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‘One of the most serious national security breaches in Canadian history’: Margaret McCuaig-Johnston on China’s Winnipeg lab infiltration

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After years of the federal government blocking the disclosure of evidence, late last month, intelligence records revealed that two respected microbiology researchers, Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng, were secretly gathering information and virus samples from Winnipeg’s National Microbiology Lab, Canada’s highest security infectious disease lab, and sharing them with Chinese state and military institutions. The couple’s whereabouts are unknown. While the RCMP previously opened a criminal investigation, no charges have been laid.

The Hub’s managing editor Harrison Lowman reached out to Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, board director at the China Strategic Risks Institute, to discuss. McCuaig-Johnston spent nearly 40 years in the public service, including as the executive vice president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and sat on the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology. She also served as an assistant deputy minister who oversaw three federal government labs and can speak basic Mandarin.

HARRISON LOWMAN: I’ve seen a couple of people now describe this as “the most serious national security breach in Canadian history.” Is that a fair characterization or an exaggeration?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: It’s really horrific. I would say it’s one of the most serious national security breaches in Canadian history. Other national security breaches, we probably wouldn’t hear about, right? Because that would have been kept quiet. And the government tried to keep this one quiet. And has been seen to have been using a fig leaf of national security to cover what the opposition parties are calling the embarrassment of the department.

HARRISON LOWMAN: What were some of the more egregious actions of the two scientists?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: In one case, material came from China to Canada to the Winnipeg lab, labeled “kitchen utensils” and it was actually dead mouse proteins. Without the knowledge of senior people in the lab, they were also sending [deadly] Ebola virus and Henipah virus via an Air Canada flight to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Winnipeg lab had never sent anything like that to China before. So, this was not normal business.

They were also allowing Chinese military People’s Liberation Army (PLA) scientists to come into the Winnipeg lab unescorted. They were also allowing Chinese students to come in. Both were allowed to take materials out. So they were carrying things back to China with them.

One of the things that disturbs me about what happened here is you can see in universities that people who have arrived from China in the last eight or 10 years, they’ve been inculcated with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping thought. And their allegiance is still to the “motherland,” even though they enjoy all the rights and privileges of living in Canada.

But Dr. Qiu and her husband had been here since the 90s. So at least 25 years. It’s surprising to see that they so readily fell for the line of “help the motherland.” That’s always what China does. The fact that they were able to get to people who were really long-time Canadians, that’s disturbing.

HARRISON LOWMAN: Is it fair to say they were recruited as quote-unquote “spies”? Is that the right terminology here?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: They would certainly not think of themselves as spies. I’m not sure I would call them spies because our system in our lab essentially gave them what they got. It’s our lax system. We weren’t prepared for this.

HARRISON LOWMAN: How were they not charged and detained immediately upon being questioned?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: Well I think that’s why they haven’t come back to Canada. They went to China. And the reporting is that no one knows where they are now. I saw something where they were in northeast China, mentoring other scientists at a provincial lab.

HARRISON LOWMAN: Where does this lab infiltration fit within China’s larger espionage playbook?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: It’s an important lesson, I think, for government labs, in general. China was trying some new things in this case. Trying to get us to share intellectual property and materials. So they’ve gone beyond here, what they normally would do. Normally they take this approach in university labs. University professors have had lots of briefings now on the risks of partnering, for example, with the Chinese military, and just what to watch for, and how to protect their intellectual property.

Departmental labs weren’t seen to be as susceptible because they were within the government of Canada. Who would think the Chinese government would try to get right into the government of Canada?

Pierre Poilievre holds recently released documents about the two scientists who were fired from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, as he speaks in Ottawa, on Feb. 29, 2024. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

HARRISON LOWMAN: Part of the Winnipeg lab studied the world’s most lethal microbes, including ones that could be used for biological warfare. What did you make of the fact they had access to that?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: This is something I’ve been briefing the Canadian government on for many years. When I left the government in 2012, I decided to do some academic work at the University of Ottawa on China’s education system. I started seeing this focus on the integration of military and civilian technology development; where Chinese military scientists would work hand in hand with civilian scientists to advance PLA military objectives. And those military objectives now are using very sensitive technologies like photonics [the physical science of light waves], which Canada is very strong in, and AI.

But what is unique about China is that they’re also using brain research and other medical research to advance a tactic of military engagement called “winning without fighting.” And if you can imagine being able to weaponize the Ebola virus, so that so that they can say to Taiwan, “We now have Ebola as a weapon. And we’re going to set it loose in Taipei unless you shut down all of your defences and allow Chinese mainland military PLA into Taiwan.” Well, now they have Ebola from Canada. You can thank Canada for that if that happens.

[Editor’s note: Minister of Health Mark Holland insists that at “no time did national secrets or information that threatened the security of Canada leave the lab.”]

HARRISON LOWMAN: What would you say to people who say that’s sensationalizing things?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: Those people should read PLA documents that show this is exactly what they’re doing. There’s an American researcher, Elsa Kania, who has very close engagement with the PLA military. She’s a member of the U.S. military. And she’s written about how they’re using medical research for winning without fighting.

HARRISON LOWMAN: So, we now have the foreign interference inquiry going on. We have the Liberals and NDP blocking a proposed examination of national security breaches at the lab. So, what do you think should happen next?

MARGARET MCCUAIG-JOHNSTON: If I were still in the government, as part of the group of assistant deputy ministers who manage government labs, I would immediately put on a review. I wouldn’t wait for ministers to ask me to do it. I would do a review across government labs, of their collaborations with China and of their protocols for intellectual property protection, and for the transfer of materials. That’s something that the bureaucracy can and should do.

I’d be surprised if it hasn’t started already.

One of the things I’ve recommended is that this entire lab, not just the section that these scientists were working in—the highly sensitive disease materials—but the entire lab should have zero collaboration with China for the next 10 years.

The government went to great lengths to cover this up. That’s very true. But I don’t see the initial fault of this as being with the politicians. This is on the bureaucracy and its lack of rigour in its own procedures and checks and double checks.

…I promoted a lot of collaboration with China over the years. In the past. As we [Canada] were helping them develop their capacity. They came from zero after the Cultural Revolution. Their universities had been closed for almost 10 years. They’ve really advanced. But they’ve advanced on the shoulders of Canadian scientists.

We’ve done a lot to help them, they know that. But now, with the very aggressive strategies and tactics that Xi Jinping and the people around him are using to acquire technology abroad, we have to be much more vigilant about our own systems, to protect our own things. In our business relations, we have to be tougher negotiators. In our science relations, we have to be much more astute so as to not give away all our IP for nothing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Canada’s foreign correspondents are almost extinct

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The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

Foreign bureaus keeping Canadians informed about the world beyond our borders have all but disappeared. According to new data collected by The Hub, there could be less than 60 full-time journalists from the major outlets reporting on world events, with 45 of those working for the CBC.

There now appears to be no permanent Canadian correspondents from the major newspapers or broadcasters based in the Middle East, in the midst of an Israel-Hamas war now entering its sixth month. There seems to be no permanent Canadian journalists on the ground in Russia, two years after it initiated the largest attack on a European country since the Second World War. There also appears to be no Canadian foreign correspondents stationed within the world superpower that is mainland China.

“It’s really really disheartening,” says Global National News senior correspondent Jeff Semple when shown the numbers. Semple has reported from more than 40 countries and has worked as a Europe bureau chief and a London correspondent. “These foreign bureaus are closing at a time when our need to understand what’s going on in the world is only increasing.”

“It’s sad. It’s discouraging,” says journalist and author Andrew Cohen. “It leaves us less informed. It misses nuances. It misses angles. It misses the kinds of stories that a Canadian audience might want to read.” During his career, Cohen filed stories as a journalist from Washington, London, and Berlin. Since then, he taught international affairs reporting at Carleton University’s journalism school for 23 years.

“I could [now] no longer in good conscience teach a course in which I could say to my students, ‘Work hard, dream big. And maybe you’ll be a foreign correspondent one day for Canada,’” he says. “Because those jobs essentially no longer exist.”

These vanishing foreign bureaus are a result of news outlet cost cutting, as the media industry suffers massive layoffs and reduced viewership and readership. But, it may also be a reaction to a Canada that has a shrinking footprint on the world stage, say experts.

Canadian media once had multiple foreign bureaus dotting the globe in places like Beijing, London, Washington, Los Angeles, Berlin, New Delhi, Kampala, Moscow, Mexico City, Jerusalem, Sydney, Pretoria, and Brazilia.

When Cohen was a The Globe and Mail correspondent from 1997 to 2001, he described reporters being posted throughout the U.S., with a “large happy Canadian contingent” in Washington.  

“This is 25 years ago. We were serious. Journalism in Canada was serious about the world. We no longer are,” he admits.

Canadian bureaus today

The Hub reached out to the major Canadian newspapers and broadcasters and asked them how many foreign bureaus they still have in operation.

Up until a few years ago, CTV News operated international bureaus in 10 cities around the globe. Last year, it closed the doors of its London and Los Angeles bureaus. Since then, it announced major layoffs in its TV and radio divisions. It now has just one bureau left, with one journalist in Washington covering the U.S.

The Toronto Star recently closed its last foreign bureau, also in Washington. It has one writer covering international affairs, in Paris, France. 

Global News has two permanent employees in Washington and two journalists in London.

The Canadian Press has one foreign correspondent, in Washington. 

Postmedia, which includes The National Post has no foreign bureaus remaining.

The Globe and Mail now has one reporter based in London and another in Rome covering all of Europe. One journalist in Johannesburg covering the continent of Africa. One covering all of Asia from Hong Kong. One journalist in Washington covering the U.S. And two general international correspondents. 

In 2012, CBC shuttered its bureaus in Africa and South America. But approximately 45-full time journalists still work abroad for CBC/Radio-Canada, out of New York, Washington, London, Mumbai, Paris, and Taiwan.

The world through ‘Canadian eyes

Canadian outlets are increasingly relying on newswire coverage from foreign news outlets, freelance “stringers,” and even reporters based in Canada so that they do not have to pay for Canadian correspondents on the ground. It means some events get coverage, but this comes at another cost, says Semple.

“When you live in a faraway place you come to understand that place in a way that you simply can’t by visiting or by reading a note from afar,” Semple says. The veteran journalist said it was only by being stationed in the U.K. during the Brexit debate that he was able to escape the bureaucratic discussions being held in London, travel to rural Britain, and hear directly from residents why they felt left behind and would be voting to leave the EU.

According to Cohen, fewer Canadian journalists abroad means fewer Canadian perspectives and the loss of a more critical detached take on the foreign country they’re covering. He says there is a “Canadian sensibility” that our correspondents bring to their coverage. That they act as a sort of “interpreter” for Canadians back home.

“Will they [the public] hear about what Canada is doing? Will they really hear about the world through Canadian eyes?”, he asks.

“A Canadian will do a better job of explaining something to other Canadians,” adds Semple.

Without Canadian reporters on the ground, Canadians’ actions abroad can also go unreported, says journalist and filmmaker Michelle Shephard, formerly the Toronto Star’s national security reporter. Shephard insists stories around human rights abuses involving Canadian mining companies operating abroad, or the Canadian government providing humanitarian aid to Yemen while allegedly providing weapons to that war, likely would receive far less coverage without Canadian journalists being there.

Dominic Barton, right, Canada Ambassador to China, speaks to reporters after meeting with Canadian Michael Spavor at a detention center in Dandong, China, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. A Chinese court has sentenced Spavor to 11 years on spying charges in case linked to Huawei. (Ng Han Guan/AP Photo)
Budgeting for bureaus

Foreign bureaus are expensive to operate and appear to be first on the chopping block when cuts arrive.

“It’s a costly endeavour,” admits Brodie Fenlon, CBC’s general manager and editor-in-chief, in an email to The Hub. Fenlon adds that costs include support staff, licenses, foreign taxes, office space, and gear.

The costs only increase when you’re a Canadian on the ground in a conflict zone. During Semple’s visits to Ukraine, he is accompanied by a full-time security guard, who is often former special forces. That’s on top of pricey insurance coverage. It raises the question that if Canada enters another armed conflict, will Canadian outlets be able to afford putting reporters on the ground?

Nevertheless, others say the public should be more concerned about putting local reporters on the ground in Canada, who will cover our own country.

“I still mourn the cuts to local news more than I do foreign news,” Shephard tells The Hub in an email. “The whole industry is hurting and I understand why foreign news is often on the chopping block first. It’s expensive and while it’s not the same, at least there are other outlets covering it.”

Banished by authoritarian regimes

It is not merely high costs that are forcing the closure of Canadian bureaus, but also vengeful regimes.

In 2022, CBC shut down its Beijing bureau after more than 40 years. Their journalists were denied visas by the Chinese government.

That year, CBC journalists were also kicked out of Russia and stripped of their accreditation, leaving their bureau in Moscow after more than 44 years. Russia was retaliating to Canada banning their state TV channel Russia Today. CBC News was the only permanent Canadian media presence in Russia.

Semple says this lack of Canadian presence in “countries we don’t understand” means the public is robbed of getting to the bottom of what is going on in Russia and how ordinary Russians truly feel about the war in Ukraine.

Canada on the world stage

Some say Canada’s media retreat abroad mirrors our country’s decades-long retreat internationally.

Former Canadian diplomat Ben Rowsell recently told The Hub that Canadian diplomacy is now “in retreat,” with “withdrawal from the world” being a “top priority.”

According to Cohen, this is reflected in the scarcity of foreign correspondents.

“Where we are now as a country is very much reflected in how we cover the world. And we don’t. We have withdrawn,” says the author of the book While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. “You have a diminished media in a diminished country.”

Cohen says this is a “vicious circle,” in that when Canadians are not informed about what their country is doing abroad, they are less likely to demand Canada have a more robust international presence abroad. Then, the media is left with minimal stories around Canada on the world stage to cover.

Still, Semple says while Canada may be less influential than it once was, announcing you are a Canadian journalist still surprisingly gains you respect and opens doors when it comes to access and interviews. In some ways, the reputation remains.

“Being Canadian still holds a lot of weight,” he explains. “How much of that is sort of a leftover of a time when Canada was seen differently on the world stage? I don’t know. But it’s still really a thing.”

Clarification: Since this article was published, CBC sent The Hub new numbers and clarified that CBC/Radio-Canada in fact employs 45 full-time journalists outside Canada, rather than 40.

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.