Can Canadians avoid a ‘Red Scare’ while tackling China’s interference?

Opinion: “Chinese espionage can be real — and Western democracies can create McCarthyite witch scares,” says a new book. Vigilance and frank discussion are the way forward.

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“If you are an American, it is now more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data.” — Prof. Calder Walton, author of Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West

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This fall, Ottawa finally showed a smidgen of resistance to China’s infiltration of the West’s critical business, educational, scientific, military and political infrastructure.

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In many ways, it’s too late. The dictatorial People’s Republic of China has been interfering in Canada for decades, whether we believed our relations were good or bad.

Much damage has been done, critical information misappropriated. Beijing has attacked Canadian politicians it considers critics, while aiding those it deems loyal. Nortel, Canada’s leader in the tech business, was destroyed by Chinese state-sponsored hacking, for the benefit of Huawei. With accusations flying, scientists from China have been fired from Hydro Quebec and a Winnipeg infectious disease laboratory. And those are just the things we know.

Even though the Liberals last week responded to public pressure by appointing a judge to start an inquiry into China’s meddling, we are still eons behind the U.S., which has been slow itself. Many residents of both nations are trying to overcome their naivety about what China has been up to for a long time, especially since 2015, when Chinese President Xi Jinping decreed all Chinese businesses must directly serve the regime.

This week, it was a U.S. Congress committee that invited Canadian Conservative MP Michael Chong to speak about the threats he and his family have endured for challenging China. Among other things, Chong spoke about extensive “intellectual property theft” and the “dangers that foreign interference poses to the 1.7 million Canadians of Chinese descent living in Canada,” particularly to “targeted diaspora groups,” including Tibetans and Uyghurs.

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How can Canada protect itself against foreign interference without being accused of “anti-Asian hate,” as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Cabinet have often done. China’s aggressive diplomats also accuse critics of Beijing of a new McCarthyism, a vociferous attack on Communists, in this case those of Chinese origin.

China-born, Vancouver-raised Anastasia Lin, whose family has been threatened by Chinese agents because of her human rights work, said in an interview that it won’t be easy ”to resolve the unfair judgment placed on Chinese immigrants who just want to live their lives in the West.” They are most vulnerable, she said, to the Chinese Communist Party’s coercion.

A new book, Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West (Simon and Schuster), takes the breath away as it details how far Russia and increasingly China have sabotaged and undermined the West, including Canada. It’s written by a leading scholar of intelligence and national security: Calder Walton, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Cambridge University.

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I expect I’m not the only one stunned by the book’s revelations that:

• Agents from the People’s Republic of China illicitly obtained confidential data on 150 million Americans from the consumer reporting agency, Equifax.

• China hacked the classified secret personal information of more than two million Americans with security clearances, and now has, in Beijing, their sensitive information, including details on drug use and sexual behaviour.

• China’s intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, employs at least 800,000 officials, “dwarfing Russia’s KGB even at its height.”

• China has saved roughly $320 billion in research and development costs through human espionage and “cyber exploitation” of Western business and science.

• The FBI is probing at least 2,500 China-related cases, “and opening a new case every 10 hours.”


Canada is not a superpower like the U.S., which is home to 5.4 million people of Chinese origin. But Canada is strategic to China in multiple ways, in regard to our plentiful natural resources, higher-education system, businesses, residential and commercial property, and scientific research.

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There are many reasons to believe Canadians have been exposed to the kind of surveillance experienced by Americans. Western leaders, including in vulnerable Canada, says Walton, are in a new kind of Cold War with China, “irrespective of whether they seek one and before they recognize it.”

While China controls and censors all citizens, it has long taken advantage of Western democracy, freedom and the openness of mainstream and social media for its own advantage. As Spies says: “In China, as in the Soviet Union, spying and buying are fused. China employs a ‘whole of society’ approach to espionage, using both its intelligence services, as well as purportedly private Chinese companies, Chinese nationals and diaspora communities.”

In addition to protected Chinese diplomats in Western nations conducting intelligence work out of their embassies, Walton says China steals endless information by “using deep-cover illegals, without diplomatic cover, posing as students at universities, businesspeople or tourists.”

China’s spy chiefs “keep diaspora communities in Western countries under surveillance, appeal to their ‘patriotic’ duty, and, when that fails, use family members who remain in China to bribe and blackmail their relatives into collecting intelligence and influencing targets.”

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It must be noted China’s subversion is not reserved to ethnic Chinese people, even while Walton says its leaders, like Russia’s, promote “ethno-nationalism.” Non-Chinese North Americans with “divided loyalties” are enticed by China’s money to betray their country, says Walton.

As Anastasia Lin says: “I have witnessed many Western elites who are willing to cooperate with the Chinese government” for financial gain. “It’s a sad situation.”

Canadians need to better explore how to balance protecting the civil rights of the Chinese diaspora while also protecting the country’s security and sovereignty.

“One of the major conclusions from last century’s intelligence war between East and West is that two apparently incompatible things can be true at the same time. Just as with Soviet espionage, Chinese espionage can be real — and Western democracies can create McCarthyite witch scares,” says Walton.

Vancouver-raised Anastasia Lin, whose family has been threatened by Chinese agents because of her human rights work, says it won’t be easy ”to resolve the unfair judgment placed on Chinese immigrants who just want to live their lives in the West.” But a balance must be found. Photo by Handout by subject /jpg

“There is a real prospect of a new Red Scare, targeting U.S. citizens who happen to be of Asian descent, chilling free speech and academic freedom,” says Walton’s book, “with innocent citizens of Western countries wrongly accused of being Chinese spies.”

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Given the dilemma, heightened national vigilance, frank discussion and transparency are the only way forward.

As Walton says, “It is time for an urgent public policy conversation about the nature of Chinese illicit activities in the West, and the balance between national security and civil liberties. Sunlight remains the best disinfectant.”

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