China’s effort to force return of citizens who emigrated a ‘growing problem,’ RCMP Commissioner says

Of concern (along with other issues):

RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki calls Beijing’s interference and intimidation operations targeting people who emigrate from China to Canada a “problem,” and says victims can report the harassment to Canadian authorities without fear.

Commissioner Lucki said Friday in an interview that she had no details at hand about the scale of the issue, but is looking to step up actions the force takes against such operations.

“I would say yes, it is a problem, but the breadth and depth of it I couldn’t really say for sure,” she said.

“It’s a growing problem, obviously, and something we want to work together with our international and domestic partners on. A lot of it is about awareness and education, because things happen and we want to make sure people who are affected by this feel safe – that they can report this without fear of reprisal.”

To that end, Commissioner Lucki said, there is an RCMP phone number for people affected by such incidents to call. She said the number has been available at least since she became commissioner in 2018, but she could not immediately say how many people have called it.

The Globe and Mail reported this week that China has been expanding its use of coercion to force the return of Chinese citizens who have settled abroad, many of them in Australia, Canada and the United States, in a campaign targeting fugitives and dissidents.

The trend was identified in a new report by Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders.

Citing Chinese government data, Safeguard’s report says Beijing had surpassed 10,000 returns under one repatriation program, called Sky Net, by late 2021. This is the only program for which data are available, and the watchdog group says it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to non-judicial efforts to secure the return of people wanted by the Chinese state in 120 countries.

The report identifies three methods China employs to forcibly retrieve citizens.

Chinese authorities first attempt to coax a return through the target’s family and relatives who still live in China. They harass loved ones and try to coerce them into passing messages to the person abroad.

A second method is directly approaching the target outside mainland China, including by sending Chinese agents. A third method is what Safeguard Defenders calls “kidnappings abroad,” in which Chinese authorities arrest targets on foreign soil and take them back to China.

Security flaw found in smartphone app for Olympians in Beijing

Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in Canada, said many have lost faith that law enforcement in this country can help stop harassment from Beijing.

“The community has lost trust in Canadian agencies to help them. Many individuals have approached RCMP for help, but are bounced between enforcement and intelligence agencies,” she said. “Canadian enforcement and intelligence agencies do not have the tools and resources to effectively counter foreign interference operations. Chinese party-state actors have long utilized legal grey areas to assert influence inappropriately.”

Ivy Li, a spokesperson for the Canadian Friends of Hong Kong, said Canada needs a foreign-agents registration act like those in Australia or the United States, as well as a centralized reporting centre for victims of intimidation by the Chinese government.

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said the RCMP do not have a public record of successfully tackling foreign-based harassment in Canada. “Uyghurs and other China-related activists approached the RCMP numerous times without any tangible result. For that reason many activists have already stopped reporting to the RCMP,” he said.

He added that he personally tried after his organization’s smartphones were hacked. His legal adviser “was directed from one unit to another unit, one department to another department,” he said.

Former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson has acknowledged that not enough is being to done to stop coercion activities by China in Canada.

Mr. Paulson, the commissioner from 2011 to 2017, told The Globe this week that Canadian laws relating to extortion and threatening behaviour forbid these activities. But, he said: “We hadn’t devoted resources to this. … I can’t think of an instance where we have succeeded on the back of a complaint that Chinese agents were strong-arming citizens. You have to throw your shoulder into it.”

Commissioner Lucki said the RCMP’s federal policing program includes monitoring for foreign interference in Canadian affairs, such as election processes. She added that she expects some change in the RCMP’s approach to the issue in the year ahead, but declined to describe any specific plans. “It’s probably too early to ask that question,” she said.

Source: China’s effort to force return of citizens who emigrated a ‘growing problem,’ RCMP Commissioner says

Misinformation and Chinese interference in Canada’s affairs

Deeply concerning, and all parties should support such a registry:

The story started with a private member’s bill introduced by former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu in spring of 2021 – the Foreign Influence Registry Act (Bill C-282). Its intention was to impose “an obligation on individuals acting on behalf of a foreign principal to file a return when they undertake specific actions with respect to public office holders.” This was a potential way to expose the relationship between agents in Canada and their ties to foreign countries. It could have also exposed Canada’s susceptibility to foreign influence, making it more difficult for external states to conduct electoral interference, technological and intellectual property theft, or even surveillance and operations like the “Operation Fox Hunt” (a global covert operation conducted by Beijing to threaten and repatriate Chinese dissidents to mainland China).

However, the purposes of the bill, which did not pass, became the target of a misinformation campaign. How misinformation on the Foreign Influence Registry Act was spread can be used as a case study for the simple, yet effective tactics commonly deployed in the making of “fake news.”

Examining the disinformation tactics – why are they effective?

Fake news is widely spread in diaspora Chinese communities via social media such as WeChat and WhatsApp. Research indicates that people tend to accept misinformation as fact if it comes from a credible and trustworthy source, and so-called “trust” can also be based on “feelings of familiarity.”

Research indicates we are more likely to believe in our friends and family, or even acquaintances, than complete strangers. And that familiarity does not necessarily have to be based on previous face-to-face interaction, but can also come in the form of internet communication, especially in the new era of technological advancement. So, when fake news is tailored to the Chinese community and disseminated through its communication channels, particularly via its own social network, it increases the acceptance rate of disinformation.

In addition, according to the principle of social proof theory, people tend to endorse a belief that is generally agreed on among the majority of their community, even if they may not believe in such ideology or information in the first place. This may be due to a need to seek social recognition or to prevent being an outcast in the community, especially in an overseas diaspora group. As well, despite the fact that some Chinese immigrants would like to verify the truthfulness of the news, they may not have access to other mainstream, Western media because of a language barrier.

The reliance on internet information often results in the creation of an “echo chamber” that is further exacerbated by the filter effect of the online algorithm. Applications such as the “WeChat Moment,” a feature in WeChat, which is widely used by the Chinese community, similar to Facebook and Instagram, allow individuals to view others’ stories. Thus, the Chinese community is being trapped in the vicious cycle of reinforced information consumption patterns.

Repeated exposure to the same fake news increases its chances of being considered true. Thus, when a person encounters the same piece of news, regardless of its integrity and credibility, this “increase[s] perceptions of honesty and sincerity as well as agreement with what the person says.” The phenomenon is often called the “illusion truth effect” in psychology. In other words, even though one may not believe the fake news, reinforced disinformation increases one’s susceptibility to it.

Combatting a state-sponsored disinformation campaign is never an easy task. Multidisciplinary approaches – including international co-operation and exchange of information between liberal democracies, establishment of an integrated institution that oversees all cybersecurity intelligence and analysis, planning and executing efforts to counter disinformation, as well as education and training to increase critical thinking by the public ─ are vital to improve our resilience and defend our core values against foreign interference and disinformation.

The danger – state-sponsored disinformation campaigns 

The case of Bill C-282 is indeed a salient example of how fake news is tailored and disseminated in a particular target group. However, another common tactic is state-sponsored disinformation. This is difficult to disprove because it has direct linkages with the central authority, which then denies responsibility for releasing the misinformation.

Because he was an outspoken politician who advocated for Hong Kong and democracy and heavily criticized Beijing’s violation on human rights, Chiu was sanctioned by the Chinese government against returning to his birthplace, Hong Kong. Moreover, due to his role on the Subcommittee on International Human Rights (SDIR), and previous work urging the Canadian government to impose sanctions on China, as a parliamentarian he was viewed unfavourably by the Beijing government.

Therefore, when the disinformation around Bill C-282 was deployed, Chiu’s pro-democracy and “anti-Chinese communist party background” were being used as justification for the accusation and argument that the proposed Foreign influence Registry Act was indeed racial discrimination against the Chinese, and that the bill’s prime objective was to “suppress pro-China opinion, as well as to operate surveillance on organizations and individuals” in the overseas Chinese community.

In addition, heavy criticism and attacks were not only focused on Chiu, but also on the Conservative party and leader Erin O’Toole, well-known for their hawkish stance against Beijing’s policies. Now that the 2021 federal election is over, it is indeed logical to infer that whoever was responsible for disseminating the fake news had a clear motive in reshaping the narratives in favour of Beijing’s interests.

In spite of the fact that the Chiu incident made only ripples in the recent federal election (he lost his seat as MP), such disinformation campaigns and their potential to manipulate diaspora communities (via psychology and social connections) could generate waves that would drown Canada’s democracy in the future.

Taking a stand against a decision by the Chinese Communist Party does not make the Conservatives or Canada anti-China. The assumption that it does has driven this general belief in the Chinese community, especially for those who have weak critical thinking skills and no prior training or experience in dealing with disinformation.

Perhaps more alarming is the fact that these tactics could be deployed against any group in an information and psychological warfare campaign. In short, it has a high potential for interference in Canada’s electoral process by foreign state actors and thus severely threatens the country’s liberal democracy.

Canada remains vulnerable to the security risk constituted by foreign interference. As a liberal country that vows to uphold its values in freedom and democracy, specific countermeasures such as Chiu’s proposed act and laws like the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act should be implemented.

At the third-party entities and civilian levels, one countermeasure could be a “foreign influence transparency scheme” similar to the one suggested in the news campaign Can Xi Not, introduced by Alliance Canada Hong Kong. This may be particularly important for both traditional and new media, which often have the power to shape public debates. In other words, media would retain their freedom of press, but would be required to disclose their foreign sponsorship, if there is any. Last but not least, other approaches to increase citizens’ resilience, as well as the nation’s capability to deter state-sponsored disinformation, should be thoroughly considered and enforced.

Source: https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/january-2022/misinformation-and-chinese-interference-in-canadas-affairs/?mc_cid=9caa3573a1&mc_eid=86cabdc518

Liberals must demand probe into any China election meddling

Agree.

But I would hope that we will also get some insight from academics and community members other factors that may also have played a role. A question I have is whether a weaker CPC position on masking and vaccines may have also contributed, given Chinese Canadians, judging by Richmond numbers, were less averse to COVID restrictions than some other groups:

It’s a common trope that foreign policy is never a ballot question. As riled up as Canadians got about Afghanistan in our recent election, research showed it had little impact on the choices they ultimately made. Bread and butter issues like childcare or concerns about climate change mattered more than how well the prime minister performed — or did not perform — on the world stage.

Or did it? There is growing evidence that for some voters, foreign matters played a key role, not due to personal preference, but foreign interference. And that interference had a direct impact on votes, seat count, and the shape of the 44th Parliament.

Source: Liberals must demand probe into any China election meddling

Defeated Conservative MP fears attacks by pro-Beijing forces swung votes against him 

I was less surprised by Chiu’s defeat given that the riding has a recent history of flipping than Alice Wong’s defeat after holding the seat since 2008. Agree with Burton that an investigation would be helpful to assess the impact compared to other factors (e.g., did vaccine and masking mandates have an impact given some CPC mixed messaging):

When Kenny Chiu introduced a private member’s bill that would set up a registry for agents of foreign governments, he may well have painted a target on his back.

The bill was inspired largely by China’s suspected interference in Canada and the B.C. Conservative says he was attacked over it in Chinese-language media throughout the election.

Some of the bashing bled into mainstream social media, with one poster on Twitter this week saying “I’ve never seen a more self-hating Chinese person in my life.”

Much of the criticism, Chiu says, misrepresented what that legislation really stated, but it had its effect.

Constituents in his Steveston-Richmond East riding who had previously voted for Chiu suddenly gave him the cold shoulder.

“When I go door knocking … there have been supporters of mine who just shut the door in my face,” said the politician. “There is so much hatred that I sense.”

And then on Monday, Chiu lost to Liberal Parm Bains by almost 3,000 votes, just two years after he was first elected, even as the Liberals more or less duplicated their 2019 performance.

His defeat — and that of other Conservative MPs in ridings dominated by Chinese Canadians, – has raised the question of whether proxies for the People’s Republic government managed to influence the election – just as security agencies and other watchdogs have warned could happen.

Chiu stresses that his issue is with China’s regime, but said online critics implied that meant he was opposed to the country itself and even the race, despite his own Chinese heritage.

He said Chinese-Canadians — even if they ended up disliking him – are victims themselves of such disinformation.

Charles Burton, a former diplomat in Beijing who’s fluent in Mandarin, said he tried to help Chiu by seeking out and warning him about disinformation on WeChat, the popular Chinese social media site, and elsewhere online.

But there seemed little they could do about it.

“It spread like a cancer over his campaign,” said Burton, a fellow with the Macdonald Laurier Institute and prominent critic of Beijing. “He just saw his campaign disintegrating over the last couple of weeks.”

Burton said Canadian authorities should investigate the online campaigns to determine if the Chinese government itself was behind the attacks.

He is not the first to raise the issue. David Vigneault, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said in a speech in February that attempts by foreign states to influence Canadian politics and politicians were among the agency’s “most paramount concerns.”

Bains could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and there is no suggestion he had anything to do with the online sniping Chiu faced.

In fact, the Liberals themselves have been the target of harsh attacks from the Chinese government and state-run media in the ongoing feud over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

It spread like a cancer over his campaign

But there was evidence that China’s focus turned during the election to the Conservatives, whose platform outlined a multi-pronged approach to confronting Beijing. That included barring Huawei from 5G networks, imposing Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese rights violators and advising universities against partnering with state-owned companies.

The Liberal platform made a brief mention of measures to combat “illegal and unacceptable behaviour by authoritarian states,” singling out China, Iran and Russia.

In what appeared to be a comment on the Conservative blueprint, Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu told the Hill Times newspaper in August that China opposes politicians who “hype” or “smear” the country. Then barely a week before election day, the Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times ran a story blasting the Tories’ policies, predicting that if the party were elected China would launch a “strong counterstrike” against Canada.

Michael Chan, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister who has spoken in defence of Beijing, wrote in a recent Chinese-language column that implementing the Conservative policies could trigger hatred and discrimination against Chinese people.

It’s impossible at this point to determine what factors caused results in individual ridings, but Chiu was not the only Conservative incumbent to be defeated in seats with large Chinese-Canadian populations, people exposed to such ethnic-Chinese media.

Though not all the votes had been counted Tuesday, Alice Wong appeared headed for defeat in Richmond Centre, next to Chiu’s riding, despite having held the seat through four previous elections.

Bob Saroya lost the Toronto-area riding of Markham-Unionville — where almost two thirds of residents are ethnic Chinese — to Liberal Paul Chiang after taking the previous two elections.

They have chat rooms and chat groups dedicated to unseating Kenny Chiu

Chiu, a Hong Kong native, says he has never been shy about his dislike of the Communist government in Beijing. But last April he introduced a private member’s bill that would require any agents of a foreign government to register with Ottawa and report on their activities. It was modelled after similar legislation in Australia and a law that has been in force in the United States for several decades.

Local Chinese-language media ignored the bill when it was introduced but as the election campaign turned into a dead heat between the Liberals and Conservatives, “attacks rained down on me,” the former MP said.

An article posted anonymously on WeChat, and that later showed up on various other online platforms, suggested it was designed to “suppress” the Chinese community and that anyone connected to China would have to register.

A similar story on a Chinese-language site called Today Commercial News said it would curb the freedom of speech of the Chinese community and have a “profound impact” on Chinese Canadians.

In fact, the legislation would require registration only for those acting on behalf of foreign governments or political groups who lobby a senior civil servant or an elected politician. It has actually been criticized for being too narrowly focused.

Other WeChat posts suggested erroneously the Conservatives had proposed to ban the widely used social media site itself.

“It’s very much organized,” said Chiu. “They have chat rooms and chat groups dedicated to unseating Kenny Chiu.”

Meanwhile, the president of the Chinese Benevolent Association, a group that has repeatedly run advertisements backing up Beijing on contentious issues like Hong Kong’s National Security Law, hosted a free lunch on behalf of the Liberal candidate in Vancouver East riding.

New Democrat Jenny Kwan still managed to win the seat handily, however.

Source: https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/election-2021/defeated-tory-mp-fears-attacks-by-pro-beijing-forces-swung-votes-against-him

Australia:University students will be trained to spot foreign interference

Will be interesting to see how the training works in practice and possible lessons learned for Canada:

University students will be trained to spot foreign interference threats on campus and report them to authorities under proposed new rules aimed at significantly beefing up universities’ responsibilities for countering Chinese government influence on campuses.

Academics and students involved in research collaborations with overseas institutions will also get specific training on how to “recognise, mitigate and handle concerns of foreign interference”, following security agencies’ concerns about critical research being stolen.

The measures are contained in new draft foreign interference guidelines for universities, which are being furiously debated among university leaders and government officials. The federal government has already been forced to review a key element of the guidelines, which would have required all academics to disclose their membership of foreign political parties over the past decade, following a fierce backlash from university chiefs.

Following growing concerns from Australia’s security agencies about the risk of research theft by China and other foreign actors, the guidelines state that students and staff are to “receive training on, and have access to information about how foreign interference can manifest on campus and how to raise concerns in the university or with appropriate authorities”.

The measures are also aimed at addressing reports of students and academics being harassed by pro-Beijing groups on campuses. They propose that orientation programs should be used to “promote to all staff and students ways to report within their university concerns of foreign interference, intimidation and harassment that can lead to self-censorship”. Universities will also be required to have policies that set out how reported “concerns are tracked, resolved and recorded and shared” internally and when they should be reported to outside authorities.

To oversee these measures, the guidelines state that universities must have an “accountable authority” – either a senior executive or executive body – that will have responsibility for research collaborations with overseas institutions, and reviewing security risks and communicating them with the government.

The guidelines have been drafted by the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT), a collaborative body that includes university vice-chancellors and government officials. The final version will replace existing guidelines, which are far less prescriptive. The proposal has prompted considerable concern among academic leaders about the mandatory language underpinning the new requirements, and what consequences, if any, universities will face from government if they fail to implement them.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has declined to comment on “what is and isn’t in the draft guidelines”, but said earlier this year he was deeply concerned by a Human Rights Watch report that revealed accounts of Chinese international students being surveilled and harassed by their pro-Beijing classmates.

The report found that students were self-censoring in class out of fear comments critical of the Chinese Communist Party would be reported to authorities, with several students saying their parents in China had been hauled into police stations over their campus activities. Academics interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported self-censorship practices, saying sensitive topics such as Taiwan had become too difficult to teach without a backlash from pro-Beijing students.

The report’s author, Sophie McNeill, said the draft guidelines indicated the government had taken the report’s findings into account.

“This focus had been missing from the previous guidelines, so it is very welcome these issues are now being recognised and addressed. It is critical the final guidelines include practical measures to safeguard academic freedom and address issues of harassment, surveillance and self-censorship faced by international students and staff,” Ms McNeill said.

Some universities have already taken steps to respond to the issues highlighted by Human Rights Watch. The University of Technology Sydney, for example, updated its orientation program for international students this semester to include guidance on acceptable behaviour and how students could report intimidation or surveillance by other students.

“We have certainly made it clear to students that what is discussed in classrooms is not something that should be reported on to the embassy,” Mr Watt, UTS deputy vice-chancellor, said.

“We’re not encouraging students to spy on each other. But rather, it’s saying: if you get doxxed or bullied or feel unable to express your views in a lecture here is the support available to you and here’s what you should do.”

The university’s misconduct rules allow for a range of penalties in response to unacceptable behaviour, including potential expulsion in serious cases.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/university-students-will-be-trained-to-spot-foreign-interference-20210830-p58n3s.html

New report details Beijing’s foreign influence operations in Canada

Of note:

China has set up a sophisticated network in this country to harass people of Chinese ethnicity and Uyghur- and Tibetan-Canadians, distort information in the media, influence politicians and form partnerships with universities to secure intellectual property, a new study says.

A report by Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK) that was tabled on Monday evening at the special House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations warns that the influence operations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are widespread, but have gone largely unnoticed. Alliance Canada Hong Kong is an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates in this country.

“In Canada, individuals and groups are targeted by [Chinese] party state actors and Chinese nationalists, both directly and indirectly,” said the report titled In Plain Sight: Beijing’s Unrestricted Network of Foreign Influence in Canada. “Chinese authorities co-ordinate intimidation operations and use families who are in PRC-controlled regions as bargaining chips.”

Cherie Wong, executive director of ACHK, said the human-rights group is trying to draw attention to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) surveillance and intimidation without fanning the flames of xenophobia.

The report details how the United Front Work Department – the agency responsible for co-ordinating Beijing’s overseas influence operations – guides and controls an elaborate network of proxies and front organizations to intimidate and co-opt Chinese-Canadians as well as politicians, academics and business leaders.

“The United Front has created and mobilized shell groups, registered [non-governmental organizations] and civil societies in Canada. These groups are designed to mimic legitimate community programs …while aggressively spreading pro-Beijing messages and party lines, whether in praising Hong Kong’s national security law or condemning dissent against the Beijing Olympics.”

Harassment and intimidation campaigns are organized by United Front-affiliated community groups, and misinformation is directed from WeChat and Chinese-language media against Uyghurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese, pro-democracy Hong Kongers and dissidents from mainland China, the report said.

“WeChat is among the top news sources for Chinese-Canadians, and social media apps may be the single most effective and concerning factor in the CCP’s arsenal over Canadian-Chinese language media, simply for the PRC’s direct ability to censor and monitor WeChat, Weibo, Youku, TikTok [Douyin] and other Chinese media entities.”

The report said Canadian universities and research institutions are especially vulnerable to foreign influence, citing Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes that spout Beijing propaganda, and partnerships with Canadian academics to obtain intellectual property.

“Various Canadian universities are known to collaborate with potentially compromising entities like the People’s Liberation Army,” the report said, noting that many academics don’t understand China’s efforts to blur the line between civilian and military research.

Alberta recently ordered its four major universities to suspend the pursuit of partnerships with people or organizations linked to Beijing or the Chinese Communist Party, citing concerns over national security and the risk the research could be used to facilitate human-rights abuses. The order came after The Globe and Mail reported on the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China that involves sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

The report by Ms. Wong’s group also warned about Chinese foreign influence operations that attempt to win over politicians and business leaders through all-expense-paid trips and lucrative investment projects. WeChat is often used to mobilize volunteers and donations for politicians who are sympathetic to Beijing’s interests, the report added.

“Though the majority of these operations are not considered criminal or direct threats to national security, these patterns of behaviour are inappropriate and should be disclosed to the public,” the report said.

Ms. Wong told the committee these influence operations will continue until the federal government takes the kind of actions to limit them that the United States and Australia have adopted, and stops worrying about angering Beijing.

She called for an Australian-style law that requires people and organizations acting on behalf of a foreign state to register as foreign agents. A government agency on foreign influence should be established with powers to investigate and enforce the law as well as initiate public inquiries and collect data on foreign influence.

Ms. Wong said Ottawa should also ban Canadian innovative research from being shared with the military and security apparatus of hostile states, such as China. Restrictions should also be placed on sharing Canadian data and private information that could be exploited by China.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-new-report-details-beijings-foreign-influence-operations-in-canada/

Marcus Kolga and Yang Jianli: Canada must take measures to end foreign attacks on human rights activists in Canada

Of note. Recommended measures may have collateral impacts that need to be assessed before implementing along with coordination with other like-minded countries:

In May of this year, the Coalition for Human Rights in China published a report exposing incidents of Chinese government harassment against human rights activists in Canada that have taken place between July 2019 and March 2020. The report described efforts undertaken by the Chinese government to suppress dissidents and mobilize overseas Chinese communities to act as agents of influence.

This civil society report follows one published in March by Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), which explicitly warned that regimes like those in China, Russia and Iran are “harassing human rights defenders in Canada and interfering with freedom of assembly and media,” with the aim being to impose a “chilling effect on human rights activism and freedom of expression.”

China’s efforts to mute criticism in Canada is occurring in the shadow of that country’s arbitrary, unlawful detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were taken hostage in retaliation for the lawful arrest of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou on a United States extradition request.

Amnesty International Canada has stated that Chinese state actors have almost certainly become emboldened by the inadequate response of Canadian officials.

The academic freedom and freedom of expression of university students in Canada speaking out on China has been stifled. Indeed, many fear that the Chinese government is monitoring their speech and activities — a fact that has been confirmed by the NSICOP report, which states that Canada’s intelligence agency “CSIS assesses that the PRC and the Russian Federation are the primary threat actors on Canadian campuses.”

The Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China has called for a public inquiry into threats at Canadian educational institutions and has recommended setting up a monitoring office to register complaints of harassment and refer such incidents to police. Amnesty International has warned about the rampant hacking of phones, computers and websites on university and college campuses, public rallies, and cultural events in Canada, implicating China for hacking. The individuals behind these threats are often anonymous but can be characterized as state propagandists and foreign influence agents who are supported and often directed by the Chinese government.

Among the threats outlined in the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights for China report are “bullying, racist, bigoted, threats of violence including sexual violence and even death.” It has called for the expelling of Chinese diplomats — of which China has more of in Canada than any other country — and applying Magnitsky sanctions on those responsible for engaging in information warfare and threats against Canadian civil society activists.

On August 17, 2019, at a Toronto rally held in support of civil rights in Hong Kong, more than one hundred protesters blocked the pro-democracy activists, loudly chanting “One China.” They insulted the pro-democracy demonstrators and took photos of them in efforts to intimidate them. When activists sang “O Canada,” the counter protesters booed them and sang China’s national anthem, eventually requiring a police escort for the pro-democracy activists to leave safely.

Mehmet Tohti, a leading Uyghur Canadian activist, says that threatening phone calls are another method by which the Chinese government intimidates those who raise concerns about the over one million Muslim Uyghurs who have been forced into concentration and forced labour camps in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Chinese security officials are making direct phone calls to Uyghur-Canadians demanding that they remain silent with the threat of targeting family members who remain in China with harassment or worse.

Chemi Lhamo, a member of Canada Tibet Committee and Students for a Free Tibet, faced a massive harassment campaign in 2019, when she was elected president of a University of Toronto student union. Among the racist, anti-Tibetan messages she received was one that read: “China is your daddy — you better know this.”

While Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne welcomed the Coalition for Human Rights in China report and promised to follow up on its recommendations, no meaningful action was taken. Chinese government harassment against Canadian civil society activists continues to escalate, and the mass human rights abuses committed by Beijing continue unabated, with total impunity.

In order to protect its own citizens and uphold its commitment to protecting human rights, Canada must immediately apply Magnitsky human rights sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the mass violation of human rights against Uyghurs, Tibetans, the citizens of Hong Kong and in mainland China. According to China expert Jonathan Manthorpe, roughly US$1 trillion has been “spirited out of China by Communist party leaders and their hangers-on” who seek to hide their assets “in stable overseas havens like Canada, the United States, Australia or Europe.”

Canada can help curb China’s barbaric abuse of human rights by threatening to freeze the assets of those who are responsible for them. Minister Champagne signalled last Wednesday, that the government is open to considering the option of Magnitsky sanctions and we urge him to do so in co-ordination with UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Canada should immediately consider adopting legislation that requires the registration of Canadian citizens acting as agents for foreign governments — similar to Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency law. Such legislation will introduce serious punitive consequences for anyone who acts against Canada and its citizens on behalf of malign foreign regimes.

Finally, Canada should consider expelling Chinese diplomats who use their diplomatic cover to engage in information warfare, intimidation and influence operations. Canada’s security agencies are likely aware of which “diplomats” are engaging in such activity. It should be noted that, as of March 2020, China had many more diplomats accredited to Canada than any other nation, with 163 compared to 146 for the United States or 22 for the United Kingdom.

China’s information warfare and influence operations targeting Canada will assuredly only intensify over the coming months. If Canada wishes to protect its citizens against foreign harassment, intimidation and threats, it must act immediately to show Beijing, Moscow and Tehran that their actions have consequences.

The Canadian government speaks loudly of the need to protect international human rights, but it must now back that rhetoric with action if defending the values of human rights, freedom and democracy are truly its aims.

Source: Marcus Kolga and Yang Jianli: Canada must take measures to end foreign attacks on human rights activists in Canada

China ramping up bullying and intimidation of activists in Canada, report says

Ongoing concern:

Chinese government officials and supporters of the Communist Party of China are increasingly resorting to “threats, bullying and harassment” to intimidate and silence activists in Canada, including those raising concerns about democracy and civil rights in Hong Kong and Beijing’s mistreatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners, a new report says.

A coalition of human-rights groups led by Amnesty International Canada says a timid response by Ottawa to this foreign interference is exacerbating the problem. “Chinese state actors have almost certainly become emboldened by the inadequate responses of Canadian officials,” the coalition writes.

The report, Harassment & Intimidation of Individuals in Canada Working on China-related Human Rights Concerns, also sounds the alarm over what it calls escalating intimidation and interference at Canadian schools and universities. “Consequently, academic freedom and freedom of expression of university students in Canada speaking out on China has been increasingly stifled, as many individuals fear that Chinese government or consular agents are monitoring their speech or their activities.”

The Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China is calling for a public inquiry into threats at Canadian educational institutions and recommends that Ottawa set up a monitoring office to collect complaints of harassment and refer incidents to police.

“It takes place on social media, through surveillance, monitoring and hacking of phones, computers and websites … on university and college campuses, at public rallies and cultural events,” Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said. “Individuals responsible for the threats often remain anonymous or invisible, but make it clear that they are strong backers of the Chinese government, often leaving no doubt that they are directed, supported or encouraged by the Chinese government.”

He said the threats are “bullying, racist, bigoted and frequently involve direct threats of violence, including sexual violence and even death.”

The coalition is asking the federal government to expel Chinese diplomats where necessary or enact sanctions on them if the evidence warrants.

The coalition’s report documents incidents of Chinese harassment between July, 2019, and March, 2020, aimed at “suppressing dissidents and mobilizing overseas Chinese communities to act as agents of China’s political interests.

“The Canadian government must treat this issue with increased urgency, as it has resulted in insecurity and fear for human-rights defenders in Canada working on Chinese human-rights issues.”

Gloria Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, speaking Tuesday, recalled an Aug. 17 protest in Toronto last year in support of civil rights in Hong Kong, where more than 100 counterprotesters showed up, blocking the activists and chanting “One China.” They began insulting the demonstrators and taking photos in an apparent attempt to intimidate. When Ms. Fung and the activists sang O Canada, the counterprotesters booed them and sang China’s national anthem in return. “Our protesters needed a police escort to leave safely,” she said.

In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the government welcomed the report and would study its recommendations closely.

“Reports of harassment and intimidation of individuals in Canada are deeply troubling and allegations of such acts being carried out by foreign agents are taken very seriously,” Mr. Champagne said.

“Chinese government representatives in Canada, like all foreign government representatives in Canada, have a duty under international law to respect the laws and regulations of Canada,” the minister said.

“Canada will continue to use every opportunity to call on China to uphold its international human-rights obligations, including in the areas of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of religion or belief.”

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not have an immediate response to the report.

Uyghur-Canadian activist Mehmet Tohti, speaking Tuesday, said telephone calls are another means of intimidation to stop people in Canada from raising concern about the hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim people locked up by China as part of a deradicalization campaign. “Chinese public-security officials are making direct phone calls to Uyghur-Canadians here and asking us to be silent or accept the danger our loved ones [in China] could face.”

Chemi Lhamo, a member of the Canada Tibet Committee and Students for a Free Tibet Canada, said Tuesday that mainland Chinese students studying in Canada face pressure, too.

“Imagine being a Chinese international student, paying four to five times more than a domestic student, only to be bullied here in Canada by the Chinese embassy to follow their party line and go protest against pro-Tibet and pro-human-rights events.”

Beijing’s attempts to dampen criticism in Canada of its authoritarian regime has been taking place amid a historic chill in bilateral relations that began in late 2018, after China jailed Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in apparent retaliation for the arrest at the Vancouver International Airport of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

The report also urges Ottawa to consider passing legislation that would require the registration of Canadian citizens acting as agents for foreign governments, similar to what Australia has enacted.

The coalition says Chinese authorities “cannot be directly implicated” in many of the incidents highlighted in the report, but it “considers the scale and consistency of rights violations, over a prolonged period, to be consistent with a co-ordinated Chinese state-sponsored campaign to target political, ethnic, religious and spiritual groups and individual activists who raise concerns about China’s human-rights record.”

Source: China ramping up bullying and intimidation of activists in Canada, report says

Spy agency says Canadians are targets of foreign influence campaigns

More on foreign influence and interference:

Canadians are more exposed to “influence” operations than ever before according to an internal assessment from the country’s electronic spy agency.

A 2018 memo from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) warned the rise of “web technology” like social media, along with Canadians’ changing habits for consuming media, make the population much more likely to encounter efforts by foreign powers to shape domestic political opinion.

“These new systems have generated unintended threats to the democratic process, as they deprive the public of accurate information, informed political commentary and the means to identify and ignore fraudulent information,” reads the memo, classified as Canadian Eyes Only.

“Foreign states have harnessed the new online influence systems to undertake influence activities against Western democratic processes, and they use cyber capabilities to enhance their influence activities through, for example, cyber espionage.”

“Foreign states steal and release information, modify or make information more compelling and distracting, create fraudulent or distorted ‘news,’ or amplify fringe and sometimes noxious opinions.”

The memo was prepared as Canada’s intelligence agencies were engaged in an exercise to protect the 2019 federal election from foreign interference.

Elections across the democratic world — the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union — have in recent years been the targets of misinformation and cyberespionage campaigns from hostile countries.

There is no evidence that Canada’s recent federal election was the target of sophisticated cyber espionage or misinformation campaigns.

But another document prepared by CSE makes clear that Canadian politicians have already been targeted by foreign “influence” campaigns.

An undated slide deck prepared by the CSE suggested “sources linked to Russia popularized (then Global Affairs Minister Chrystia) Freeland’s family history” and targeted Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s appearance and turban in Russian-language media outlets in the Balkans.

The agency appears to be referring to stories, which were reported by mainstream Canadian news outlets, suggesting Freeland’s grandfather edited a Nazi-associated newspaper in occupied Poland.

The stories were “very likely intended to cause personal reputational damage in order to discredit the Government (of) Canada’s ongoing diplomatic and military support for Ukraine, to delegitimize Canada’s decision to enact the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Offices Act, and the 2018 expulsion of several Russian diplomats,” the documents, first reported by Global News, state.

The attacks against Sajjan, meanwhile, were “almost certainly” intended to discredit the NATO presence in Latvia, where Canadian forces are deployed as part of a NATO mission to deter Russian expansion after the invasion of Crimea.

“Since Canada’s deployment to Latvia, subtle and overtly racist comments pertaining to … Sajjan’s appearance, particularly his turban, have consistently appeared across Russian-language media in the Baltic region,” the documents read.

“Even ostensibly professional news sources are not above such descriptions. When … Sajjan attended a conference in Latvia in October 2017, he was described by Vesti.lv as ‘a large swarthy man in a big black turban.’”

Compared to some of the attacks on Western democracies, those two influence campaigns were minor in scale and impact. But the intelligence agency suggested that more and more countries are turning to cyber capabilities to further their own goals at the expense of other nations. And CSE’s analysis suggests their willing to play the long game.

“In the longer-term, influence activities, both cyber and human, are likely to challenge the transparency and independence of the decision-making process, reduce public trust (and) confidence in institutions, and push policy in directions inimical to Canadian interests,” the documents, released under access to information law, read.

“Many European states and some private companies have begun to develop countermeasures to malicious activities aimed at democratic processes, including increasing public understanding and resilience. However, little has been done to create robust, institutionalized multilateral responses.”

Parliament’s new national security review committee has completed a review of foreign espionage activities in Canada and submitted it to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The classified report detailing their findings is expected to be released early in 2020, once the House of Commons resumes sitting.

Source: Spy agency says Canadians are targets of foreign influence campaigns

Fears of election meddling on social media were overblown, say researchers

Hype versus the reality (perhaps Canada not important enough…). The hype was in both mainstream and ethnic media:

Now that the election is over and researchers have combed through the data collected, their conclusion is clear: there was more talk about foreign trolls during the campaign than there was evidence of their activities.

Although there were a few confirmed cases of attempts to deceive Canadians online, three large research teams devoted to detecting co-ordinated influence campaigns on social media report they found little to worry about.

In fact, there were more news reports about malicious activity during the campaign than traces of it.

“We didn’t see high levels of effective disinformation campaigns. We didn’t see evidence of effective bot networks in any of the major platforms. Yet, we saw a lot of coverage of these things,” said Derek Ruths, a professor of computer science at McGill University in Montreal.

He monitored social media for foreign meddling during the campaign and, as part of the Digital Democracy Project, scoured the web for signs of disinformation campaigns.

Threat of foreign influence was hyped

“The vast majority of news stories about disinformation overstated the results and represented them as far more conclusive than they were. It was the case everywhere, with all media,” he said.

It’s a view mirrored by the Ryerson Social Media Lab, which also monitored social media during the campaign.

“Fears of foreign and domestic interference were overblown,” Philip Mai, co-director of the Social Media Lab, told CBC News.

A major focus of monitoring efforts during the campaign was Twitter, a platform favoured by politicians, journalists and partisans of all stripes. It’s where a lot of political exchanges take place, and it’s an easy target for automated influence campaigns.

“Our preliminary analysis of the [Twitter hashtag] #cdnpoli suggests that only about one per cent of accounts that used that hashtag earlier in the election cycle can be classified as likely to be bots,” said Mai.

The word “likely” is key. Any social media analyst will tell you that detecting bonafide automated accounts that exist solely to spread a message far and wide is incredibly difficult.

#TrudeauMustGo and other frenzies

A few times during the campaign, independent researchers found signs that certain conversations on Twitter were being amplified by accounts that appeared to be foreign. For example, the popular hashtag #TrudeauMustGo was tweeted and retweeted in large numbers by users who had the word “MAGA” in their user descriptions.

But this doesn’t mean those users were part of a foreign campaign, Ruths said.

“It’s very hard to prove that those MAGA accounts aren’t Canadian,” he said. “How can you prove who’s Canadian online? What does a Canadian look like on Twitter?”

Few Canadians use Twitter for news. According to the Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, only 11 per cent of Canadians got their news on Twitter in 2019, down slightly from 12 per cent last year.

Twitter’s most avid users tend to be politicians, journalists and highly engaged partisans.

Fenwick McKelvey, an assistant professor at Montreal’s Concordia University who researches social media platforms, said he feels journalists overestimate Twitter’s ability to take the pulse of the voting public.

“Twitter is an elite medium used by journalists and politicians more than everyday Canadians,” McKelvey told CBC News. “Twitter is a very specific public. Not a proxy for public opinion.”

In fact, most Canadians — 57 per cent — told a 2018 survey by the Social Media Lab that they have never shared political opinions on any social media platform.

Tweets for elites

For an idea of just how elitist Twitter can be, take a look at who is driving its political conversations. For some of the major hashtags during the election — like #cdnpoli, #defundCBC and the recently popular #wexit — just a fraction of users post original content. The rest just retweet.

And the users who get the most retweets, the biggest influencers, represent an even tinier sliver of Twitter users, according to data from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, another outfit that monitored disinformation during the campaign.

“What we thought was a horizontal democratic space is dominated by less than two per cent of accounts,” said Gabrielle Lim, a fellow at the Citizen Lab.

“We need to take everything with a grain of salt when looking at Twitter. Doing data analysis is easy, but we’re bad at contextualizing what it means,” Lim said.

So why this focus on Twitter if it’s such a small and unrepresentative medium for Canadians? Because it’s easy to study. Unless a user sets an account to private, everything posted on Twitter is public and fairly easy to access.

On the other hand, more popular social networks like Facebook make it much harder to harvest user content at scale. A lot of misinformation may also be shared in closed channels like private Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups, which are nearly impossible for outsiders to access.

But even taking into account those larger social media audiences, the evidence shows that Canadians are getting their news from a variety of sources, Lim noted.

Although the threat posed by online disinformation to Canadian democracy was overblown in the context of the 2019 campaign, Ruths said he still believes it was important to be alert, just as it’s important to go to the dentist even if no cavities are found.

And he suggests that journalists looking for evidence of bot activity apply the same level of rigour as the people doing the research.

“We saw a lot of well-intentioned reporting,” he said. “But finding suspected accounts is not the same as finding bots. Saying that MAGA accounts don’t look like Canadians’ doesn’t mean they’re not.”

Source: Fears of election meddling on social media were overblown, say researchers