Jenny Kwan has spoken in support of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong and against China’s treatment of Uyghurs. Because of her comments, the NDP MP for Vancouver East is now afraid to travel to Hong Kong or China.
But even Kwan feels she’s been put under a “cloud of suspicion” with other Chinese-Canadian politicians after a series of news articles about Chinese government meddling in Canadian elections. China has become increasingly authoritarian under the rule of leader Xi Jinping and diplomatic relations between Canada and China have gone from friendly to rocky over the past five years.
The reports on Global News and in the Globe and Mail have been based on leaked information from whistleblowers inside Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The whistleblowers say they decided to leak information to the media after the Canadian government repeatedly failed to act on their warnings.
The drama is the latest example of something that politicians, especially people of colour, have always experienced — coming under suspicion when there are Canadian tensions with their birth country or ancestral country of origin, regardless of their ties to that place.
It’s something Ken Sim is aware of after becoming Vancouver’s first Chinese-Canadian mayor. Asked about the allegations of Chinese meddling in Lower Mainland municipal elections, he told reporters “If I was a Caucasian male, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
But there are real fears about foreign influence in politics and the Chinese government’s reach inside diaspora communities in Canada.
To sort out often racist speculation from fact, Kwan and many others are calling for a public inquiry to uncover which Canadian politicians may have been a target of the Chinese government. Kwan, a former B.C. cabinet minister, fears a return of the virulent anti-Asian racism spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a barrage of hate mail to her office and her daughter being spat on while riding a city bus.
“Whenever people can’t access the truth, you breed fear and you breed suspicion…. It’s critical that we get at the truth to stamp out this mistrust,” Kwan said.
Vancouver’s mayor and a city councillor are two of the politicians who have been swept up in the speculation.
Ken Sim and Coun. Lenny Zhou were both named in the Globe and Mail story that explored concerns about Chinese government interference in the 2022 Vancouver election. The article quoted a CSIS report that said China’s former consul general in Vancouver had discussed “‘grooming’ Chinese-Canadian municipal politicians for higher office to advance Beijing’s interests.”
The Globe presented no proof that Sim or Zhou were those hand-picked candidates. But the article made reference to Zhou emigrating to Canada from Beijing and speaking Mandarin at city council. It quoted pediatrician Louis Huang, who remembered Zhou making pro-Chinese government comments five years ago.
Huang later retracted that statement, saying he was unsure if the person he remembered making that comment was Zhou.
Several paragraphs were also devoted to Sim, who is Vancouver’s first Chinese-Canadian mayor.
The article prompted a former political opponent of Zhou’s to speak up in his defence. Russil Wvong, a council candidate for Kennedy’s Stewart’s Forward Together party in the 2022 election, said he got to know Zhou when the two were volunteering for the federal Liberals in 2019. Wvong recalls Zhou being passionate about Canadian democracy and “disheartened” by the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong at the time.
“I never had any kind of sign that he was pro-CCP,” said Wvong. Zhou, who ran with the ABC party along with current Mayor Ken Sim, was elected in a decisive victory that saw seven out of 10 council seats go to ABC.
Sim and Zhou declined to speak to The Tyee for this story. Taylor Verrall, director of communications for the mayor’s office, said the two men had had an “emotionally tough” week.
Sim’s former campaign manager, Kareem Allam, said that concerns about foreign interference in Canadian elections are valid. There are gaping holes in Canadian security and election laws that should be closed, he said. But the way the debate has been unfolding in the media is worrisome.
“Having these wild debates in public can really start to create a feeling that we could be heading into a McCarthy-era Red Scare type of thing,” he said, referring to the Cold War-era paranoia of then-senator Joe McCarthy who was convinced communist sympathizers had infiltrated American government institutions.
“That’s not going to be constructive.”
Wvong said it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t respect western democracy, and retaliated fiercely against Canada when Canadian police arrested Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in 2018 at the behest of the U.S. government. China banned Canadian canola exports and arrested two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on espionage charges.
In 2021, the Chinese government also sanctioned a number of Canadians, including Conservative MP Michael Chong in retaliation for Canadian sanctions levied in protest of human rights abuses of Uyghur people. The measures included barring them from China.
It’s the example of Kovrig and Spavor’s arrest and two-year detention that keeps Kwan fearful of travelling to Hong Kong or mainland China.
Wvong and Allam echoed Kwan, calling for either an all-party committee or a public inquiry to take an impartial look at CSIS’s concerns about election interference.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially dismissed the Global News and Globe and Mail reports about CSIS concerns, he has now appointed former governor general David Johnston as an independent special rapporteur to assess “the extent and impact of foreign interference in Canada’s electoral processes.” He has the power to recommend a public inquiry.
Former Vancouver mayor Stewart has called for that inquiry to include a probe of election interference concerns at the municipal level. Stewart had a contentious relationship with Tong Xiaoling, China’s consul general in Vancouver during the time he was mayor. According to interviews Stewart gave to the Globe and Mail and to CBC’s Power & Politics, he received a visit from CSIS agents in the months leading up to the 2022 civic election.
“The suggestion was [the consulate] wanted somebody else as mayor,” Stewart told Power & Politics.
“I was picking up from folks on the ground saying that they are actively out there, working against me in the election.”
Stewart, a former NDP MP who considers both Kwan and Chong to be colleagues and friends, said his relationship with the Chinese consulate’s Tong started out as friendly. But it quickly turned sour, he said, because he was supportive of an independent Taiwan and had started a Friendship City program with the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. The People’s Republic of China has never recognized Taiwan as an independent county.
Stewart said he cut off contact with Tong after the consulate released a statement opposing the Friendship City relationship between Vancouver and Kaohsiung, and after China sanctioned Chong.
Kwan said she has always based her criticisms of the Chinese government on human rights, and she’s been able to speak out because she no longer has any family living in Hong Kong or China who could be harassed or persecuted because of her comments.
“It is so important that we have this public inquiry,” Kwan said. “We need to get at it, to send a clear message that Canada will not tolerate this, and to ensure that people don’t look at us — Chinese Canadians — and be suspicious of us, to be suspicious of our motives.”