Tensions between China and Canada are escalating, raising concerns that Beijing is not only using intimidation tactics against its critics overseas but also attempting to exert influence over the political system of one of the world’s foremost democracies.
The two nations have expelled diplomats in retaliation after Canada accused a Chinese official based in Toronto of targeting one of its lawmakers and his family. Beijing refuted the accusation and announced what it described as “reciprocal countermeasures” on Tuesday.
“The expulsion of diplomats from both countries is a significant act,” remarked Wang Yiwei, the director of Renmin University’s International Affairs Research Center in China. “It demonstrates that the relationship between the two countries has seriously deteriorated.”
This episode, which comes after years of strained relations, occurs as China strives to be recognized as an impartial powerbroker while attempting to displace the United States on the global stage.
What’s behind the uproar in Canada?
For China’s part, it is more proof that Western countries are being swept up in anti-China sentiment at the behest of the U.S.
“Canada simply doesn’t put the fundamental interest of China-Canada relations at a very high level of analysis, and they simply yield to the pressure points from Washington,” said Victor Gao, a prominent political affairs analyst with strong links to the Communist Party. “They follow very closely to the anti-China hostility initiated by the United States.”
China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner. But the countries have certainly had a few rough years. Trudeau has previously accused China of meddling in Canadian elections in 2019 and 2021, without changing the result — something Beijing denies.
In 2018, Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and China detained “the two Michaels” — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — all three of whom were released in an apparent exchange in 2021.
If the mood was bad then, the view from China is that now it’s substantially worse.
“It seems that Canada is increasingly subjugated to the anti-China tsunami launched by the United States, and it seems that the Canadian government is more and more being subjugated to such anti-China hostilities,” Wang, at Renmin University, said.
What’s behind the uproar in Canada?
At the heart of this incident is a leaked report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The spy service alleged that a Chinese diplomat based in Toronto, Zhao Wei, was involved in efforts to intimidate opposition Conservative lawmaker Michael Chong and his family in Hong Kong.
Chong was singled out, it said, after he spearheaded Canada’s legislative efforts to label as genocide China’s alleged human rights abuses against its minority Muslim Uyghur population, something it denies despite documentary evidence and witness testimony.
The 2021-dated report became public after The Globe and Mail newspaper reported the news last week, but details have not been released publicly by the spy agency.
It said that China has “taken specific actions to target Canadian” lawmakers — including gathering information on Chong’s family members “who may be located in” China “for further potential sanctions,” the newspaper said. This, the Globe said, citing unidentified intelligence sources, was part of a broader effort to oppose Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing and boost Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberals.
Other revelations have included allegations of covert funding, and a lawmaker quit Trudeau’s party after denying improper dealings with Chinese officials.
NBC News has not confirmed the details in the leaked intelligence reports. But Trudeau has all but confirmed the thrust of them, telling reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday: “We will not be intimidated. We will continue to do everything necessary to keep Canadians protected from foreign interference.”
Chong said he had not been warned by intelligence agencies that his family may have been at risk and was “profoundly disappointed” to find out from a national newspaper report.
On Monday, Canada’s foreign ministry declared Zhao “persona non grata” and told him to leave. Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said in a statement that Canada would “not tolerate any form of foreign interference.”
The revelations have ignited a storm in Canada and focused criticism on Trudeau, who says he was unaware of the intelligence report, as well as on the Chinese government. Commentators and political opponents have questioned why Trudeau only expelled Zhao a week after the intelligence was leaked — let alone two years after the report was written.
What was China’s response?
China’s riposte was swift.
Its Foreign Ministry said that Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, a Canadian diplomat based in Shanghai, had four days to leave the country, calling it a “reciprocal countermeasure in reaction to Canada’s unscrupulous move.”
Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused Canada on Tuesday of “a smear campaign against China,” and “ideologically based political manipulation” that was “nonsensical” and based on “lies.” He called the leaked intelligence document “unsubstantiated and purely fabricated with ulterior motives.”
“We advise the Canadian side to immediately stop unreasonable provocations,” Wang added. “If the Canadian side does not listen to advice and acts recklessly, China will resolutely and forcefully respond.”
Writing in the Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid, its former editor Hu Xijin accused Canada of being an “American puppet state” that was “painting China in its own ugly image.”
NBC News has reached out to the Canadian embassy in Beijing for comment.
Why does the dispute matter?
This story touches upon several significant themes within the complex relationship between China and Western countries.
For Beijing’s critics, the alleged targeting of Michael Chong by China serves as yet another example of Beijing’s attempts to exert pressure on individuals and institutions abroad who have been vocal in their criticism of sensitive issues.
In the past, China has retaliated by pulling NBA games off the air in response to comments made by players and team owners. It has also faced allegations of harassment against Uyghur diaspora members who have spoken out, as well as the establishment of unauthorized police stations in locations such as New York.
To address the issue of alleged Chinese interference, including the need for a potential public inquiry, Prime Minister Trudeau has appointed former Governor General David Johnston to conduct further investigations.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China, expressed support for the expulsion of the diplomat, deeming it “completely appropriate.” He stated that it should have been done earlier and emphasized that it sends a clear message to China that the Canadian government will not tolerate any further interference.
Saint-Jacques also described China’s response as “proportionate,” noting that they could have chosen to expel a higher-ranking official but opted for a measured approach.