Senator Woo: Election disinformation claims and Kenny Chiu’s Richmond riding

It was striking that the Conservatives lost three ridings with large Chinese Canadian populations: Steveston-Richmond East (which has flipped between the Conservatives and Liberals) and ridings which have been held by Conservatives for some time, Richmond Centre (2008-21) and Markham—Unionville (2015-21).

I tend to put more stock in claims of disinformation than Senator Woo, given his public record of being relatively uncritical of the Chinese regime.

And his critique of the article by Sze-Fung Lee and Benjamin Fung that prompted his rebuttal, for their comment that riding voters have “weak critical thinking skills and . . . (lack of) prior training or experience in dealing with disinformation” seems unwarranted given that we know that most voters, whatever their origins, are equally inexperienced in dealing with disinformation (nor are necessarily politicians).

And as to his concerns regarding Chiu’s proposed bill, they could be addressed in the Commons and Senate committees should the bill have proceeded to review:

Canadians are not generally sore losers, but the 2021 general election has produced a long tail of speculation about why certain ridings voted the way they did – but shouldn’t have. The latest is from two McGill academics in a recent Policy Options article, Misinformation and Chinese interference in Canada’s affairs. Sze-Fung Lee and Benjamin Fung claim that Kenny Chiu, a Conservative candidate in Steveston-Richmond East in B.C., was the target of a disinformation campaign via social media posts about a private member’s bill he proposed that did not get approved before the September federal election.

The Globe and Mail reported on the Lee and Fung article and questioned whether the campaign had cost him the election.

Neither the Globe nor Lee and Fung pointed to a “smoking gun” connecting Beijing to what happened in the Greater Vancouver riding, whose population is about 50 per cent ethnic Chinese. But both share the view that, in the words of Lee and Fung, “whoever was responsible for disseminating the fake news had a clear motive in reshaping the narratives in favour of Beijing’s interests.”

But was it disinformation – in the sense of false information that is intended to mislead – or legitimate debate within the Chinese-Canadian community?

Chiu’s Bill C-282, the Foreign Influence Registry Act, would have set up a registry for people or entities who contacted Canadian politicians or senior federal public officials in cases where they were or could be perceived to be acting on behalf of certain foreign governments or entities.

As Tarun Krishnakumar noted last July in a Policy Options article: “C-282 is also limited in that it only applies to agents acting on behalf of principals located in countries specifically designated by the Canadian government. In other words, it does not apply to foreign influence writ large. While politically expedient, this is problematic from a broader policy perspective as it opens up the framework to claims that it is discriminatory and unfairly targeted at certain countries.”

Lee and Fung don’t demonstrate the falsity of the social media posts they deem to be problematic but have instead taken at face value Chiu’s belief that he was the victim of disinformation.

One WeChat post that Chiu cited as misleading claims that the bill “is going to have extremely negative consequences for immigrants from mainland China. It will also harm economic, cultural and technological exchanges between Canada and China.”

The post goes on: “Although the bill doesn’t list which countries belong to the foreign forces, considering the soured relationship between Canada and China…(and Chiu’s) anti-China background, undoubtedly this bill is targeting mainland Chinese associations and aims to control or monitor mainland Chinese speech and behaviours.”

In Chiu’s proposed bill, a foreign principal was defined as “a foreign government, an individual or entity related to a foreign government, a foreign political organization that exists primarily to pursue political objectives or an individual or entity related to such an organization.”

It defined a related entity – among several criteria – as one in which the leadership is accustomed or under an obligation, whether formal or informal, to act in accordance with the directions, instructions or wishes of the foreign government or foreign political organization.”

Given that the People’s Republic of China (the PRC) is an authoritarian state, one could reasonably argue that all legally constituted entities in China – including corporations, educational institutions, alumni organizations, cultural groups, and municipalities – fall under the definition of foreign principal. If that is the case, any individual in Canada acting on behalf of such an entity would be subject to registration if he or she were to speak with a parliamentarian or senior public official on a public policy matter.

The Globe editors dismiss the idea that anyone attending a Chinese cultural event would be subject to registration under the proposed act. That may be so, but what if a Canadian representative of that Chinese cultural group were to speak with me as a senator about cultural services trade between Canada and China?

If the bill had passed, what would have stopped Canadian officials from declaring the cultural group to be under the control of the Chinese state and requiring that any representative of that group register under the act to consult with a parliamentarian or senior official about a public policy matter?

The “related entity” argument is what lies behind the calls to ban Huawei from involvement in Canada’s 5G telecommunications network. On the face of it, Huawei is a privately held company with no formal ties to the Chinese state. But critics of Huawei say it is tantamount to a foreign principal because the company is headquartered in China and could be required by the Chinese state to hand over data that would compromise Canadian security.

The same logic is behind the recent forced divestiture of China Mobile’s assets in Canada on the grounds that those assets could be leveraged by the Chinese state for non-commercial purposes. China Mobile does not actually own or operate any network infrastructure in Canada but rather uses the Telus network to deliver telecommunications services.

A badly written law such as C-282 would open the door to a similarly broad interpretation of many Chinese entities on the basis that they could theoretically be subject to direction from the Chinese state.

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that many recent PRC immigrants who have enduring ties with their native country feared Chiu’s bill would have negative consequences for them, and that it would “harm economic, cultural and technological exchanges between Canada and China.” That they felt this way is less about “reshaping the narratives in favour of Beijing’s interests,” as Lee and Fung assert, as it is about self-protection.

None of the above is a defence of the Chinese system of government or Xi Jinping’s drift toward autocracy. But a badly drafted Canadian law on foreign influence does not advance democracy in China. It does, however, set back democracy in Canada by stigmatizing Canadians with institutional ties to the PRC.

It is bad enough to cry election disinformation without proper scrutiny. What is worse is Lee and Fung’s insinuation that some Steveston-Richmond East voters cast their ballots against Chiu because of “weak critical thinking skills and . . . (lack of) prior training or experience in dealing with disinformation.”

We harm the body politic by projecting our insecurities onto fellow citizens, especially Chinese-Canadians, and assuming that they are unwitting receptacles for disinformation from Beijing.  And we undermine the integrity of our elections by casting doubt on the legitimacy of voters’ intentions simply because their views don’t align with ours.

Lee and Fung are correct in saying that “taking a stand against . . . the Chinese Communist Party does not make the Conservatives or Canada anti-China.” They should have added the corollary that voting against a Conservative position on China does not make the elector a disinformation dupe or Chinese Communist Party sympathizer.

Source: Election disinformation claims and Kenny Chiu’s Richmond riding

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

Chinese-Canadian Tories urge O’Toole to resign, saying tough-on-China platform alienated voters

One perspective within the Chinese Canadian community, largely aligned with Beijing:

A group representing Conservatives of Chinese descent is urging Erin O’Toole to resign as federal leader, charging that his call for a tougher approach to China alienated Chinese-Canadian voters and cost the party three seats in last month’s election.

The Chinese Canadian Conservative Association is advocating a less-confrontational stance toward Beijing, saying immigrants from the Mainland don’t like the Communist Party but still feel affection for China as a nation.

Source: Chinese-Canadian Tories urge O’Toole to resign, saying tough-on-China platform alienated voters

As Tories review election loss, weak support in immigrant communities a crucial issue

Article over-dramatises even if there is a need for a review.
Margins in many of these ridings were relatively small. Moreover, in Ontario, the provincial conservatives swept most of the same seats and, as the article notes, active outreach by Conservatives allowed them to make inroads.
But beyond the 41 ridings, there are an additional 93 ridings with between 20 and 50 percent visible minorities which should also be looked at:
The Conservative Party is only beginning to sift through the data from the 2021 election, but there is at least one warning light flashing red on the dashboard: the party has been nearly wiped out in Canadian ridings where visible minorities form the majority.

Of the 41 ridings in Canada where more than half the population is racialized, the Conservatives won just one in the 2021 election — Calgary Forest Lawn — despite winning 119 seats overall.

Source: As Tories review election loss, weak support in immigrant communities a crucial issue

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

Conservatives could have done better job talking to Chinese Canadian voters: ex-MP

Of note:

A former Conservative MP who lost his seat in the recent election thinks the party could have done a better job speaking directly to Chinese Canadians.

Kenny Chiu was defeated in Steveston-Richmond East, a British Columbia riding with many residents of Chinese descent.

The party also saw the losses of longtime Conservative MP Alice Wong in Richmond Centre and Bob Saroya in Markham-Unionville, both home to many voters with Chinese roots. Neither responded to requests for comment from The Canadian Press.

The defeats have the Conservatives wondering what happened, and what connection the losses might have to the party’s stance and messaging on China.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has been an outspoken critic of China’s human rights abuses, calling on the Liberal government to adopt a tougher approach with the authoritarian regime.

Chiu says there’s no single reason for his loss, but points to online WeChat posts he says contained false information about the Conservatives and allegations a private member’s bill he tabled would discriminate against Chinese Canadians.

“Hindsight is always 20/20. I think there could be more proactive communication directly addressing Canadians of Chinese descent that we could have done,” Chiu said in an interview.

The party could have bought more targeted advertisements, he said, adding it’s clear the communication efforts weren’t enough to counter what he considers misinformation.

Improving how Conservatives speak to constituents is one of the issues Chiu said he had hoped to raise heading into the next session of Parliament. Another was how to reassure people that their criticism of the potential influence of the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t mean they are attacking China, a country with a rich and storied history, or its people.

O’Toole hasn’t addressed the issue specifically, but expressed general disappointment in last week’s election results, promising that what went wrong will be examined in a postelection review. Details have yet to be provided on its parameters or who will lead it.

Besides failing to grow the party in key areas like the Greater Toronto Area and Metro Vancouver, home to many immigrants and new Canadians, the Conservatives have five fewer elected people of colour because of defeats in and around these two cities, as well as in Calgary.

That comes as a hit to O’Toole’s pledge to grow the party, and make it a place where more Canadians and people of all backgrounds call home.

During the campaign he tried courting voters by telling them Conservatives were no longer their dad’s or grandfather’s party, despite having a predominantly white caucus.

For Tenzin Khangsar, who worked for Jason Kenney when the Alberta premier served as immigration minister under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, success in making inroads with newcomer communities came down to having an authentic presence there before any election was called.

Under Harper, Kenney prioritized aggressive outreach with diaspora communities, noting that Canada’s demographics had changed.

Kenney was a key supporter of O’Toole’s when he ran to win the party’s leadership in 2020, with O’Toole crediting his former colleague for having helped grow the party when he served in Harper’s cabinet.

More recently, Conservative MPs including Alberta’s Tim Uppal have apologized for not speaking out when he was in Harper’s government against its efforts to ban face coverings during citizenship ceremonies and its 2015 election promise to set up a so-called “barbaric cultural practices” hotline.

Source: Conservatives could have done better job talking to Chinese Canadian voters: ex-MP

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