OTTAWA—Canadians should be wondering why their elected officials are not asking the nation’s spy boss about the dangers of foreign regimes controlling their politicians.
That’s the opinion of David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), following the parliamentary committee hearing at which CSIS Director Richard Fadden was grilled over comments he made in a controversial interview that some Canadian elected officials are under foreign influence.
Harris, one of the country’s leading experts on terrorism and Director of International and Terrorist Intelligence Programs at Insignis Strategic Research, attended the hearing on Monday and left with concerns over why politicians barely touched the substance of Fadden’s remarks, instead focusing almost exclusively on the political implications of what he said.
He said the lack of interest in whether foreign regimes were infiltrating Canada’s basic democratic institutions was a sad commentary on the state of some parliamentarians.
“Are we finding our basic public policy, political, foreign policy, trade, [and] economics subject to manipulation by foreign agents? That should be the big question. It wasn’t especially addressed at this meeting and Canadians should be concerned about the reasons for that.”
“I think the Canadian government needs very much to bear down and continue to take very seriously the nature and extent of this threat.”
Harris said the Chinese regime often threatened Chinese Canadians, the most direct victims of the regime’s efforts to influence Canadian officials.
“That’s unfair and unacceptable in a liberal and democratic country like Canada.”
Questions to several MPs following the hearing, including Don Davies, who chaired in the absence of Conservative Garry Breitkreuz, did not clear up whether the committee would do more than investigate Fadden’s remarks, although Davies did say it should be looked at.
Fadden’s comments to CBC on the eve of Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s visit to Canada included the bombshell allegation that two provincial cabinet members were suspected of being under the influence of a foreign regime.
He singled out China as the country most aggressive in recruiting political prospects at the university level and said some politicians and public servants with long-standing relationships with Chinese operatives have no idea they are being used to advance Beijing’s interests.
When asked whether he thought he owed an apology to the Chinese community and Chinese politicians, Fadden replied “No,” saying cases were extremely rare and those being influenced were victims.
“I don’t think they are the problem. I think the foreign power is the problem.”
Toward the end of the hearing, and in a few other moments, some parliamentarians raised the issue of foreign influence.
A Liberal MP and more than one Conservative MP brought up the example of the Russian ring recently broken up in the United States.
That spy ring included undercover Russian agents posing as Canadians. The U.S. Justice Department says the group was instructed to “search and develop ties in policymaking circles in [the] U.S.”
The group worked to ingratiate itself with former politicians, financiers, government officials, and others in positions of power and influence, a phenomenon remarkably similar to that laid out by Fadden.
Fadden said the intelligence agency decided to voice concerns over foreign influence because the issue is too often overlooked. He told MPs that if not for his most controversial remarks, his warning would not have brought them back from summer break for a hearing.
“We do not as a country often reflect on threats relative to espionage, terrorism, and foreign interference. I would argue it is good public policy for Canadians to be more attuned to the threats the country faces.”
In a press conference following the hearing, Chinese dissidents commended Fadden for speaking out on the issue. Chinese democracy advocates and Falun Gong practitioners said there were many Canadians impacted by the Chinese regime’s efforts to influence politicians.
“Falun Gong practitioners have been the target of the Chinese regime’s interference and influence for over 10 years,” said Lucy Zhou of the Falun Dafa Association of Canada (also known as Falun Gong).
Zhou listed a string of occurrences where politicians seemed to act on the Chinese regime’s interests after returning from a trip to China, sometimes making a complete reversal on earlier decisions. Often those decisions hurt those in Canada who have taken positions upsetting to the regime. Sometimes those changes followed pressure from Chinese consulates and letters threatening damaged trade relationships, said Zhou.
Hou Wenzhuo, a one-time visiting fellow at Harvard Law School who has testified as an expert witness before the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China, told reporters the regime recalculated its foreign policy strategies following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, using an often-hidden and multifaceted approach to establish long-term infiltration programs in countries around the world.
“This is a long-term project called ‘transforming by raindrops,’ meaning change the West by subtle and imperceptible means,” she said.
Before leaving China, Hou founded an NGO called Internal Migrant Workers Legal Aid and Research Center (IMW) and was a researcher and consultant for UNICEF in Beijing. She says Beijing has spent billions of dollars in its efforts to infiltrate and influence Western democracies.
Both Hou and previous CSIS reports have identified Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, as a leading component in those efforts.
In the United States, two congressional commissions examine China and issue an annual report to Congress. No such equivalent exists in Canada.
In 2009, Dr. Ross Terrill, a China specialist and Research Associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission of other attempts the Chinese regime has used to influence U.S. foreign policy, including making “healthy donations” to Western think tanks.
“Self-censorship, which is a daily necessity for journalists in China, also occurs in diluted form among American editors, academics, and others dealing with China. Folk worry about their next visa, their access to a sensitive area like Xinjiang for research, or take a Beijing point of view because of largesse available for their project from the Chinese side,” he said.
The commission’s report that year echoed Canada’s former intelligence chief Jim Judd, who called China the most aggressive country conducting espionage.
The U.S. report also cited the Chinese regime’s efforts to influence commentary about China and U.S.-China relations from American academics and think tanks through offering rewards, such as special access to interviews and documents, and punishments, like denying visas.
“These rewards and punishments offer the Chinese government leverage over the careers of foreign scholars and thereby encourage a culture of academic self-censorship,” the report said.