MPs say Chinese officials have tried to dissuade them from meeting rights activists
21 August 2020
Canadian MPs on the House of Commons foreign affairs committee were told during a fact-finding visit to Hong Kong in late 2017 that Chinese authorities did not want them meeting with leading figures from the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony, several say.
And in early 2019, according to Linda Duncan, who was an NDP MP for Edmonton-Strathcona at the time, her office was contacted by the Chinese embassy in Canada advising her not to proceed with plans to meet with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people who has lived in exile since fleeing his homeland in 1959 during an uprising against China’s rule.
“It was completely inappropriate and none of their bloody business,” Ms. Duncan said.
Members of Parliament are coming forward to speak about efforts by the Chinese government and their proxies to influence their work. Recent hearings by the special House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations have shone a spotlight on efforts by Beijing to shape public opinion in Canada.
As Amnesty International and Canadian rights groups said in a report released in May, Chinese government officials and supporters of the Communist Party of China are increasingly resorting to “threats, bullying and harassment” to intimidate and silence activists in Canada, including those raising concerns about democracy and civil rights in Hong Kong and Beijing’s mistreatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners.
The Globe and Mail spoke to several MPs who were part of a briefing for members of the foreign affairs committee at the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong in late November, 2017. They had stopped in Hong Kong during an Asian tour on which they had visited Beijing earlier.
During the meeting with Canadian diplomats, MPs were informed that Chinese authorities had made it clear they did not want the MPs meeting with leading pro-democracy figures such as Joshua Wong or Anson Chan.
In 2017, Hong Kong was not yet under the influence of a new national security law imposed by Beijing in the summer of 2020. And the Western-style freedoms left over from its British colonial past were supposed to be intact, including freedom of association, freedom of speech and of expression under a treaty China signed with Britain in 1984.
The Globe spoke to Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, former Liberal MP Robert Nault and Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, who were all part of the visit. Former NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who also took part in the trip, declined to comment but corroborated the other MPs’ account of what happened.
This was not merely a briefing where Canadian officials predicted that authorities in Beijing or Hong Kong might be upset by such meetings. Instead, “it was a message relayed,” Mr. Genuis said.
“In fairness to the [Canadian] officials, they were not telling us what to do or what not to do. But basically advising that there’d been a caution from Beijing,” Mr. O’Toole recalled.
“They said meeting with some of these people will cause friction. It’s clear they don’t want you meeting with some of those people.”
Mr. Nault said he heard similar advice. “I can’t recall the precise language ... but it seemed to me that they were basically saying, ‘Just so you know, we were told to tell you they would not be happy – so we’re telling you,‘ ” he said.
Mr. Nault said he didn’t regard this message as putting pressure on MPs.
“I don’t see it as interference if people are being transparent about their likes and dislikes. If someone was coming to Canada I would like our people to tell them here’s what we expect of your visit. You don’t want the de Gaulle incident,” Mr. Nault said, referring to how French president Charles de Gaulle appeared to support independence for Quebec by saying “Vive le Québec libre!” during a 1967 visit to Montreal.
Mr. Genuis ignored the caution and went to meet with a number of leading pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, including Mr. Wong, Ms. Chan and Apple Daily newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai. He said the Chinese government’s effort to influence the behaviour of Canadian MPs is reprehensible.
He said what troubles him even more is the thought that there may be many other stories of efforts by China to guide the conduct of Canadian MPs or senators that have not been made public.
Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve said Canadians should push back against what he describes as “further evidence of how unrelenting and extensive” efforts are by the Chinese government and its allies to silence discussion of abuses of human rights in China.
Mr. Nault recalled Chinese government officials lecturing Mr. Genuis at length in Beijing after the MP asked questions about human-rights abuses in China. He said this dressing-down from Chinese representatives lasted through the end of one meeting and then continued on through dinner. “It had to be at least 45 minutes.”
Liberal MP Michael Levitt, who was also on the foreign affairs committee’s 2017 trip, said he did not recall this specific part of the consulate briefing but said he did not want to contradict his former colleagues. “I don’t have a clear memory of that one way or another.”
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not immediately respond to request for comment regarding the 2017 Hong Kong trip or Ms. Duncan’s 2019 trip to meet the Dalai Lama.
Ms. Duncan, who did not seek re-election in the 2019 federal election, said she travelled to northern India in March, 2019, as the guest of the Central Tibetan Administration, also known as the Tibetan government in exile. China took control of Tibet in 1950. Last year was the 60th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.
While she was in transit to India, her Ottawa office was contacted by the Chinese embassy. “They suggested I should not be going to meet with the Dalai Lama,” she said.
Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney said the call to Ms. Duncan “was an appalling example of interference.”