What’s really shocking about China’s electoral interference

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, March 8 (online), 9 (print), 2023.

I am not shocked that China has attempted to interfere in our elections –nor should anyone else be.

China is known to do this kind of thing in other countries. Attempting to influence elections is just one strand of a complex policy tapestry by which China attempts to cultivate pro-Beijing sympathies and narratives among governments, opposition figures, bureaucrats, citizens, and scholars in countries large (the United States), medium (Australia), and small (New Zealand). In 2015, I was told that even my name appeared on a list of Canadian academics whom Beijing thought worth trying to cultivate. (Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel!)

China is not the only perp, either. A 2021 study from Simon Fraser University found that Russian and Iranian actors tried to sow chaos on social media around the 2015 federal election. And former prime minister John Diefenbaker plausibly accused John F. Kennedy’s administration of aiding the Liberals in bringing down his government in 1963. At least we have been spared more overt interference of the kind that succeeded in overthrowing democratically elected governments in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973 – or that has, for more than a year now, failed to overthrow the government of Ukraine.

But there are genuinely shocking aspects about China’s recent attempts to interfere.

One is how artless it was. Leaked CSIS documents paint a picture of amateurish efforts easily traced back to Chinese officials. China’s former consul general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, even reportedly boasted about how she helped defeat two Conservative members of parliament. Whether this is evidence of incompetence or indifference to being discovered hardly matters; either one is frightening enough.

A second is how thin-skinned, haughty, and absurd China’s response has been. Xi Jinping’s public “dressing down” of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last November – for daring to report to the media, as he should, that he raised the topic of Chinese interference in Canadian elections with Mr. Xi – was profoundly paternalistic. Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s subsequent insistence that “China has never meddled” in other countries’ internal affairs was transparently ridiculous. One is reminded of China’s pointless insistence that the purpose of the balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina last month was merely meteorological even after the United States recovered “priority sensors and electronics.”

The overall impression we are left with is of a Chinese government panicked by bad optics but prone to own-goals. This is precisely how we should understand the impossible position in which Beijing finds itself in the South China Sea. Despite attempts to project confidence, Chinese leaders evidently feel highly vulnerable to domestic disapproval. It appears as though they prefer anything to admitting error to their domestic audience and will act accordingly, no matter how otherwise irrational that action may be.

One thing we need not worry about, however, is the effect this episode will have on the relationship between Canada and China, which is so bad now that there is little that can make it worse, short of something that would trigger an outright rupture – such as a military conflict over Taiwan. At present, both sides seem reasonably committed to keeping channels of communication open, if nothing else; that, at least, is good news.

What should we worry about, then?

One: Why did the Trudeau government fail to take any meaningful action against any Chinese officials after being informed that they were involved in attempts to interfere with our elections? Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu was summoned by Ottawa over a balloon and reports of illegal police stations on Canadian soil — but not over election interference. Political meddling is more than just a summoning offence. Why were no Chinese diplomats sent packing?

Two: Why is the Prime Minister so reluctant to slake Canadians’ thirst for an independent inquiry, both into China’s efforts and into the apparent close ties between certain Canadian politicians and Chinese officials? It may be, as many knowledgeable commentators have said, that there is little an independent inquiry can accomplish, given the imperatives of protecting intelligence sources and methods. But an accountable leader listens to what citizens want and finds a way to satisfy them. Politics is performance, after all, and performance is something our prime minister is supposed to be good at. It is shocking how miserably he is failing in this case.