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Yuan Yi Zhu is a research fellow at the University of Oxford.
Ever since Justin Trudeau publicly expressed his admiration for the People’s Republic of China as a “basic dictatorship” where major policy decisions could be made without anything as vulgar as consulting the populace, some have suspected him of harbouring a certain partiality toward the Chinese regime.
His family antecedents have undoubtedly helped to fuel that perception. Before becoming prime minister, his father travelled to China at the height of the Great Leap Forward and wrote a travelogue intended to improve Maoist China’s international image, right as millions of its people were starving to death.
Another one of his sons has since built a career as a China whisperer, even more fulsome in his praise of the Chinese regime than his more famous brother.
It now seems that Trudeau’s hereditary admiration for communist China may be reciprocated. Over the last week, a series of articles in the Globe and Mail, English Canada’s newspaper of record, have detailed explosive allegations of PRC interference in several Canadian elections in favour of the Liberal Party, based on leaked reports from CSIS, Canada’s main intelligence agency.
In the words of a Chinese diplomat, “the Liberal Party of Canada is becoming the only party that the PRC can support.”
The help came in many forms. Chinese students were forced to vote for pro-China candidates at party selection meetings; disinformation campaigns were mounted against MPs viewed as hostile to Chinese interests (Conservative MPs of Chinese origin were specially targeted).
Favoured candidates—some of whom were on placed on an A-list of sorts containing a dozen names—received illegal campaign donations, while the foundation which bears the name of Trudeau’s father was targeted with legal ones designed to curry favour of his son. A Chinese consul openly bragged about having helped to defeat two MPs hostile to China.
Ostensibly, there was a cross-party body taskforce charged with monitoring possible foreign interference during Canada’s most recent federal election campaign. But the Conservative representative on the body has since publicly described how their concerns about ongoing Chinse interference, targeted at ridings were large Chinese diasporas, were systematically ignored.
The cumulative effect of these efforts is hard to estimate. With their remarkably efficient vote distribution under first-past-the-post, the Liberals would possibly have won enough seats to retain power at the last two elections with or without the Chinese interference.
On the other hand, the defeat of several prominent critics of China undoubtedly has had a chilling effect on Canadian politics, as MPs mindful of their tight majorities have taken note, particularly in ridings with large populations of Chinese origin which are susceptible to these efforts.
Trudeau’s reaction to these revelations has been distinctly unenthusiastic, as might well be expected of one whose last two election victories (though he lost the popular vote each time) are now suspect.
He has so far refused calls for a public inquiry and insinuated those who are asking for one are engaged in a Trumpian effort to discredit the integrity of Canadian elections, although even some of his most loyal retainers have broken ranks and now support such a move.
Beyond a refusal for further public investigation, he has accused CSIS of behaving unconstitutionally when it tried to warn the Liberal Party against selecting a particular candidate due to his alleged involvement in offshore PRC electoral interference. He has also alleged some of his critics were guilty of anti-Chinese racism.
In fact, he seems angrier at the leakers, generally assumed to be from frustrated intelligence analysts whose work was being ignored, than at what the leaks revealed.
There are real difficulties in what an appropriate response to Chinese political interference should look like. Much of what the PRC is alleged to have done is illegal under existing election laws; but undesirable though it may be, Canadian politicians are allowed to support the PRC or indeed any other oppressive regime (Trudeau also has a well-known hereditary affinity with Fidel Castro).
But the Prime Minister’s stubborn attempts at deflection and his refusal to countenance further investigations will undoubtedly reinforce suspicions that, when it comes to the People’s Republic of China, he is very much his father’s son.