- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
While becoming more autocratic at home during Xi Jinping’s rule, Beijing has become much more willing, over the past decade, to throw its weight around inside other states. It is increasingly trying, for the first time since Mao’s days, to intervene in the domestic politics, media, information environments, and societies of other countries. Beijing’s campaigns today reflect a departure from the more limited and defensive Chinese foreign policy of the late Cold War and early post–Cold War eras. China in many ways has supplanted Russia as the authoritarian foreign power most dedicated to meddling inside other countries.
Beijing has multiple goals for this new global influence offensive, which began in the Asia-Pacific region but now has spread to rich liberal democracies in North America, Europe and other parts of the world. It wants to use its influence efforts to get publics and opinion leaders, in other states, to have warmer views of China’s global leadership, which would smooth the way to China exerting more power internationally. This is power it could then use to undermine democracies and to shape the world in its image: to promote Beijing’s idea of authoritarian capitalism and a kind of closed, heavily censored internet and media environment. (Xi has explicitly encouraged Chinese policy-makers to hold up China as a model for other states, telling delegates to the 2017 Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, “The China model for a better social governance system offers a new option for other countries and nations.” Beijing further wants to blunt the power of the United States and other liberal democracies, like Canada, to shape international affairs or even their own domestic politics, civil society, universities and media. As part of impacting other countries’ domestic politics, Beijing wants to control the information that both Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers in other countries receive about the Communist Party’s actions at home and abroad. Further, unlike previous Chinese governments, Xi’s regime clearly wants to foster divisions among leading democracies and to tarnish the image of democracy.
One of the biggest tools Beijing wields is its growing control of Chinese-language media around the world. In the United States, home to large numbers of Chinese speakers, pro-Beijing owners have taken over nearly every Chinese language outlet, leaving viewers and readers with almost no independent coverage of China, save a few smaller outlets like New Tang Dynasty Television. A similar situation now exists in Canada (as it does in Australia, New Zealand and most other leading democracies, where pro-Beijing owners have taken over most Chinese language outlets). The few tiny remaining independent Chinese language media in Canada, which has become one of the world’s top destinations per capita for Chinese-speaking immigrants, have come under intense pressure from Beijing, face the loss of advertisers, and confront other threats as well.
The biggest Chinese language outlet in Canada, the Sing Tao Daily, part of the Sing Tao empire (and co-owned by the Torstar Corporation), has shifted from more independent coverage of China to consistent pro-Beijing coverage, as has the main Sing Tao in Hong Kong. Journalists for Sing Tao in Canada who dare critique China are ostracized or eventually wind up being pushed out or retiring, like former Sing Tao Vancouver edition editor Victor Ho. As he and other independent-minded Canadian journalists working in Chinese have told parliamentary committees, Sing Tao is not unique — most of the other Chinese language television, online and print outlets in Canada now hew to a pro-Beijing line.
Yet despite CSIS monitoring foreign interference in Canada, the federal government still lacks the kind of tougher legislative tools available to some other democracies to examine Chinese control of parts of the Canadian media and to scrutinize and stop other Chinese influence efforts in Canada. Legislation that allowed Canada to treat media and information as a sensitive sector in which any new foreign investment should be scrutinized might change this situation.
Relying on its diplomats and the United Front Work Department, a kind of intelligence organization increasingly involved in a broad range of meddling abroad, China has beefed up its general influence on Canadian campuses as well. Beijing has become powerful among many Chinese student groups in Canada, a trend similar to that seen in Australia, the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia. As a report by the Hoover Institution, a U.S. think-tank, noted, in Canada there is now “a strong pro-PRC culture of ‘political correctness’ (on university campuses) that conforms to United Front goals.” Another report, released in 2021 by Alliance Canada Hong Kong, further confirmed that Beijing had set up a wide range of influence operations, guided by the United Front Work Department, on Canadian campuses to stifle dissent about China’s policies, harass critics of Beijing, including ethnic Uyghurs, and form partnerships with and/or fund Canadian universities, likely to shift narratives about China.
Online, Beijing is also playing a much larger role on major social media platforms, spreading increasingly sophisticated disinformation, in Canada and many other countries, about China itself, and often about the politics and societies of targeted countries. “We had evidence of interference in the last general election through proxies that were spreading disinformation on Chinese language social media platforms, which interfered in a number of (electoral districts) with significant Chinese communities,” Conservative MP Michael Chong told The Guardian following the 2019 election.
This would not be surprising — but rather of a piece with China’s expanding disinformation tactics in other countries. At least since 2018, and certainly since 2019, Beijing has become more willing, both in its neighbourhood and in other regions, to meddle on global platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. China now utilizes the divisive, hyperpolarizing tactics embraced by Moscow. Beijing in fact appears to be learning about disinformation strategies and state media from Moscow, and may be impressed by the success the Kremlin has had in disrupting elections and fomenting disinformation in places as far-flung as Africa and Latin America. The two autocratic giants also seem more united than in the past in trying to specifically undermine democratic societies from within and to sow division within other important democratic actors such as the European Union, the United States and Canada. A study by the Washington-based Center for A New American Security think-tank found that “China appears to be gleaning best practices from Moscow and has begun to adopt some of the Kremlin’s tactics,” like inundating social media platforms with co-ordinated, disruptive and fake narratives, which is Moscow’s forte, instead of trying to use social media platforms in more limited ways such as to censor information Beijing does not want out. The two autocrats also seem to be starting to use disinformation to amplify each other’s narratives on certain issues.
China is also clearly targeting politicians in liberal democracies, including everyone from prominent members of parliament to local and provincial officials, who often know less about Chinese influence operations and are less prepared. Australia, for instance, has weathered several scandals in which senators and other prominent politicians were found to have taken gifts and outright cash from a leading pro-Beijing donor. That clear Chinese meddling within Australian politics was a major factor in Canberra passing a tough foreign interference law.
Canada seems potentially to have been targeted even more than Australia. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now denies he was ever briefed about Chinese interference in the 2019 federal election, reports had earlier suggested he and other ministers had indeed been warned. Reports by Global News suggest that CSIS thought Chinese operatives in Canada, linked to the United Front Work Department, had made payments to at least 11 federal election candidates and that Chinese government-affiliated operatives may also have worked as campaign staffers for some candidates.
If the allegations about China targeting so many Canadian parliamentary candidates in 2019 are true, it would be a much more aggressive step than even Beijing’s (known) actions in Australia or the United States. In the United States, an alleged Chinese spy was discovered having infiltrated the politics of the Bay Area. In addition, the Justice Department arrested five Chinese alleged operatives for meddling in a 2022 New York congressional race and also trying to intimidate other dissidents in the United States. But these efforts pale in comparison to the alleged election interference in Canada, even as the federal government still seems to be struggling to arm itself with enough legislative measures to effectively respond.
China has built up this influence apparatus in Canada, and yet as some initial revelations of its influence have come to light, and as it has taken alienating foreign policy actions like supporting Vladimir Putin’s war, its public image in Canada and many other liberal democracies has plummeted, according to polling by the Pew Research organization. The past three years of horrendous lockdown mismanagement of COVID, which led to massive protests inside China, huge disruptions of the Chinese economy, and no clear public health gain, may have also put a dent in the idea of China as possessing some kind of effective model of governance, as compared with liberal democracies. Indeed, China’s COVID strategy suggests just the opposite — that its highly authoritarian rule is increasingly incapable of effective governance, and is also no longer delivering the economic growth that provided it legitimacy with its population.
Will Beijing’s increasingly negative public image in Canada and other democracies, its hyperaggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, its military buildup in Asia, its support for Putin, and the growing revelations of its influence tactics undermine its global influence campaign? Perhaps. Certainly, some of China’s more public influence efforts, like expanding its major state media such as China Global Television Network and China Radio International, will be hit hard by Beijing’s unpopularity. Student associations, civil societies and some politicians may become warier of any links to Beijing.
Yet until leading democracies take key steps to blunt China’s efforts, Beijing will still have many avenues of influence. Canada could learn from some other liberal democracies. Like Finland or Taiwan, it could step up efforts to improve digital literacy among its citizens, in part by incorporating more digital literacy programming into school curricula. It could make broader efforts to educate local, provincial and national-level political candidates about foreign influence efforts and how to stop them. It also could put into place tough foreign interference laws that are still consistent with the freedom of liberal democracy, like the one implemented in Australia, and the various measures implemented in the United States, while keeping Canadian democracy itself strong and vital — the best response to the idea that Beijing has a superior model of governance.