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Unraveling Chinese Meddling
Takeaways, fuck-ups, and lingering questions from Canada's investigation into Chinese meddling
For the past few months, Canada has wrestled with its membership in a particularly unenviable club: Western democracies targeted by Chinese political interference.
The United States has been grappling with this problem for years. It has become one of the most pressing political issues of the decade in Australia. The United Kingdom, New Zealand, and a long list of other countries have faced the reality of Beijing spending real money and deploying significant resources to bend the political system towards favoring the Chinese Communist Party.
Canada has been a target for China for quite some time. But Ottawa has successfully played down the issue in recent years, acknowledging it only briefly, in dense bureaucratic language in vague, heavily-redacted reports.
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That all changed, thanks to a slew of media reports that have come over the past year, all attributed to anonymous senior government officials, sources in the policing and intelligence world, and leaked classified material.
The reports set off a political melee. Han Dong, a Member of Parliament, left the Liberal Party amid allegations in these news stories that he was actively coordinating with the Chinese consulate in Toronto. A list of other elected officials were implicated in an alleged network, directed by China to advance its preferred candidates and to defeat its critics.
The government denied the vast majority of these allegations, and eventually set up a process to investigate both the leaks and the allegations contained in the intelligence. One aspect of that response was appointing a special rapporteur, who could review all of the classified material and figure out where the truth lies. The person appointed to that job, former Governor General David Johnston, unveiled the first part of his report today. I went up to Ottawa to get the full rundown.
You can read the full report here:
The report is pretty clear about Beijing’s efforts and intentions. The Chinese government “has leveraged proxy agents and has tried to influence numerous Liberal and Conservative candidates in subtle ways,” the report concludes.
But the report is clear that the vast majority of the reporting on this story is without solid evidence. In some cases, it was a specific shred of intelligence that needed more context, or a draft assessment that was later revised. (There is a whole other question about who in the government was briefed on this intelligence, and when. I won’t touch on that here, because the report basically concludes: It’s a mess.)
There’s an irony here, though. The reporting was, apparently, mostly wrong: But we only got the full story of this influence operation because of those reports.
The two outlets driving this story were The Globe & Mail (full disclosure: An outlet I contribute to regularly) and Global News. Johnston confirms aspects of The Globe’s reporting and contradicts others, but he aggressively undercuts all but a few elements of Global’s stories on the matter.
There is some shadowboxing going on here. The Globe and Global are giving us their interpretation of intelligence, from reviewing the intelligence and speaking to those who handled it directly; and Johnston is looking at that same intelligence, in its final form and in context, and telling us the reporters, in large part, got it wrong. We should defer to Johnston, but keep in mind that the truth may not be as black-and-white as he makes it sound.
There’s no doubt that there now needs to be some introspection by the media outlets that ran these stories, the commentators and politicians who ran away with the conclusions, and the leaders who passed on this intelligence. Even if every single one of those people were acting in good faith, we can say with some confidence that they were operating with an incomplete picture of the situation.
We should also recognize that the reporters on this story had to make do with very little. They were receiving information from legitimate government and security sources who were frustrated and annoyed — for various reasons. When they posed questions about these reports to the government, they were stonewalled. In some cases, the government officials they were posing questions to had never even seen the intelligence contained in the reports. This whole thing could have been fixed with a bit more communication and trust.
One of the most explosive claims from this reporting is the allegation that some $250,000 went to 11 political candidates from two parties, the Liberals and Conservatives.
Johnston confirms the specifics of the plot, but says it was never put into action:
It appears from limited intelligence that the PRC intended for funds to be sent to seven Liberal and four Conservative federal candidates through a community organization, political staff and (possibly unwittingly) a Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario MPP. [Member of Provincial Parliament].
There is uncertainty about whether there was money, if it actually went to staff or the provincial MPP, and there is no intelligence suggesting any federal candidates received these funds.
The intelligence did point to individuals — CSIS looked at those staffers and politicians, but simply could not trace the money that was alleged to have moved between the Chinese and the Canadians.
That doesn’t mean it absolutely did not happen. China has moved massive sums of money through other Western nations. We know that millions flowed into party coffers in the United States, in a slapdash effort to influence the Obama administration’s China policy, for example. The FBI alleges that Fugees drummer Pras funnelled $800,000 in Chinese money into the Democratic Party. So it’s not impossible. But the evidence is not there.
A Shady Consulate Rendez-vous
Up until December 2018, Canada was navigating a third-way approach to China. While some nations were getting tough and calling out human rights abuses there, Ottawa was — like several European nations — contemplating a world where it could play both sides, trading with both Washington and Beijing. The Trudeau government was steaming ahead on a plan to sign an extradition treaty with China, and was actively holding consultations on signing a free trade agreement with Beijing.
What put the brakes on that (frankly, naïve) plan was the arbitrary arrest and detainment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, done as a crude (and, ultimately, effective) effort to free Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
Global News reported that Han Dong, then a Liberal MP, went to the Chinese consulate and lobbied the Chinese diplomats to keep the two Michaels locked up.
Johnston’s report makes very quick work of this issue:
The allegation is false. Mr. Dong discussed the “two Michaels” with a PRC official, but did not suggest to the official that the PRC extend their detention.
This should be no great surprise. The allegation never made much sense. It seems the reporting was based on an intelligence report relying on signals intelligence — likely a wiretap of the consulate. A mistranslation, or bad audio quality could easily explain the confusion.
Strangely, the report declines to elaborate any further. Why, for example, was Dong at the consulate at all? The Trudeau government later confessed that Dong had not briefed them on his conversations with the Chinese. That is a clear problem. Any conversation between an agent of the government (which Dong certainly was, specifically because of his close ties to China) and a hostile foreign power should be viewed with enormous suspicion, if they do not disclose it.
Dong’s name had come up before in this story, as an intelligence assessment surmised that China had helped him win a Liberal Party nomination contest. And, indeed, Chinese agents likely did bus in students to vote for Dong in the contest. But, Johnston “did not find evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of the irregularities or the PRC Consulate’s potential involvement in his nomination.”
Given all of that, it’s absurd that we still have no clarity about that conversation. Johnston’s team said the conversation is explained in great detailed in their classified version of the report, but it’s inconceivable that the nature of that conversation is not being made public. I asked Johnston about this issue directly, but he simply pointed back to the report.
Attribute, attribute, attribute
I am a really big proponent for attribution. In interviews and conversations with various Canadian political and intelligence types over the years, I’ve always bemoaned that Ottawa’s aggressive penchant for secrecy actually hobbles Canada’s ability to disrupt this kind of foreign influence. If you have evidence of a coordinated effort by a hostile or adversarial power to muck up domestic politics, you have an obligation to tell the public, with the caveat that you must protect the sources and methods that provided that intelligence. Yet, time and time again, Canada hides behind secrecy, insisting that any disclosure at all would jeopardize collection methods. This, even as other countries — with more impressive intelligence services — regularly disclose and declassify much more information.
But this whole ordeal happened because of this culture of secrecy. And it has been a long and painful process.
And even if the news reports got plenty of specifics wrong, the thrust of the story is true: China ran a much more sustained and serious meddling operation in Canada than the public, or the rest of the world, ever knew.
Imagine a world where the U.S. intelligence community concluded that, because the amount of funds that went into the Internet Research Agency's meddling efforts in the 2016 presidential election, it didn’t merit or require public disclosure. FBI leakers may well have revealed that plot years on, but by that point it would have been impossible to deduce just how impactful the operation really was. It would have been a political nightmare.
Disclosure and attribution are the most useful weapons against foreign interference. And the Trudeau government has absolutely used those tools to combat and disrupt Russian meddling. Why wasn’t the same done for China?
Johnston concludes that “we have not responded as quickly and effectively as we should.” But, dealing with the discrepancy in responses, Johnston doesn’t offer a good explanation. He says Chinese operations are “much more long term, much more sophisticated” than Russian efforts. But if anything, that underscores the need to be more transparent, not less.
I asked Johnston about this divide, and, frankly, his response was unsatisfying. He responded:
I don’t think there was an conscious effort to suppress or diminish this. I think it was clear that we have not acted as quickly or thoroughly on a threat that has been growing. And the Chinese one is the one that came into prominence that has only come into prominence only in the last three or four years. As Mr. Joyce of the U.S. National Security Agency says, “I kind of look at Russia as the hurricane. It comes in fast and hard. China, on the other hand, is climate change: long, slow, pervasive.”1 I think it’s clear that we have not come to grips with the degree of Chinese foreign influence that does exist, and we have much work to do to do a better job of that. And, yes the responsibility lies with the government of the day to look at how we’re dealing with this threat and whether we’re meeting it effectively. And, as we say, in terms of the machinery of government, we have a lot to improve.
But this is a painfully naive statement, that ignores decades of Chinese meddling — even, perhaps especially, targeting nations with whom Beijing had a good relationship. It is damning that Ottawa only came alive to this problem after relations soured. The logical inference is that Canada turned a blind eye to this meddling specifically because it wanted better relations with China. That’s a problem in its own right.
Either we want to dissuade clandestine foreign interference, insisting that countries communicate to each other obviously and publicly, or we pick-and-choose what foreign interference we want to call out, based on who’s doing it.
If the goal is instilling trust in our democracy, as we keep hearing it is, then that’s not good enough.
This has been a very special mid-week Bug-eyed and Shameless dispatch.
I’m working on a deep dive on this topic for Foreign Policy, so stay tuned for a much wonkier take on this file.
And expect a whole new dispatch in your inboxes on Friday.
Johnston paraphrases this quote from memory, and gets pretty close. But I swapped out his paraphrasing for the exact quote, included in Johnston’s report.