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ABC News
ABC News
East Asia correspondent Bill Birtles

Five years after Australia's reckoning with Chinese foreign interference, Canada has its moment

Justin Trudeau has suggested anti-Asian racism was a factor in the initial allegations of foreign interference made against a member of his caucus. (Reuters: Blair Gable)

Canada is in the grips of a political storm over alleged foreign interference from China and as it bears down, one government MP has resigned from the caucus and there are renewed calls for Australian-style laws targeting overseas meddling.

After anonymous intelligence sources made a series of claims alleging the Chinese government had meddled in two national elections and a mayoral race, a majority of Canada's House of Commons voted for an inquiry into foreign interference.

The most explosive allegation has seen a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal party quit caucus and become an independent. 

He was accused of advising a Chinese diplomat to delay the release of two jailed Canadians for partisan reasons.

Han Dong, the member for a Toronto electorate with a large Chinese diaspora population, strongly denies the claims that he told Toronto's Chinese Consul-general in early 2021 that releasing the two men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, would benefit the opposition Conservative party.

The men were ultimately freed by Beijing later that year.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were jailed in China and released in 2021.  (Reuters: Mandel Ngan)

"What has been reported is false, and I will defend myself against these absolutely untrue claims," Mr Dong told Canada's parliament, but said he'd quit the governing party to avoid any perception of a conflict of duty.

Mr Dong also voted for the inquiry into foreign meddling, which despite majority support, is non-binding and was opposed by most members of Mr Trudeau's Liberal Party.

The storm over alleged Chinese government interference bears strong similarities to what unfolded in Australia five years ago, which ultimately saw new laws enacted. 

The impact of Australia's legislation

In Australia, anonymous leaks from security services aired through the media prompted the resignation from parliament of rising Labor star Sam Dastyari, a ban on foreign political donations and a new registry of foreign agents.

But the Trudeau government appears cautious against following a similar path.

"We haven't seen any movement of any substantive nature towards adopting legislation comparable to Australia's foreign influence transparency act," said Charles Burton, a security and China specialist at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, based in Ottawa.

"So I think there is pervasive frustration."

Five years after then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull pushed through the anti-foreign interference legislation, there is acknowledgement that it hasn't been as effective as hoped.

Despite it clearly being aimed at China's government, not a single person has registered in Australia as a foreign agent of China since the law was enacted.

That's despite the presence of well-established Beijing-backed influence groups such as the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China.

"The most active state and political party seeking to influence public affairs in Australia is China ... but they don't seem to appear on the register," Mr Turnbull told a parliamentary inquiry last month.

But Mr Burton still believes the legislation has had a "considerable dampening effect" on politicians in Australia who otherwise might be less careful about receiving benefits or support from foreign governments. 

Concerns for Chinese Canadians

In Canada, the allegations against Mr Dong go beyond the conversation with the Chinese consul-general about the detained Canadians.

Earlier reports again quoting anonymous Canadian intelligence sources claim Mr Trudeau's staffers were given an urgent briefing ahead of Mr Dong's 2019 election to parliament.

They reportedly believed he was among a group of candidates being covertly supported by China's government.

The former leader of the opposition Conservatives, Erin O'Toole, even claims Chinese government interference cost his party up to nine seats at the 2021 election, a view not backed by government officials.

Mr Dong firmly rejects having any knowledge of assistance or accepting any support from China's government, while Chinese diplomats in Canada have denied any wrongdoing or intention to meddle.

Han Dong was a member of Justin Trudeau's leadership team, but has resigned from the party to become an independent.   (Twitter: @handongontario)

Like in Australia, the increasing focus on covert government meddling from Beijing is attracting concerns about racism.

China has long used racism allegations to deflect scrutiny of its influence activities abroad, which are often carried out through Beijing-backed Chinese community or business groups. 

But the broader population of Chinese Canadians being caught up in the growing suspicion towards Beijing is seen as a legitimate concern.

Earlier this month, Mr Trudeau suggested anti-Asian racism was a factor in the initial allegations raised against Mr Dong.

And he's now appointed a special rapporteur to investigate foreign interference claims to report back — a step some say could lead to firmer laws, while others see it as a stalling tactic.

"It is a real danger that this exercise will instigate further indiscriminate and unsubstantiated accusations of disloyalty, subversion or treason," the authors of an open letter signed by several academics warned this month.

But within Canada's Chinese community, some outspoken figures have backed the establishment of stronger anti-foreign interference laws, saying they are needed to thwart harassment and monitoring from Beijing's agents.

Questions over appetite for change

With Mr Trudeau's government now promising wide-ranging consultation about how any firmer measures might incite racism, Mr Burton believes a transparency scheme similar to Australia's does not look likely anytime soon.

"It seems there's a lot of resistance to having such legislation," he said.

"I think this suggests people in Canada believe the Australian laws have been at least partially effective in meeting the challenge of … Chinese government influence operations.

"And there's a high degree of concern among elements who might be receiving benefits from the Chinese state to try to stave this off," he said.

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