Joly weighs Chinese retaliation over expelling diplomat who CSIS says targeted MP

·6 min read

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is assessing how painful China's retaliation would be if Canada decides to expel a diplomat accused of targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Thursday that she had asked her deputy minister to summon China's ambassador to Canada over the affair, while saying that outright expulsion was an option on the table.

Chong, meanwhile, said Thursday that Canada's spy agency told the prime minister's national security adviser in 2021 about its intelligence regarding alleged threats against Chong and his family due to his criticism of Beijing's human-rights record.

That claim appears to contradict Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's assertion this week that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service chose not to elevate the information.

At the House of Commons foreign affairs committee on Thursday, Joly confirmed media reports that CSIS believes a diplomat working out of China's Toronto consulate had taken note of Chong's relatives abroad.

This happened after he sponsored a parliamentary motion condemning Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang as genocide.

"What has happened is completely unacceptable," Joly told MPs, looking across the room to Chong.

"All options, including expulsion of diplomats, remain on the table as we consider the consequences for this behaviour," she said.

But in a heated exchange with Chong, she said Ottawa isn't sure whether it will follow demands by the Opposition Conservatives to expel the diplomat.

"We're assessing the consequences that we'll be facing in case of diplomatic expulsion, because there will be consequences," she warned.

"Economic interests, consular interests, and also diplomatic interests will be affected."

Joly raised China's 2018 detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, which was widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, during which Beijing also limited Canadian imports such as canola.

"We are under pressure to go fast. We need to make sure as well that we protect our democracy, and that is why we will take action in light of the facts that are being presented regarding your case."

Joly told reporters she would make a decision "very soon" as to whether one or more Chinese diplomats are sent home.

She instructed her deputy minister Thursday to tell Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu that Canada will not tolerate any form of foreign interference in its affairs.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa said midday Thursday that it is reserving comment.

In question period Thursday afternoon, Chong said Jody Thomas, the prime minister's national security adviser, told him that CSIS had provided her predecessor's office with a July 2021 intelligence assessment that said his family was being targeted by a Chinese diplomat.

He said Thomas told him that CSIS sent the intelligence to the national security adviser, the Privy Council Office, as well as other relevant government departments.

Trudeau previously told reporters that CSIS determined the information it received about threats against Chong and his relatives did not need to be escalated.

"CSIS made the determination that it wasn't something that needed to be raised to a higher level because it wasn't a significant enough concern," Trudeau said Wednesday.

Trudeau said he only learned about the report from a Globe and Mail article on Monday, which cited top-secret documents. He said he has ordered Canada's intelligence agencies to immediately inform MPs of any threats against them, regardless of whether those threats are considered credible.

When asked about Chong's allegations on Thursday afternoon, Trudeau said, "No comment."

The government has noted that in 2021, CSIS briefed Chong after China publicly said it would sanction him for criticizing Beijing's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province. The agency never told Chong about any threats.

Chong on Thursday called on Trudeau and the federal government to "correct the record that this report and information was sent to the departments and to the Privy Council Office."

But Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino maintained the Liberal government only learned of the information on Monday.

Speaking to the committee earlier, Joly expressed her sympathy for Chong, who glared at her while asking why the diplomat had not already been sent packing.

"I cannot imagine the shock and concern of learning that your loved ones have been targeted in this way," Joly said.

Chong appeared unimpressed.

"So why is this diplomat still here?" he asked.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has presented a motion in the House of Commons asking MPs to call on the government to take more aggressive action against threats of foreign interference, including expelling Chinese diplomats.

China's Foreign Ministry played down allegations that it was trying to intimidate Chong and his relatives.

"China is opposed to any interference in a country’s internal affairs. We never interfere in Canada’s internal affairs and have no interest whatsoever in doing so," spokeswoman Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing, according to an official English transcription.

Meanwhile, CSIS shed some more light Thursday on other ways it views China as attempting to meddle in Canadian affairs.

In its 2022 public report, CSIS noted reports that subnational affiliates of China's Ministry of Public Security had set up three overseas "police stations" in Canada without permission from Ottawa.

"CSIS has observed instances where representatives from various investigatory bodies in the (People's Republic of China) have come to Canada, often without notifying local law enforcement agencies, and used threats and intimidation in attempting to force 'fugitive' Chinese-Canadians and permanent residents to return to the PRC."

Foreign interference directed at Canada's democratic institutions and processes, at all levels of government, can be an effective way for a foreign state to achieve its immediate, medium, and long-term strategic objectives, the CSIS report says.

"Foreign states — again, directly and via proxies — may seek to influence electoral nomination processes, shape public discourse or influence policy positions of elected officials using covert tactics. The purpose is to advance issues or policies that favour the foreign state, or quell dissent."

The report says these threat actors must be held accountable for their clandestine activities.

"We will also continue to inform national security stakeholders and all Canadians about foreign interference to the fullest extent possible under the CSIS Act, in order to build our national resilience to this pernicious threat," it says.

CSIS reiterates warnings that the Communist government has made plans aiming "to exploit the collaborative, transparent, and open nature of Canada's research and innovation sector in order to serve the PRC's economic, intelligence, and military interests."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2023.

— With files from David Fraser, Jim Bronskill and Stephanie Taylor

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press