Canadian delegation goes to China as foreign meddling inquiry opens

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‘If they have any skill at all, it’s the ability to read the room. … This is not the right time’

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As the federal inquiry on foreign interference by China and other nations resumed last week, hearing from activists who claim persecution by those countries, a much different sort of approach to the People’s Republic unfolded overseas.

A delegation of five MPs and senators, most of them on friendly terms with Beijing, visited China, meeting officials of the unelected National People’s Congress and other state institutions.

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At the head of the Canada-China Legislative Association group was co-chair Han Dong, an independent MP and former Liberal who was thrust into the heart of allegations about Chinese interference in Canada. Dong has strongly refuted charges that he was financially assisted by Beijing when first elected and secretly advised a Chinese diplomat in Toronto on how to handle the “Two Michaels” affair.

His group, along with Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, calls such trips a chance to improve the countries’ rocky relationship, address human rights and expand business ties with Canada’s second-biggest trading partner. The association has visited China numerous times.

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But critics say latest mission was highly inappropriate in light of concerns about Beijing’s interference here, as well as issues such as the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from 2018 to 2021 and the repression of China’s Uyghur minority, which the House of Commons has unanimously termed a genocide.

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Han Dong walking with lawyer Mark Polley
Han Dong, left, is joined by lawyer Mark Polley as he arrives to appear as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Photo by Sean Kilpatrick /THE CANADIAN PRESS

“I find it dumbfounding,” said Kenny Chiu, the former Conservative MP who believes his chances in the 2021 election were torpedoed by a misinformation campaign orchestrated by Beijing. “These are politicians. If they have any skill at all, it’s the ability to read the room. … This is not the right time, during the public inquiry.”

To make a hands-across-the-waters visit as a commission examines allegations of China’s meddling is “counterintuitive” and naive, said Winnie Ng of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. She testified to the inquiry last week.

“If this is what Canadian diplomacy looks like now, we are in deep trouble,” said Ng. “You can’t help but question what is the intent of this kind of association. Is it to get a photo op, is it window dressing, as if human rights are all fine and we can learn from each other?”

Dong could not be reached for comment by deadline.

As well as him, the delegation included fellow co-chair and independent Quebec Sen. Paul Massicotte, Conservative Sen. Victor Oh, Liberal MP Majid Jowhari and NDP MP Don Davies.

The group had “open and frank conversations” on a variety of issues, including support for Canadian businesses operating in China and human rights, the association said in a news release.

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“In addition to strengthening bilateral relations between Canada and China, the visit objectives included exploring ways to improve people-to-people ties, expand trade opportunities and deepen environmental cooperation,” said the release. “Delegates advocated for China to issue visas to Canadian journalists and for increasing the number of flights between the two countries.”

Their mission was praised by Jennifer May, Canada’s ambassador to China, who said in a tweet she met the parliamentarians as they prepared to “engage their counterparts in #ParliamentaryDiplomacy — an important part of fostering people-to-people ties and seeking areas of cooperation.”

But Chiu and Ng noted that the legislators they met in China were of a wholly different breed than the MPs, at least, in the delegation.

The National People’s Congress is a non-democratic body that effectively rubber-stamps the policies of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

“Each member of Parliament has tens of thousands of Canadians behind them. They are duly elected by the people,” said Chiu. “If anything, the People’s Congress members should be coming to Ottawa to see how democratic politics is being practised in Canada, rather than vice versa.”

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Dong resigned from the Liberal caucus last March, as media reports citing unnamed intelligence sources levelled a series of allegations about his ties to Beijing. The most damning was a report by Global News that he had told China’s Toronto consul general that Beijing should delay releasing the two Michaels to avoid giving a political win to the Conservatives. A Globe and Mail report later cited sources who said he had not made such an argument to the diplomat, a conclusion echoed by David Johnston, the government’s special rapporteur on Chinese interference.

Dong has strongly denied the charges, is suing Global for libel and says he welcomes an investigation to clear his name. He once voted for a motion calling for a public inquiry on interference.

Han Dong profile
Dong has strongly denied the charges, is suing Global for libel and says he welcomes an investigation to clear his name. Photo by Sean Kilpatrick /The Canadian Press

Like Davies, though, he was among a small handful of MPs who abstained from a vote that unanimously approved a motion declaring China’s treatment of the Uyghurs a form of genocide.

Some other members of the delegation have not exactly gone out of their way to challenge China, or in one case another repressive regime.

Davies has a history of paralleling Beijing’s narrative on contentious issues.

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The Vancouver MP earned a rebuke from his own party leader when he suggested the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018 was clearly a political issue disguised as a legal one, as Beijing had alleged. He harshly criticized Richard Fadden in 2010 when the then head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service publicly charged that China was trying to covertly influence politicians here. He has met repeatedly with Chinese diplomats, one of whom praised him in a 2017 post for his positive efforts on improving Canada-China relations. He co-sponsored a 2018 panel discussion whose report downplayed allegations of Chinese interference in Canada.

Oh was part of a trio of parliamentarians who recently argued that instituting a foreign-influence registry in Canada would be akin to a law repealed 75 years ago that barred Chinese people from immigrating here. He has often appeared at events hosted by Chinese diplomats, and reported nine sponsored trips to China since 2013, including three where at least some of his expenses were picked up by Chinese provincial governments.

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Both Oh and Massicotte were among 33 senators who voted down a separate resolution in the upper house declaring China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide.

Jowhari has refuted criticism from members of the Iranian-Canadian community that he supports Iran’s regime — which some activists argue should be another focus of the inquiry. But he also posted on Facebook in 2017 about an “amazing” farewell dinner for a departing Chinese consul general in Toronto, thanking the diplomat for his “tremendous works” in bringing together Chinese communities and strengthening diversity and multiculturalism.

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