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Beijing's control of media in Canada enabled election interference: CSIS documents

China’s election interference and political influence in Canada has been enabled by Beijing’s covert “takeover” of Chinese-language media, plus sophisticated, massively-funded schemes targeting mainstream outlets and seeking to control “key media entities” according to intelligence documents.

These clandestine operations have involved threats against journalists, the documents say, but also inducements, such as benefits offered by Vancouver’s Chinese Consulate to cultivate “key editors, producers and high-ranking managers.” 

While the Trudeau Government faces a crisis of public confidence after intelligence leaks alleged Chinese diplomats directed funds clandestinely into Canada’s 2019 federal election, this new documentation adds another layer of concern, outlining Beijing’s overarching strategy to subvert democracy using Canada’s free press.

Beijing’s ultimate objective is influencing Canadian media to help elect politicians friendly towards the Chinese Communist Party and promoting reporting that favours its interests, the documents say.

In one shocking example, according to a Canadian official with direct knowledge, CSIS found a senior Chinese Consular official in Toronto assembled numerous Chinese-language reporters and allegedly instructed them to secretly support a particular politician that Beijing wants to rise within Canada’s federal government.

The Bureau’s investigation of these new allegations involves reviews of four independent sets of national security records and corroborating interviews with sources including Chinese-language journalists that cannot be named due to concerns for their personal safety and their families. 

One reporter, however, stepped forward. 

Former Vancouver-based newspaper editor Victor Ho, who is anonymously cited in a CSIS document reviewed for this story, confirmed CSIS’s chief allegations.

Asked whether he agrees the Chinese Communist Party is secreting money into election interference networks and using Canadian media to support Beijing’s chosen candidates, Ho said: “That is exactly the case.”

“The CCP weaponizes the Chinese media to gain election intervention,” Ho said. “To do this, the Chinese Consulates in Canada make every effort to influence the top Chinese editing teams in Canada.” 

Election Periods

An October 2022 CSIS intelligence assessment that outlines China’s methods of interfering in recent Canadian federal, provincial and municipal elections, says Beijing has supported candidates at all levels of government.

And media is a key weapon in its clandestine arsenal. 

The document reviewed by The Bureau, labeled “Canadian Eyes Only” – says “traditional and online media outlets play an important role during election periods, offering a curated communications channel between political campaigns and the general public.”

And so, Beijing targets election reporting, seeking “to manipulate and influence key media entities, control narratives, and disseminate disinformation.”

According to CSIS, Beijing’s capture of Canada-based media outlets is due to an increasing proportion of Mainland Chinese migrants in Canada’s diaspora communities and China’s heavily funded infiltration schemes.

“In Canada, a PRC ‘takeover’ of Chinese-language media has transpired over decades, derivative of the proportion of PRC-origin individuals increasing in Canada’s Chinese communities,”  the CSIS record says, “and as the PRC devotes more resources to, in President Xi Jinping’s words, ‘Telling China’s story well.’”

This takeover was accomplished as Chinese Consulates asserted control over journalist associations in Toronto and Vancouver, according to documents and Chinese-language media sources.

Citing intelligence from 2022, the CSIS “Canadian Eyes Only” document says: “almost all Chinese media outlets are controlled by local media associations and essentially say the same thing.” 

In the Greater Toronto Area, for example, it says “30 to 40 people in Chinese media circles meet regularly to come to a consensus regarding what or how an item will be published.” 

And according to CSIS, “these individuals act as gatekeepers to ensure whatever is reported in Chinese-language media adheres to pro-PRC narratives.”  

The CSIS document also cites a recent case, alleging a Chinese Consulate contacted a journalist to warn them their just-published article was not suitable because it “casts a negative light on a Chinese company,” and the journalist quickly deleted the article.  

All of this, according to CSIS, undermines press freedom, “a value enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights.”

A Canadian official, who asked not to be named because they face legal repercussions as a whistleblower, said Beijing’s efforts to control Canadian media are a key part of CSIS’s ongoing election interference investigations. 

The official pointed to a February 2020 Privy Council Office intelligence brief, which alleges Beijing’s foreign-interference arm, the United Front Work Department, supported 11 Greater Toronto Area candidates in the 2019 federal election.

“Besides funding, the UFWD is also likely to offer candidates logistical support [and] favourable media coverage,” the Privy Council Office document says. 

A prominent example, according to the official, was the Toronto Chinese Consulate’s strategy of enlisting local journalists, years in advance of the 2019 election.

“[A Consular official] assembled Chinese-language media and instructed them to support [a specific politician] because China needed friends in government,” the Canadian official alleged. “We know [the specific politician] is called a ‘work object’ of the Toronto Consulate, and there has been a concerted effort to support them.”

Canadian intelligence gathers such information through human sources and electronic intercepts. Officials in the Toronto Consulate have repeatedly denied interfering in Canadian elections.

But Chinese community sources, who asked not to be named for personal safety reasons, said they recognized similar Chinese-state activity in Vancouver. 

In one example, the sources said, prominent Mandarin-language journalists have been meeting and discussing sensitive stories with a wealthy Chinese National who is known to RCMP investigations in British Columbia.

In an interview Victor Ho, the former editor, said he believes Chinese Consulates in Vancouver and Toronto exert control over reporters through various means, but Beijing’s usurping of Canada-based newsrooms is executed primarily “by changing the owners of media companies in Hong Kong.”

 “They always have investment opportunities in Mainland China for the owners of media and this is how you will be co-opted,” Ho said. “And once you have investments inside China, it will be like a ransom.”

A June 2019 draft report on foreign interference by Canada’s NSICOP – a parliamentary intelligence review body that reports to Prime Minister Trudeau – confirms Ho’s view.

“Over many years, PRC state media companies have invested in strategic mergers and acquisitions of Chinese-language media outlets,” says the 2019 NSICOP report reviewed by The Bureau, “controlling messages available for dissemination to diaspora communities.”

In 2020, Ho testified in Ottawa, arguing Canada should implement a foreign agent registry as Australia has done in response to Beijing’s interference, which would compel pro-Beijing media to register in Canada. 

The United States has also forced Chinese state-owned media, including entities named in the NSICOP report, to register as foreign missions and disclose their financial activities.

But the Trudeau Government has not followed recommendations to take similar actions.

“Mainstream Canadian Media”

According to the unredacted June 2019 NSICOP report, the Chinese Communist Party also increasingly targets Canada’s media giants. 

Under the subheading “Mainstream Canadian Media” it says Beijing has switched from a defensive strategy, focused on domestic censorship and expelling foreign journalists, to flooding international media outlets “with massive infusions of money.”

These funds aim to have Beijing’s propaganda published by major newspapers and broadcasters.

“CSIS assesses that Canadian media outlets have been heavily targeted in this regard,” the NSICOP document says. 

It adds CSIS reported in 2017 that “PRC authorities have … attempted to use Canadian media outlets in order to deliberately publish false or misleading information.” 

NSICOP cites a stunning example from CSIS’s investigations.

“In 2015, the PRC Consulate in Vancouver developed a plan to influence specific British Columbia television stations to become ‘pro-China’ by directly providing them with information and news and offering exclusive invitations,” the June 2019 report says.

“In addition,” it says, “the Consulate cultivated relationships with ‘key editors, producers and high-ranking managers’ to exert influence over the individuals and, by extension, their media outlets.”

Asked whether this explosive allegation sounds plausible, Victor Ho said “this information seems very realistic, to my experience.” 

The NSICOP document does not identify which British Columbia newsrooms and media figures were involved in CSIS’s investigations.

However, it adds that generally, Beijing’s interference includes “opposing the publication of certain articles, threatening media outlets and publishing false material.” 

And CSIS believes that Beijing’s incursions into Canadian newsrooms are driven by the Communist Regime’s belief that “control and oversight of media [is] crucial for the maintenance of one party rule in China.”

This explains, according to CSIS, why Chinese officials “seek to influence foreign reporting of sensitive issues.”

Yet another high-level national security record reviewed by The Bureau apparently points to such a case. 

The January 2022 Privy Council Office “Special Report” outlines Beijing’s sprawling interference operations against Canadian institutions, communities and individuals, via the United Front Work Department, which has been increasingly funded by President Xi Jinping since 2015, the document says. 

In a section of the report that alleges Beijing “manipulates traditional media” in Canada, it details press conferences held in January 2019 by former Toronto-area Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum, to argue that Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was illegal. 

McCallum, then ambassador to China, was forced to resign after the Conservative opposition condemned his comments.

In the fallout, according to the Privy Council Office report, Canadian intelligence uncovered that several Chinese diplomats in Canada were voicing support for McCallum. 

One of the Chinese Consulate officials “sent information” to an unidentified Canadian media reporter indicating Chinese Canadians have favourable impressions of McCallum, the report says. 

In an interview with The BureauCharles Burton, a Sino-Canadian relations expert and former Canadian diplomat in China, said even before being informed of these intelligence revelations, he felt Meng’s case featured notable coverage. 

“Canadian elite figures that urged Canada to repatriate Meng Wanzhou, did get a lot of play in the Canadian media, and I guess added credibility to the Chinese arguments,” Burton said. 

Like Victor Ho, Burton believes Beijing’s control of media outlets in Canada is driven by offers of business in Mainland China. 

“People of influence, such as those that have control over editorial policies in newspapers, can have the anticipation of future benefits,” Burton said. 

“And with this sort of PRC cultivation, we already have so many examples of people that were not active in criticizing China in the House of Commons, that seem to get law firm or board opportunities with firms that have relations with China.”

Speaking broadly on this story’s media-interference allegations, Burton said they “are fitting with massively increased funding for [China’s] Ministry of State Security and United Front Work Department clandestine and covert activities in Canada.”

“The fact that the intelligence agencies have information presumably based on interceptions, adds a lot of credibility to what everyone in the Chinese communities already knows,” he added.


This article originally appeared in The Bureau