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Hong Kong-Canadians want to expose China’s propaganda machine

Foreign influence tough to pin down without laws and institutional awareness, says Alliance Canada Hong Kong.
ACHK-Cherie-Wong
Cherie Wong speaks at the Canada-China Relations Committee on May 31, 2021, on behalf of Alliance Canada Hong Kong about Chinese Communist Party propaganda tactics and intimidation in Canada
In using public relations firms, social media influencers, non-profit patriotic community groups, business entities, media, and politicians, the Chinese Communist Party is crafting an increasingly complex and obscure propaganda system within Canadian society to prop up economic and social policies that align with Beijing’s plans to unilaterally control global trade, asserts a report penned by Hong Kong-Canadians to the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations.

What’s more, this propaganda effort has been left unchecked by Canadian authorities and, as a result, dissidents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are reporting more threats to their safety and well-being while a muzzling effect takes greater hold.

“Many are fearful of criticizing the Chinese government as it could cost them career opportunities, business prospects, bar them from returning to PRC-controlled territories, and even jeopardize their personal safety and their extended family members,” states the report by the Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK), titled In Plain Sight: Beijing’s Unrestricted Network of Foreign Influence in Canada.

ACHK activist Cherie Wong presented the report to the special committee on Monday. She says the assertions the group advance stem from a broad overview of events and policies that have taken shape, particularly over the past decade, as a result of so-called “CCP influence operations.”

The propaganda is increasingly hard to spot because it’s conducted in an informal manner by those business and civic groups with ties to Chinese authorities belonging to the CCP’s foreign relations branch, the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

Members of the UFWD act overseas to advance the interests of the People’s Republic of China. The problem, says ACHK, is not just their covert activity but also their attempt to speak on behalf of all Canadians of Chinese ethnicity.

Wong’s group is proposing a foreign influence transparency scheme wherein a public registry is created for groups affiliated with foreign states. ACHK says such measures are better suited to counter foreign propaganda than the criminal justice system because the influential activity operates in “legally grey zones.”

“It is not criminal in intent and that is how they are able to get away with it,” Wong told the committee, after speaking of her own experiences of being anonymously threatened.

Glacier Media asked Wong how it could be proven any particular group could be labeled a foreign-affiliated actor, or associated to one, if it weren’t forthright in registering.

Wong said the registry would be backed up with investigative and enforcement powers via an independent public commission, which would “initiate public inquiries into foreign state influence and interference operations with Canadian institutions, including but not limited to political and civil institutions, private sector, academia, Canadian research and innovation, charities and non-governmental organizations.”

Asked if such a commission could have the effect of infringing on freedom of expression of these groups, whether state-backed or not, Wong said not doing so is already having such an effect as Canadians of Chinese descent are increasingly self-censoring.

“Disclosing one’s association to a foreign state actor should not be seen as a civil liberties issue. Not when we know foreign state actors have their own agendas … and ones that infringe on Canadian freedoms,” Wong told Glacier Media.

Some of the problems Chinese-Canadians are facing include Hong Kong activists being met with counter-protests by groups of people suspected of close ties to Vancouver’s Chinese consulate – something the consulate has denied. At one demonstration, pro-Beijing protesters reportedly accosted members of a Hong Kong-affiliated church. Similarly, in 2019, paid protesters showed up at BC Supreme Court to support Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.

Other methods include what ACHK calls “elite capture,” wherein an individual or business is given a lucrative opportunity but is then forced or compelled to comply with their pro-Beijing partners.

“Individuals may choose to self-censor in exchange for continued financial support or collaboration,” ACHK states.

If carrots don’t work, sticks are used, ACHK asserts. “Intimidation abroad works in tandem with threats against family members of those who dare to speak out” on China-related human rights concerns, it says.

“Recently, activists in Vancouver had received death threats from condemning a provincial advisory council chairperson who was gaslighting Uyghurs,” stated the report, as an example.

Likewise, China-connected commercial developments, personal junkets and social conferences woo politicians; particularly provincial and municipal politicians as a tactic to avoid federal-level scrutiny.

The report, for example, is critical of the BC NDP’s refusal to address and condemn China’s treatment of minorities while pursuing trade agreements with the authoritarian regime.

Additionally, surveillance is a concern, says ACHK. Bejing may employ allies in Canada or use the internet. The report notes how Facebook identified a Chinese hacking operation that targeted Uyghurs in Canada this year.

“WeChat has become a global conduit of Chinese state propaganda, surveillance and intimidation,” the Hong Kong group adds.

A perceived problem cited by Wong and ACHK is that municipal police, RCMP and CSIS “do not know how to address foreign state harassment concerns.”

A specific problem faced by authorities is determining when pro-Beijing supporters cross the line in countering the many pro-democracy demonstrations in Vancouver.

“These incidents are seen as singular events, rather than coordinated campaigns to silence dissent across Canada. This becomes tricky for law enforcement agencies as intervention could be seen as a violation of Canadian Charter.”

Pro-Beijing individuals and groups also aim to shelter the regime from criticism. One method in doing so – not addressed in the ACHK report – is equating criticism of the Chinese government to racism.

Furthermore, people known to defend the Chinese government on its human rights record are promoting local anti-Asian racism rallies, according to some members of ACHK.

Wong said the report is a broad overview and the group is aware of the attempts by alleged UFWD-connected people to amplify the anti-Asian racism message.

Among the “narrative warfare” they’ve engaged in is anti-Asian racism, Wong said. “They are able to profit from this discussion.”

She said racism is a real concern, and it may only grow as China acts increasingly outside international norms and democratic countries do nothing to confront the CCP.

Wong said Canadian society needs to address racism from within while also stopping attacks on it by the CCP.

The matter came to a head last week when Prime Minster Justin Trudeau was asked in Parliament to address concerns raised by the opposition Conservatives that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had its people inside the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trudeau responded, “We will not give in to pandering to anti-Asian racism. We have seen enough of a rise in intolerance across the country these past months. We need to continue to stand strong in supporting diversity.”

In response, on May 27, Steveston-Richmond East MP Kenny Chiu suggested Trudeau’s comments play into CCP propaganda: “Pointing that out [the PLA] is not racism. Suggesting otherwise plays into the propaganda effort of our opponent. That is something of great concern in my home of Richmond. To see our national leadership downplay these concerns is simply shameful. Many critics of the CPP are of Asian descent themselves, either born as equal partners in Canada or having joined the equal partnership as immigrants.”

Last month Chiu proposed a law to register foreign official activity in Canada (a proposal not as sweeping as ACHK’s, said Wong).

Wong told Glacier Media the ACHK proposal should apply to all hostile state actors trying to suppress Canadians of all ethnicities.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca