.
“China’s diplomatic and consular officials’ normal performance (daily activities) must not be smeared, and China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests must not be violated,” Cong said.
He told Canadian officials at the meeting “to immediately stop this self-directed political farce” and warned that China would “play along every step of the way until the end” should the Canadian side continue to “make provocations.”
China’s Consulate-General in Toronto meanwhile expressed “strong dissatisfaction” and “firm opposition” to the summoning of the ambassador, and insisted its officers had never engaged in activities “inconsistent with their official capacities.”
“The claim has no factual basis and is totally groundless,” the Consulate-General said in a statement.
It accused some Canadian media and politicians of “spreading disinformation with intent to damage the reputation and image of the Chinese Consulate-General” and “maliciously disrupt normal exchange and cooperation between the two sides.”
Allegations of Chinese efforts to interfere in Canadian politics have been swirling for weeks, but reached a tipping point this week following the revelations by the Globe and Mail.
According to the report, Chinese operatives tried to swing some local parliamentary races during national elections held in 2019 and 2021. However, the agency stopped short of alleging that China succeeded or in any way changed the outcome of those elections.
The allegations also include claims that an accredited Chinese diplomat was involved in a plot to intimidate Chong in 2021 after he sponsored a motion in Canada’s parliament to condemn China’s treatment of Uyghur minorities, labeling their treatment by China genocide.
Chong has described his apparent targeting as disturbing, but has also said it it not surprising – either for him or Canada’s large Chinese diaspora – and has focused much of his criticism on the Canadian government’s response, which he says has been too slow to act.
In her comments to parliamentarians on Thursday, Joly said Canada’s government needed to carefully weigh how China might react.
China would “of course” take action against Canada’s “economic interest, consumer interest and also diplomatic interests,” Joly said, adding that, “I know that we are under pressure to go fast, (but) we need to make sure as well that we protect our democracy.”
Relations between Ottawa and Beijing have been tense in recent years.
In one especially high-profile example, two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – were detained by China for nearly three years.
Their arrest on espionage charges in late 2018 came shortly after Canada arrested Chinese businesswoman and Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US warrant related to the company’s business dealings in Iran.
Beijing repeatedly denied that their cases were a political retaliation, but the two men were released on the same day Meng was allowed by Canada to return to China.
Chong responded to Joly’s remarks by demanding Canada expel the diplomat regardless of any possible blowback from China.
“If we do not take that course of action, minister, we are basically putting up a giant billboard for all the authoritarian states around the world that says we are open for foreign interference threat activities on Canadian soil targeting Canadian citizens and you can conduct these activities with zero consequences – and that’s why this individual needs to be sent packing,” Chong said.
Trudeau under fire
Chong and others say questions remain as to why the Trudeau government did not act sooner to acknowledge and act on the intelligence.
“It’s astounding that the government hasn’t taken action to expel this individual,” Chong told a press briefing in Ottawa Tuesday.
“And for the government of Canada to continue to accredit this individual and allow this individual to remain in Canada is a complete abdication of responsibility,” he added.
Critics have also questioned why Chong and other politicians were not forewarned of the intelligence suggesting he had been targeted.
While Trudeau was briefed on some of the intelligence agency’s findings, he said Tuesday at a press briefing that he had not been briefed specifically on the alleged targeting of Chong.
Trudeau said he first heard this when it was reported in the media, as the spy agency had felt the intelligence was not significant enough to notify either the prime minister’s office or Chong himself.
Trudeau said that reasoning was a mistake.
“We’re making it very, very clear to CSIS and our intelligence officials that when there are concerns that talk specifically about any MP, or about their family, those need to be elevated, even if CSIS doesn’t feel that it’s a sufficient level of concern for them to take more direct action,” Trudeau said.
A right to know?
Chong, a member of the opposition conservative party, has criticized Trudeau’s explanation as unacceptable, saying he and others in the Chinese community deserve to know if they are at risk.
“I have not spoken to my family in China in years, I like many, many Canadians across the country whose family lives in authoritarian states have had to face the difficult dilemma of how to protect the family in these authoritarian states,” Chong said, adding that the Chinese diplomat who allegedly targeted him still lives and works in Canada and enjoys diplomatic immunity.
Chong and other opposition party politicians are not the only ones demanding a tough response from Ottawa.
Among the voices calling for retaliation is Dennis Molinaro, a former national security adviser and now a professor of legal studies at Ontario Tech University.
“(Canada) really has to be following the American model in terms of more aggressively pursuing action against China when China is engaged in these actions that are direct threats to Canadian sovereignty,” he told CNN in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“I think the Canadian public is aware of that now and recognizes that and supports a lot tougher action in terms of Canada protecting itself from these kinds of threats,” he added.