The polls predicted a re-election victory, maybe even a landslide.
But a few weeks before the vote, Kenny Chiu, a member of Canada’s parliament and a critic of China’s human rights, panicked. Something has turned upside down among the ethnic Chinese voters in his British Columbia district.
“At first, they were supportive,” he said. “And suddenly they just disappeared, evaporated, disappeared.”
Longtime supporters originally from mainland China did not return his calls. Volunteers reported icy greetings at formerly friendly homes. Chinese-language news outlets stopped covering him. And he faced attacks – from untraceable sources – against the local community’s most popular social networking app, the Chinese-owned WeChat.
The sudden collapse of Mr. Chiu’s campaign — in the last federal election, in 2021 — is now attracting renewed scrutiny amid growing evidence of Chinese interference in Canadian politics.
Mr. Chiu and several other elected officials critical of Beijing have been targets of the Chinese state, which has increasingly exerted its influence on Chinese diaspora communities worldwide as part of an aggressive campaign to expand its global reach, according to current and former elected officials, Canadian intelligence. officials and experts on Chinese state disinformation campaigns.
Canada recently expelled a Chinese diplomat accused of conspiring to intimidate a Toronto-area lawmaker, Michael Chongafter he successfully led efforts in parliament to label China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim community is genocide. Canada’s secret service has warned at least half a dozen current and former elected officials that they are being targeted by Beijing, including Jenny KwanVancouver legislator and critic of Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong.
The Chinese government, using a global playbook, has disproportionately focused on Chinese Canadian elected officials representing districts in and around Vancouver and Toronto, experts say. It has exploited large diaspora populations with family and business ties to China and ensured that the levers of power in those communities are on its side, according to elected officials, Canadian intelligence officials and experts on Chinese disinformation.
“Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has doubled down on this staunch nationalistic policy towards the diaspora,” said. Feng Chongyi, historian and associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney. China’s role in Canada mirrored what happened in Australia, he added.
Chinese state interference and its threat to Canada’s democracy have become national issues after an extraordinary series of leaks in recent months of intelligence reports to The Globe and Mail newspaper of a national security official who said that government officials did not take the threat seriously enough.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been criticized for not doing enough to combat reported interference by China, is under increasing pressure to call for a public inquiry.
Current and former elected officials interviewed by national security agents said some of the intelligence appeared to have come from wiretaps of Chinese diplomats based in Canada. The Globe said it based its reporting on secret and top-secret intelligence reports it had viewed.
In Vancouver and two surrounding cities — Richmond and Burnaby — which are home to Canada’s largest concentration of ethnic Chinese, the reach of the Chinese Consulate and its allies has grown along with waves of immigrants from China, said longtime Chinese Canadian activists and politicians. .
The Chinese Benevolent Association, or CBA—one of Vancouver’s oldest and most influential civic organizations—was a longtime supporter of Taiwan until it turned pro-Beijing in the 1980s. But it has recently become a cheerleader for some of Beijing’s most controversial policies, placing ads in Chinese-language newspapers to support the imposition in 2020 of a sweeping national security law that clamps down on basic freedoms in Hong Kong.
The association and the Chinese Consulate publicize close relations on their websites.
Former president of the CBA, Hilbert Yiu, denied that the organization has official ties with Chinese authorities, but acknowledged that the association tends to support China’s policies, arguing that Beijing’s human rights record is “much better” than in the past.
Mr. Yiu, who remains on the CBA’s board, said stories of Chinese state interference in Canadian politics were spread by losing candidates.
“I don’t think it exists,” Mr. Yiu said, adding instead that Western nations fear “China being strong.”
Mr. Yiu, who as a host of a local Chinese-language radio station also pushes pro-Beijing views, was a foreign delegate in 2017 to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the Chinese government that Beijing uses to win. and to reward supporters who are not members of the Communist Party.
The leaders of the CBA – whose views prevail, especially among immigrants who are not fully comfortable in English – say that their organization is politically neutral.
But in recent years, it and other ethnic Chinese organizations have excluded politicians critical of Beijing from events, including Ms. Kwan, the Vancouver lawmaker. A member of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, Ms. Kwan has represented, first as a provincial legislator and then at the federal level, a Vancouver district that includes Chinatown since 1996.
But after Ms. Kwan spoke out in 2019 against Beijing’s repression of Hong Kong and its treatment of the Uighursinvitations dried up – including events in her district, such as a Lunar New Year party.
“Inviting the local MP is standard protocol,” Ms Kwan said. “But in cases where I wasn’t invited to attend, whether or not that’s related to foreign interference are questions I have.”
Fred Kwok, another former CBA president, said Ms Kwan was not invited to the Lunar New Year celebration because the coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to hold the event virtually and there was “limited time”.
Later that year, a few months before the federal election, Mr Kwok held a lunch for 100 people at a well-known seafood restaurant in Chinatown to support Ms Kwan’s rival. Mr Kwok said he was acting on his own and not as the leader of the CBA.
Richard Lee, a councilor in Burnaby and a former provincial legislator, has faced far worse.
Mr. Lee, who was born in China and immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in 1971, and was elected in 2001 to the provincial legislature, became known for supporting local businesses and never missing ribbon-cutting events. He also faithfully attended an annual commemoration of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
It was once a low-key event, but with Mr. Xi in power, many participants began wearing masks to hide their identities, fearing reprisals from Beijing.
Mr Lee’s attendance became an issue at a barbecue party in the summer of 2015 when he said the then-consul general, Liu Fei, asked him, “Why do you keep attending those events?”
Then, in November, Mr. Lee and his wife, Anne, flew to Shanghai. At the airport, he said he was separated from his wife and detained for seven hours while authorities searched his personal cell phone and government-issued Blackberry.
He asked why and said he was told, “‘You know what you did. We believe you could endanger our national security.’
He and his wife were put on a plane back to Canada.
In Burnaby, the political climate has changed. He was no longer invited to some events because organizers told him that the consul general did not want to attend if Mr. Lee was also present. Longtime supporters began to keep their distance. Mr Lee said he believed the frosty treatment contributed to his losing his seat in 2017, after 16 years in office.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to questions about the alleged actions of the consulate in Vancouver, saying only that “China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries” and that allegations of interference are “completely and outwardly smeared by”. China.”
But China’s former consul general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, bragged in 2021, according to The Globe, of helping defeat two conservative lawmakers, including one she described as “vocal distractor” from the Chinese government: Kenny Chiu.
After arriving from Hong Kong in 1992, Mr. Chiu settled in Richmond, where more than half of the 208,000 residents are ethnic Chinese. He was elected to parliament in 2019 as a conservative.
Mr. Chiu, 58, was quick to touch on two issues that appeared to put him in the crosshairs of Beijing and its local supporters: criticizing Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and proposing a bill to create a registry of foreign agents, inspired by one established by Australia in 2018.
The anonymous attacks on him on Chinese social media have fueled criticism of the bill among some Canadians that it would unfairly single out Chinese Canadians.
A month before the federal election in September 2021, the polls have fueled confidence in Mr Chiu’s campaign staff.
But in the final 10 days, Mr. Chiu conveyed growing concerns to his campaign manager, Jordon Wood: a chilling response from ethnic Chinese voters and increasingly hostile and personal anonymous attacks. The attacks, which went viral on WeChat, painted his bill as a racist attack on Chinese Canadians and Mr. Chiu as a traitor to his community.
Mr. Wood recalled a frantic late-night call from Mr. Chiu after an incendiary meeting with Chinese Canadian voters.
“‘Our community is more polite than this,'” Mr. Wood recalled Mr. Chiu telling him. “Even if you don’t like someone, you don’t follow them that way. This was a level of rudeness and attack beyond what we would have expected.”
The attacks on WeChat have drawn the attention of experts on disinformation campaigns by China and its proxies.
The attacks were caused by countless, untraceable robots of human and artificial intelligence, said Benjamin Fung, a cyber security expert and professor at McGill University in Montreal.
Their pervasiveness has made them especially effective because ethnic Chinese voters rely on WeChat to communicate, said Mr. Fung, who rated Mr. Chiu’s case shortly after the vote.
Less than a week before the vote, Canadian internet watchdog, DisinfoWatch, noted the attacks on Mr. Chiu on WeChat.
“My assumption was that this was a coordinated campaign,” said Charles Burtona former Canadian diplomat in Beijing and a senior fellow at an Ottawa-based research group behind DisinfoWatch.
Mr. Chiu has made recent efforts to salvage his campaign, including meeting with a group of older people who echoed the attacks on him and his WeChat bill.
“Why would I subject my grandchildren to generations of persecution and discrimination?” Mr. Chiu remembered being asked.
The next day, he saw social media photos of the same people publicly supporting his main Liberal Party rival, Parm Bains, the eventual winner. Mr Bains declined to comment.
Mr. Chiu asked allies to reach out to local leaders who suddenly ousted him, including prominent members of a Richmond-based umbrella group, the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations. Its leader, Kady Xue, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Chak Aua veteran city councilor nicknamed the “Chinese Mayor of Richmond” and a longtime ally of Mr. Chiu, pressed ethnic Chinese leaders about the sudden erosion of support.
“There was a kind of silence,” Mr. Au said. “Nobody wanted to talk about it.”
He added, “They didn’t want to cause trouble.”