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MP Michael Chong urges U.S. lawmakers to work with Canada to combat Chinese meddling

WASHINGTON — The Conservative MP at the centre of Canada's foreign interference saga told his story Tuesday on Capitol Hill to attentive U.S. lawmakers bent on confronting China's efforts to test the boundaries of Western democracy.
Michael Chong arrives to a standing committee on foreign affairs and international development in Ottawa on Thursday, May 4, 2023. The Conservative MP at the centre of Canada’s foreign interference saga is telling his story today to U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

WASHINGTON — The Conservative MP at the centre of Canada's foreign interference saga told his story Tuesday on Capitol Hill to attentive U.S. lawmakers bent on confronting China's efforts to test the boundaries of Western democracy. 

Michael Chong's pitch: let's do it together. 

"Canada must work more closely with democratic allies like the United States in countering Beijing's efforts to interfere in our democratic life," Chong told members of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. 

Foreign interference, known in U.S. political circles as transnational repression, is a serious national security threat in both countries that demands a unified approach among like-minded allies, he argued. 

"We must look for every opportunity to strengthen this partnership to meet the challenge of rising authoritarianism and to preserve our fundamental freedoms, our democracy and the rule of law." 

It was a message well-received in D.C., where Democratic and Republican talking points alike now openly portray China as a worrisome global aggressor with altogether far too much economic sway over American life. 

In typical committee fashion, commission members spent the first 30 minutes of the hearing delivering bellicose opening statements denouncing China's repression tactics, including intimidation, harassment of dissidents and assassination. 

"The (Chinese Communist Party)'s strategy of trying to rewrite global norms has succeeded in too many cases," said co-chair and New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith. 

"All of this is happening beyond China's borders and within ours … it is also happening within our legislatures. We cannot and will not let the Chinese Communist Party scare us into submission through these tactics." 

Smith's first question for Chong, one that other members repeated in different ways throughout the hearing, was about whether the U.S. and Canada could be working more closely together than they already are. 

Canada is currently exploring the idea of a foreign agent registry to better keep tabs on agents operating on its soil, and could use the expertise of the U.S., which has had one for nearly 100 years, Chong said. 

He also suggested the two countries could compare notes on how best to use "sunlight and transparency" to publicly expose foreign interference activities that might not rise to the level of criminal activity.  

"One way to counter it is to make it public, to go public with the intelligence, to tell members of the public, members of Congress, members of Parliament, here's what exactly is going on," Chong said. 

That kind of information, he said, would "arm citizens and elected officials with the information they need to protect themselves."

As for tackling disinformation on social media, Chong sang the praises of the more grassroots model being deployed in Taiwan, which he called "ground zero" for Chinese disinformation operations. 

"It's grounded in resiliency, it's grounded in the education system — the primary and high school education system — and in empowering civil society groups to counter this disinformation," he said. 

"At the end of the day, we have to balance two competing things: one is to counter this disinformation, while upholding freedom of the media and freedom of speech."

He demurred when asked whether he was getting the necessary support from the federal government, which has been under political siege for months from the opposition Conservatives over its handling of the affair. 

"Democracies are often slow to react to the threat of authoritarian states, which can act much more quickly," Chong said. "Since the spring, the Canadian government has been standing up and supporting me."

It was May when the Liberal government confirmed a media report that intelligence officials had detected a Chinese intimidation plot targeting Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong in 2021. The Liberal government expelled Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei after a sustained uproar in Parliament.

In response, China's embassy expelled Canada's consul in Shanghai and issued a statement accusing Canada of breaching international law and acting based on anti-Chinese sentiment.

Chong was allegedly targeted after sponsoring a motion in the House of Commons labelling Beijing's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China a genocide. But he was never notified of the potential threats, a mistake he has called a "systematic breakdown in the machinery of government."

And while that was about the only detectable partisan rancour in Chong's testimony, much of what he proposed to address China's growing economic dominance was an echo of conservative doctrine in both countries. 

He proposed a ban on government funding for Chinese entities engaged in sensitive research and development in telecommunications, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and biopharmaceuticals. 

He called for regulatory reform in Canada to expedite desperately needed natural resource projects like LNG export terminals and pipelines, as well as critical mineral mines and processing facilities.

And he singled out Canada as the ideal partner for the U.S. in providing what he called cleaner-burning natural gas to the world, and as an important alternative source for the raw materials that go into electric-vehicle batteries. 

Germany and Japan, he noted, are buying "vast amounts of gas" from authoritarian states when they could be getting it from North America. 

"Those are two ways in which I think we can help the United States: we've got critical minerals of our own, and we've got vast amounts of natural gas that we need to get to international markets." 

Other witnesses Tuesday included Yana Gorokhovskaia of the pro-democracy D.C. think tank Freedom House; Laura Harth, the campaign director for the human rights group Safeguard Defenders; and Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas.

The commission, established in 2000 as a way for U.S. lawmakers to monitor China's human rights record, keeps a running list of people from around the world, many of them Chinese dissidents, who have vanished or been taken as political prisoners.  

That database includes Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians who were arrested and detained without cause in China for nearly three years, an apparent act of retaliation for Canada's detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. 

Meng, the chief financial officer and daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, was arrested in Vancouver in 2018 on an extradition warrant linked to Justice Department charges of bank and wire fraud.

In an interview Monday, Chong said the federal government still hasn't done enough in the wake of the Huawei saga to properly fortify its foreign policy approach to China, even as the U.S. and other democracies adopt a more hawkish stance. 

"It doesn't surprise me because I think it is a characteristic of the current government to be slow on implementation," he said. "This government can't execute, and so it doesn't surprise me that they are slow on reacting to this threat." 

Next week, Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josee Hogue will embark on a 16-month public inquiry into alleged meddling in Canadian affairs by China, Russia and other foreign states and non-state actors.

An interim report is due by the end of February and a final report by the end of December 2024.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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