National Post (National Edition)

China sabotaged my campaign: ex-MP

Disinforma­tion `spread like a cancer' during election campaign


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.

The 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 government, 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.

But there was evidence that China's focus turned during the election to the Conservati­ves, whose platform outlined a multiprong­ed 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 who consume 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.

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 the Vancouver East riding.

New Democrat Jenny Kwan still managed to win the seat handily, however.

 ?? JASON PAYNE/ POSTMEDIA ?? Defeated Conservati­ve candidates Kenny Chiu (above) in Steveston-Richmond, B.C.,
Alice Wong in Richmond, B.C., and Bob Saroya in Markham-Unionville, Ont.
JASON PAYNE/ POSTMEDIA Defeated Conservati­ve candidates Kenny Chiu (above) in Steveston-Richmond, B.C., Alice Wong in Richmond, B.C., and Bob Saroya in Markham-Unionville, Ont.

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