Canadian diplomat expelled from China in retaliation for similar move by Ottawa

·5 min read

OTTAWA — Beijing declared a Canadian diplomat as "persona non grata" Tuesday in retaliation for Ottawa's expulsion of a Chinese consular official over allegations of foreign interference.

Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, a consul working out of the Consulate General of Canada in Shanghai, was asked to leave China by May 13.

China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted to its English website early Tuesday that China was deploying a "reciprocal countermeasure to Canada's unscrupulous move,'' which it said it "strongly condemns and firmly opposes.''

The decision came hours after Canada declared Zhao Wei, a Chinese consular officer in Toronto, as "persona non grata" in this country. He was asked to leave Canada within five days.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has alleged Zhao was involved in a plot to intimidate Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly is still planning to speak to Lalonde following the decision, but hadn't yet as of Tuesday afternoon. Joly described Lalonde as a respected career diplomat.

Joly said Tuesday the decision to expel Zhao was made "considering all factors."

"It needed to be thoughtful, it needed to take some time, and we needed to make sure that we did this in a very serious manner."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday his government will stand firm.

"We will take whatever action is necessary to continue to protect our democracy and show that we're standing up for our values and our principles," Trudeau said, before the regular weekly cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill.

"We understand there is retaliation but we will not be intimidated," he added. "We will continue to do everything necessary to keep Canadians protected from interference."

Joly said the federal government will update its guidance to travellers if it perceives the risk to Canadians in China as rising higher than its current level.

The current travel advisory asks Canadians to "exercise a high degree of caution in China due to the risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws."

Global Affairs Canada has asked Zhao to leave Canada by the weekend, and Canadian law allows the department to expel him within 10 days if he does not follow that order. China has set a similar timeline in asking Lalonde to leave that country by Saturday.

Calls for Zhao to be expelled began last week after a report in the Globe and Mail that Canada's spy agency, CSIS, had information in 2021 alleging the Chinese government was looking at ways to intimidate Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong. The federal government has confirmed that report.

Following Joly's announcement on Monday, China's embassy in Ottawa issued a statement that accused Canada of breaching international law and acting based on anti-Chinese sentiment.

It said the move "sabotaged'' relations between China and Canada, according to an official English translation provided by the embassy, and promised unspecified retaliatory measures.

Trudeau said Tuesday that his government had taken the potential for retaliation, including economic countermeasures, by China into account when it decided to expel the envoy.

"We will always do whatever is necessary to keep Canadians safe," Trudeau said.

Chong said last week that the current national security adviser, Jody Thomas, told him that CSIS informed her predecessor in 2021 about the matter. It is unclear just who that was, as the role was held by different people at different times that year.

Vincent Rigby, who was national security adviser for a good deal of 2021, declined to comment Tuesday, saying he expects to be asked to testify to Parliament or speak to the special rapporteur Trudeau appointed to help craft the government's response to foreign interference.

"I'm trying to keep my powder dry," Rigby said.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino would not say Tuesday who is at fault for Chong not being notified in 2021 that CSIS believed Beijing might target him and his relatives.

"Of course I've got confidence in CSIS. I mean, these are individuals who work to protect our national security every day," Mendicino testified to the House foreign-affairs committee.

"The only people that I think that we need to be united in holding accountable are the hostile actors who are attempting to undermine our democratic institutions."

Mendicino noted that Trudeau has now directed CSIS to always brief the public safety minister and the prime minister when the agency believes a member of Parliament might be targeted by a foreign state. He said Ottawa might expand this to directive to include elected officials at the provincial and municipal levels.

MPs spent most of Tuesday debating a motion to have the House procedural committee study whether Chong's rights as a parliamentarian were breached by a foreign entity.

The debate was temporarily paused late afternoon to allow other House business to proceed but was to resume late Tuesday evening.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner told reporters Tuesday that Ottawa needs to act to restore trust in democracy. She argued tools like a foreign agent registry would add transparency and prevent the public from linking diaspora communities with foreign states.

"I hope that across the partisan spectrum in Canada, people understand how serious this is, and this is actually a threat to our sovereignty and our democracy," she told reporters.

"Government is causing a threat to our pluralism and this needs to be dealt with really quickly, to restore trust in government institutions."

The government is consulting about setting up a registry but has not provided a timeline for when one may come into existence.

NDP foreign-affairs critic Heather McPherson called for more transparency.

"Which MPs have been targeted, have those MPs been informed, do they have the information they need to make the right decisions," she told reporters.

"I think it's really important for our safety, but also for our democracy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2023.

— With files from Jim Bronskill

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press