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‘Appalling abdication of responsibility’ in PMO: CPC MP Michael Chong reacts to alleged threats to family in China

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Conservative MP Michael Chong. They react to a breaking media report that Canadian intelligence officials had evidence that MP Chong’s family in Hong Kong was targeted by a Chinese official in the Toronto consulate, and yet the Canadian government failed to inform him or expel the diplomat.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues, I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. Today we have something of an emergency conversation about a breaking story in Canada. I’m honoured to be joined by Conservative MP Michael Chong, who serves as his party’s foreign affairs critic. We learned in the past several hours in reporting by the Globe and Mail that MP Chong’s family in Hong Kong was subjected to harassment, intimidation, and threats from a Chinese official in the Toronto consulate. Yet he was never informed of these activities and the so-called “diplomat” in question continues to have full diplomatic accreditation from the Government of Canada. I’m grateful to speak with MP Chong about these extraordinary details and what they say about the Trudeau government’s handling of reports of Chinese interference in our democracy. The next voice you’ll hear is mine, in conversation with Canadian Member of Parliament Michael Chong.

MP Chong, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

MICHAEL CHONG: Great to be here, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: It’s Monday, May 1, 11 am, and MP Chong, your name is trending on Twitter. You issued a statement about 30 minutes ago in response to an extraordinary Globe and Mail story that, among other things, reports that your family in Hong Kong has been targeted by members of the Chinese state because of some of the positions that you’ve taken in the national Parliament. Let’s just start with some basic questions. When did you learn about this? And what was your first reaction?

MICHAEL CHONG: I first learned about it when the Globe and Mail reported on it in today’s paper. I was contacted by the Globe and Mail to ask for comments on this report. And that was the first I heard of it.  

SEAN SPEER: One of the things that’s extraordinary about that is, I understand, as set out in your statement, that you actually received a briefing from CSIS in and around the time period in which these developments were occurring, and yet you weren’t informed of the intelligence. Do you want to provide our listeners with a bit of a sense of what that briefing was and why you think you weren’t informed about these extraordinary details that affect you and your family?

MICHAEL CHONG: Yeah, CSIS had provided me briefings on foreign interference activities, particularly from the People’s Republic of China. But they never, ever informed me that the Ministry of State Security of the PRC had tasked a senior diplomat out of the consulate in Toronto with targeting my family in Hong Kong. That’s astounding. At minimum, I would have expected my government had a duty of care to inform me that my family was being targeted, specifically to try to change the course of a domestic debate about foreign policy, a debate that was taking place in the House of Commons. So my conclusion is that the PMO did not authorize CSIS to inform me of this specific threat. And it’s an appalling abdication of responsibility on the part of the prime minister’s office.

SEAN SPEER: I know it’s speculation, but what do you think the rationale would be behind the political arm of the government interfering, or intervening rather, and standing in the way of that information being shared with a member of parliament particularly one with a track record of exercising care and responsibility on matters of national security?

MICHAEL CHONG: Well, I think one has to conclude when one takes a look at the totality of evidence, whether it’s the specific case of me and my family being targeted without them informing me, or if it’s when you take a look at the case of a former Conservative MP, Kenny Chiu, when you look at other cases of foreign interference that have involved political actors, one has to conclude that there are political calculations at play here. And I think that’s appalling. I think it suggests that the Trudeau government will not protect Canadians of differing political viewpoints from threat activities of authoritarian states.

That has got to stop. Political calculation should never trump the government’s protection of national security, it should never trump the duty of protection that the government owes to every Canadian citizen—particularly protection from coercion exercised by authoritarian states like the People’s Republic of China.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to what you think ought to have happened in this case, and clearly did not, but before we get there, let me take up the point that you raised about what seems to be a clear effort on the part of the People’s Republic of China to target Conservative members of parliament. The journalists in this case, Robert Fife and Steven Chase, report that they’ve seen CSIS materials that indicate several examples of Chinese influence operations aimed specifically at the Opposition Conservative Party. Two questions: first of all, I’ll just have you reflect on the targeting of Conservatives in Canada by the PRC. And secondly, what do you think’s behind that?

MICHAEL CHONG: Well, I think it’s clear that Beijing is very worried about the positions that the Conservative Party has taken on their threats in the Indo-Pacific region and in Canada. Don’t forget that it was the Parliament of Canada that just recognized that a genocide was taking place against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. That then led to the recognition by other Parliaments in the NATO alliance. And so they were very worried that we were taking a leadership position in raising alarm bells about the threats coming from Beijing.

So I think that combined with the fact that the current government has a proclivity to be lax about these threat activities, to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s meddling, I think the combination of those two things led Beijing to target Conservatives and Conservative MPs in particular. I think that’s how we got here. And it is astounding that months, years, after this information has come to light, the government still hasn’t taken any action to shut these kinds of threat activities down—particularly threat activities that are taking place on Canadian soil.

SEAN SPEER: It’s such a good point, MP Chong, because your statement recognizes that there may have been a justification, in the immediacy of this information back in 2021, for the government to handle it delicately because it was occurring in parallel with efforts to return the two Michael’s to Canada. But as you just said, that is now approaching two years ago, and yet not only were you up until now not informed, but as you indicated earlier, the consulate official in question, who’s named in the Globe and Mail story, remains a fully accredited diplomat in Canada and there’s been no indication that the government, two years out, is prepared to effectively repeal his diplomatic accreditation. Do you want to talk a bit about how the timeline in a way makes this even more extraordinary?

MICHAEL CHONG: Yeah, when this information came to the government’s attention almost two years ago, in the summer of 2021, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were still wrongfully detained by the People’s Republic of China. So in that context it may have been excusable for the government not to take action against this particular diplomat who’s based out of the PRC consulate in Toronto. But mere weeks later, on September 24 of that year, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were released from detention and returned to Canada. So at that point, there was no excuse for the government not to take action against this individual.

It also is inexcusable that the government failed to inform me that there was a diplomat tasked by the Ministry of State Security to target my family to change the course of the domestic debate in Parliament. So, look, I think we have to be candid and frank about this individual. He’s not a diplomat. He may be a diplomat in name, but he’s a foreign intelligence officer. He’s a foreign intelligence officer that’s been tasked by the PRC’s Ministry of State Security to meddle and coerce and intimidate Canadians here on Canadian soil, and for the government to continue to accredit and approve this individual to work in Canada, despite all the information they have about this individual, is dumbfounding. And it’s obvious that this individual should be declared persona non grata and expelled from Canada.

SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses for listeners that this isn’t the first time this individual’s name has come up in this reporting on Chinese election interference or political interference efforts in Canada. His name has been reoccurring throughout these stories, which as you say, MP Chong, speaks to the fact that he is, at his core, someone involved in intelligence efforts here on Canadian soil and yet continues to have his diplomatic credentials affirmed by the Government of Canada.

MICHAEL CHONG: Yeah. And more to the point, Sean, he’s not just an intelligence officer. He’s an intelligence officer that has been tasked by his government to intimidate and coerce Canadians here and abroad.  

SEAN SPEER: To that point, one question that listeners might have that you address both in a statement to the Globe and Mail journalists yesterday and then today on your personal social media accounts is that one of the reasons this has come to you for the first time is that you took steps in the name of protecting your relatives abroad to effectively break communications with them. Do you want to talk a bit about that?

MICHAEL CHONG: Yeah, out of an abundance of caution I have not been in contact with them. But it’s public information that my father was a Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong to Canada and that I have family in Hong Kong that’s been, you know—I’m a public figure so that’s long been known. My situation is not unique. Like many Canadians, I have family abroad. And the PRC and other authoritarian states have used that fact to intimidate and coerce Canadians here at home by threatening their family abroad. So that’s why the government’s laissez-faire attitude toward all of this, that’s why its inaction on all of this, is very concerning.

Because many, many Canadians, millions of Canadians, are in the same situation, and we’ve become a playground for authoritarian states to coerce our citizens here and undermine our foreign policy, undermine our position in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, undermine our position in NATO by using this these coercive tactic tactics here on Canadian soil.

This inability of the government to tackle foreign interference threat activities here really is a serious national threat. It undermines not only our social cohesion, it undermines our fundamental rights and freedoms. That’s why the government’s inaction on this is inexplicable and indefensible.

SEAN SPEER: One of the arguments that you and others have made throughout this sustained period of reporting about election and political interference stories in Canada is that our fellow citizens and their families abroad are not themselves threats to Canadian democracy—quite the opposite. They are the victims of these efforts. And, as you say, MP Chong, the case for the government to step up here is not merely about protecting our democracy, although of course that’s fundamental, but it’s also about ensuring that Chinese Canadians and others living here in Canada have the same ability to fully participate in our democracy with the knowledge that their families abroad are not going to be subjected to intimidation, harassment, and even violence. 

Do you want to maybe just reflect a bit on the idea that at its core, this is about protecting Chinese Canadians and others and not viewing them as somehow disloyal Canadians or something else?

MICHAEL CHONG: Absolutely. Look, we have to do two things at once. And the two things go hand in hand. We have to first stand up for our fellow Chinese Canadians who are being targeted, whether it’s the PRC or by others who are targeting them. And at the same time, we have to stand up to Beijing’s threats. To do one or the not the other is to either abandon our fellow Canadians of Asian descent, or it’s to not address the very real and serious threat that Beijing is presenting to us.

You know, there’s not been a single diplomat expelled for Beijing’s meddling in our democracy. There has not been a single individual prosecuted and charged that has been involved with meddling in our democracy. Not a single individual. 

It’s frustrating to see other governments take action. Just recently, the FBI arrested a number of individuals in the United States for the establishment of, among other things, illegal police stations there. One of those individuals was responsible for establishing and setting up an illegal police station here in Canada. But yet the government here has failed to take action.

So what happens in that context is that many Chinese Canadians are very scared and worried about speaking up in our own country. They’re worried about going to the polls to vote. They’re worried about taking a public stand on democracy. They’re worried about speaking up on matters of concern to all Canadians because they are worried that they are being tracked by the PRC and that their government is not going to be there in Canada to protect them.

SEAN SPEER: To that point, just to say in parentheses, although your particular story is the highest profile one outlined in this morning’s Globe and Mail article, there are a number of examples, including cases of international students studying here in Canada and others who are subjected to similar means of intimidation and threat and harassment, and they don’t have, as you have, the platform to draw attention to their individual experiences and other means to ensure that ultimately they’re protected from these cases of interference. 

Let me ask you a penultimate question. You’re such a judicious public servant you may not be prepared to weigh in, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t put it to you. We started our conversation talking about the fact that the PRC activities seemed to be disproportionately targeting Conservatives for some of the reasons you described. Do you think that that may explain, at least in part, why the government hasn’t taken these cases more seriously? That is to say, they’ve come to see them through a partisan lens, and that they are somehow less relevant as a matter of national interest or national security because it’s primarily targeting their political opponents?

MICHAEL CHONG: I think the Trudeau government’s inaction suggests that they are viewing this through a political lens, that they’re making political calculations about how these threats from Beijing are going to benefit the Liberal Party and how they’re going to disadvantage the Conservative Party. I think when you look at the totality of evidence, not just with respect to this new information about me and my family, but more broadly about what’s happened to former MP Kenny Chiu, what’s happened to other political actors, one has to conclude that they’re viewing these foreign interference threat activities through a partisan lens. And I think that’s beyond the pale. Political calculations cannot and never should trump our values or national security and the duty that the Canadian government has to every Canadian to protect them from these threat activities here on Canadian soil.

SEAN SPEER: Final question: Your statement this morning outlines two steps that you think ought to have happened as soon as the government was made aware of this particular circumstance. First, of course, that you ought to have been informed, and second, that the so-called “diplomat” involved ought to have been expelled. At this stage, nearly two years later, what do you think needs to happen?

MICHAEL CHONG: Well, the government needs to come clean with me and other members of parliament about any information they have about them and their families being targeted by the PRC and other authoritarian states. The second thing the government needs to do is they need to declare this particular diplomat persona non grata and expel him from Canada. He’s clearly a foreign intelligence officer that has been tasked by the PRC Ministry of State Security to intimidate and coerce Canadians here at home and abroad. And that has got to stop immediately.

SEAN SPEER: I’m sorry, I said that was my final question. Let me just put one more to you. Pardon me. I know it’s a busy day, MP Chong. But it seems to me that this particular case only reinforces the need for a public inquiry. That these different actions on the part of the PRC to interfere in elections and to interfere in this particular case around your leadership on a piece of legislation necessitates a comprehensive process of review.

What’s your view? Does this only underline the need for a full public inquiry on the degree of interference by the PRC in particular, and other authoritarian states in Canadian democracy in general?

MICHAEL CHONG: Well, we support a public inquiry, provided that public inquiry is based on input, in terms of its framing, its terms of reference, and who will head that public inquiry up, from all the political parties. Because foreign interference affects not just one party, it affects all political parties. It’s really important that if the government is to set up a public inquiry, that they appoint a person that has the support of all political parties and they frame the terms of reference with the support of all the parties. If not, the inquiry is not going to have the legitimacy it needs to do its work. 

But more important than a public inquiry is that the Government of Canada needs to take immediate action. It should take immediate action on the expulsion of diplomats involved with these coercive and intimidation tactics here on Canadian soil, and the government needs to introduce a foreign agents registry in order to give it another tool to prosecute individuals responsible for this behaviour.

They need to step up law enforcement, which they have been abysmal in supporting. In fact, just several weeks ago the RCMP botched a case concerning PRC espionage in Canada. The case was dropped because of the work-from-home mandate where the government wasn’t able to get its act together quickly enough to bring this case to trial. And so the judge involved in the trial basically abandoned the case because there wasn’t speedy justice.

So, on a whole range of measures, the government has more than enough information to take action now and we should ensure that a public inquiry is just not another effort to bury this problem in a mountain of process.

SEAN SPEER: Well, MP Chong, I just want to say thanks for your leadership on these files, best to you and your family, and thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

MICHAEL CHONG: Thanks for having me.