Is China Undermining Canada’s Democracy?

March 25, 2024 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: ChinaCanadaDemocracyJustin TrudeauElections

Is China Undermining Canada’s Democracy?

Western governments should pay close attention to Canada's investigation into Chinese electoral interference.


It’s been just over a year since an anonymous source in the Canadian intelligence services leaked documents to the press and set off a prairie fire of controversy. In brief, the documents and the additional revelations that came in their wake suggested that the People’s Republic of China has waged a comprehensive effort to interfere in and influence the Canadian political system, including targeting anti-CCP members of Parliament, using “China’s diplomatic mission in Vancouver [to] actively interfere[] in the city’s politics, using proxies in diaspora community organizations and grooming politicians to run in the 2022 Vancouver municipal election,” as well as potential meddling in the country’s last two federal elections. In particular, it has been alleged that in the 2021 national election, China specifically sought the re-election of a minority Liberal government—the actual result. However, there is no evidence that Beijing’s influence was a proximate cause of that outcome.

At the remove of a year, we can begin to analyze the shape of Canada’s response to Beijing’s challenge. Specifically, at this juncture, there is one big takeaway and two outstanding questions about the country’s particular approach to the revelations of PRC political espionage.


The big takeaway: political actors accused of benefiting from Chinese election interference ought not to hide from the allegations and bide their time, hoping for the public to turn its attention elsewhere. Even if the charges are bogus, attempting to evade the issue or appearing to cover it up will likely backfire, reducing public trust in the legitimacy of the government and the electoral process.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially ordered two closed-door reviews of Beijing’s alleged misconduct and ultimately named family friend and former Governor-General David Johnston as a special rapporteur. Johnston swiftly determined that an independent, 9/11 Commission-style public inquiry was unnecessary and, in fact, impossible to carry out given the sensitive nature of the classified information involved.

Whether fairly or not, this response was seen as an effort by a political crony to provide official cover for the government, sparking outrage among the other major parties in Parliament, who demanded that Johnston be countermanded and removed. The special rapporteur resigned, and a public inquiry was announced months later.

This public inquiry’s scope leads to the first yet-unanswered question: should governments targeted by China seek to limit a public review of the PRC’s political warfare to a specific instance, or should they take the opportunity to conduct a widely inclusive, wholesale review of all alleged foreign interference against them?

Canada has opted for the second approach. Not only will the public inquiry focus on China’s alleged targeting of Canadian elections and Canadian members of Parliament, but the inquiry will lump Chinese election interference together with misconduct by Russia, India, and possibly Iran. Moreover, the public inquiry has granted witness cross-examination and evidence review privileges to Han Dong MP, who is alleged to have told the Chinese not to release two kidnapped Canadian nationals in advance of the 2021 elections. (Dong denies the allegations and has filed a libel suit against the media outlet that reported it.) In response, some Chinese diaspora groups have ceased cooperation with the inquiry rather than sanction the government-backed presence of Mr. Dong and other allegedly CCP-friendly politicians vested with such standing.

The argument for a more comprehensive review of a country’s exposure to foreign influence is straightforward. At a time when people are idly wondering why Canada is so susceptible to such penetration, should the government not seek to, as Bobby Kennedy once said, “grab the web whole?” However, the downside risk is equally prominent: an investigation into everything risks becoming an investigation into nothing—especially when individuals accused of participating in an attack on the polity are granted a seat at the examiner’s table.

Time will tell if the Canadians have weighed the options appropriately. Hearings on the substance of the foreign threats to Canada began in January. The risk of getting this wrong will not only redound to Canada’s detriment: just as a successful public inquiry can serve as a model for future democracies handling Chinese interference, an unsuccessful one will leave the West without such a roadmap, forcing the next country to suffer interference to make up a response on the fly.

The next open question is whether this public inquiry will be the last of its kind. It remains unknown and unknowable whether Canada has sufficiently responded to China’s activity to deter future incursions into its elections, the next of which is scheduled for 2025. This is no small matter—especially when early indications suggest that the Chinese remain undeterred. Accusations that the next Canadian government was assisted in obtaining power by a foreign power would, as the United States learned the hard way after the exposure of Russian election interference in 2016, go to the heart of that administration’s legitimacy. In a democratic system, the legitimacy conferred upon the government by consent of the governed is the whole ballgame.

The Canadians have expelled a Chinese diplomat alleged to have targeted the overseas family of Michael Chong, the shadow foreign affairs minister. However, further responses, such as constructing a foreign agents’ registry (as Australia did after its own brush with Chinese interference), have either not yet come to fruition or been kept within the four corners of the government.

Perhaps the real takeaway from Canada’s last year is that it is far better to deter China from mucking around a democratic polity rather than assembling a response post hoc. If that is the case, and it seems to comport with international experience, the recent U.S. National Intelligence Council’s declassified Intelligence Community Assessment suggests that maintaining a credible retorsion threat against Beijing-backed meddling is essential. Specifically, that document indicates that the PRC will press on with its political warfare operations in the United States when it is “under less scrutiny” and when it does “not expect the current Administration to retaliate as severely as they feared in” the past.

But unless and until the United States and its allies can restore deterrence, we must lift our (five) eyes to the Canadians and learn from their experience in dealing with the aftermath of Chinese election interference.

After all, it could happen here.

Zac Morgan is an attorney specializing in First Amendment and campaign finance law. He previously worked for the Institute for Free Speech and currently serves as counsel to Commissioner Allen Dickerson of the Federal Election Commission. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not express an official view of the U.S. government.