Canada is being rattled by a political scandal straight from a Hollywood film, in which a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ruling party is accused of collaborating with China.
Han Dong, who represents a parliamentary district in Toronto, announced Thursday that he was stepping down from Trudeau’s Liberal Party and would sit as an independent after being accused of being a knowing participant in a Chinese influence operation.
Dong was the subject of a Global News report based on leaks from Canada’s intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the latest in a series of reports accusing China of trying to interfere in the last two Canadian elections.
The report alleged that in a 2021 conversation with the Chinese consul general in Toronto, Dong recommended that two Canadians imprisoned in China not be released before a September 20, 2021, federal election to prevent the rival Conservative Party from claiming responsibility for their release.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who became widely known as the “two Michaels,” had been detained in China since December 2018 in what was seen as retaliation for the detention in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom company Huawei.
Chinese authorities freed Spavor and Kovrig on September 24, 2021, shortly after Meng was released from house arrest following an agreement with the United States, which had been seeking her extradition.
Dong has denied the allegations and insists he will be cleared. The Trudeau administration has denied any knowledge of the matter.
The earlier election interference claims, which emerged in late 2022 and are now being probed by a special investigator and a parliamentary committee, were also based on leaks from CSIS to Global News and other outlets.
Those claims allege that persons acting for China interfered in several parliamentary districts to try to ensure the defeat of the Conservative Party, which is considered more hostile to Beijing, while seeking to make sure that Trudeau’s party would fall short of an outright majority and have to form a coalition government.
Trudeau and top security officials have acknowledged that China interfered in the elections but have maintained that the results of the elections were not affected.
The scandal has placed severe pressure on the China-Canada relationship, which was already strained over the detentions of Meng and the two Michaels.
“We are now starting to see the West wise up to the risk of an authoritarian nation dominating the global economy and technology supply chains, and what that inherently means for its political influence, even within democracies,” said Lindsay Gorman, a former Biden White House adviser and currently a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.
“The status quo of allowing unfettered influence and interference in democratic politics is over,” added Gorman, who drew parallels between the Canadian scandal and this week’s congressional hearing in Washington where TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew was grilled for several hours.
“Yesterday's hearing showed just how united lawmakers in the U.S. are in their concerns with TikTok over both foreign influence and consumer data privacy,” Gorman said. “The road for TikTok in the U.S. is very uncertain now. … Missing in this conversation, however, is whether U.S. allies will take similar action on TikTok and what that would mean for the overall calculus on potentially forcing a sale.”
Marcus Kolga, Canada’s top expert on disinformation and one of a small number of Canadians on Russia’s sanctions list, told VOA that "when taken as a whole, China is quite effective at interfering in our democratic processes. The integrity of our democracy has been damaged and the trust in our democratic institutions is low.”
Kolga said that while Chinese disinformation is less sophisticated than the Russian variety, Beijing has demonstrated an ability to conduct widespread influence operations by intimidating and harassing the Chinese diaspora.
Samuel Jardine, head of research at the political risk advisory group London Politica, said allegations like those concerning Dong “are potential lightning rods for supporters from both sides of this internal debate within Canada’s political and governing circles about how to approach China.”
“Accusations of an alleged lack of patriotism, or even betrayal, from one side, met with counteraccusations of alleged anti-Chinese sentiment or racism as we’ve seen here, showcase the potentially polarizing and politically outsized destabilizing impact of this issue,” Jardine told VOA.
“The need for a bipartisan approach accepted by all sides, which could take the sting out of this, should be a fundamental pursuit for both camps,” he said.