Emergency Dispatch: The China File
Whoo boy, it's only Wednesday
No, it is not yet the end of the week. But given the revelations of recent days, we decided to release this emergency mid-week dispatch to go over everything we know to date about stories of Chinese interference into our political processes.
As better reporters than ourselves continue to offer a steady drip of astonishing stories and amazing leaks from within our security apparatus — the likes of which neither of your Line editors have ever seen — we thought we would try to summarize the story to date, and provide some insight into the things we’re watching and the questions these stories are raising.
We either do it now, or our regular Friday dispatch would be a monster. So, enjoy.
We have always maintained that whatever our policy differences — and they are many — with the federal Liberals, we admire their political skill. They're good at this. They've seemed less good of late — The Line has written many times in recent months of how the wheels seem to be coming off the LPC bus. In almost every case, we've said so not because we disagreed with a policy position, but because we were surprised to see them screwing up the politics.
On Tuesday, the PM reminded us that he's good at politics. He gave a dazzling display. This time, though, we don't think it'll work for him.
The PM was in Mississauga, a Toronto suburb, with Ontario Premier Doug Ford. They were there for a jobs announcement, but when the press had a chance, the PM was asked about the reports of Chinese election interference. In particular, he was asked about the bombshell from Friday, in which Global News reported that during the 2019 election, CSIS officials had warned the Liberals that one of their GTA candidates, Han Dong, might have been compromised by Chinese intelligence operations. In fact, Global says, "Sources say the service also believes Dong is a witting affiliate in China’s election interference networks." A witting affiliate!
From the Global report:
The service relied on surveillance and wiretap evidence as well as human-source reporting, sources said.
In late September, about 48 hours before the federal election nomination deadline, CSIS urged Trudeau’s team to rescind Dong’s candidacy, a national security official said.
Sources alleged that Dong frequently called Chinese officials in Ontario and “was considered a close friend of the Toronto Consulate.”
CSIS was also allegedly concerned about the Liberal Party’s nomination process. Among other irregularities observed in the September 2019 contest, sources say, was that Chinese international students with fake addresses were allegedly bussed into the riding and coerced to vote in Dong’s favour.
We stress that these are allegations, and The Line has not seen the documents nor spoken with Global's sources. (Hey, CSIS folks! Hit us up!) We can't comment on the veracity of any of it, and we also note that Dong has denied the allegations.
These are serious and specific charges, though, from a credible news outlet, and they deserve a serious reply. They also generally align with other reports produced by Robert Fife and Steven Chase, of the Globe and Mail — two terrific reporters also working for a reputable outlet.
“Let me also be very clear to a really important point that I think some folks are choosing to overlook in a free democracy,” Trudeau said. “It is not up to unelected security officials to dictate to political parties who can or cannot run. That’s a really important principle.”
That, friends, is a classic Trudeau quip. He gave it in his best mature statesman tone. It was another able performance from a reasonably skilled amateur actor.
The problem, of course, is that it's a non sequitur. The comment had no connection to the question being asked, because no one is saying that unelected security officials should dictate anything about our democracy. The idea is bonkers. Recall again what Global said in its report, quoted above: "CSIS urged Trudeau's team."
Well, yeah. That's their job. They collect intelligence and provide analysis and advice to civilian leaders. If Global's reporting is accurate, CSIS was literally doing what it is supposed to do. If our intelligence and security officials were convinced there was a threat to Canada and they didn’t “urge” our leaders to do something about it, we’d want the lot fired.
For a moment, let’s give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps CSIS, though acting honestly and in line with its mandate, didn't quite have the goods. Perhaps the PM and other senior Liberals looked at what CSIS brought them, considered it very carefully, and decided they didn't think the case was made. If that happened, Trudeau could have said this week: “We examined the evidence brought forward by CSIS and did not find it compelling enough to rescind Mr. Dong’s nomination.” This would have been an entirely reasonable response — except it would have required Trudeau to admit that he has been lying for months about receiving information from CSIS about election interference from China. So, oops!
Having potentially backed himself into a corner, instead of a clear answer to a clear question, what we got was neither fish nor fowl, neither a denial of receiving said intelligence, nor a straightforward answer about what Liberals chose to do with it. Instead, Trudeau opted for a deflection that included not just a lot of dark insinuation about “unelected” national security officials trying to subvert democracy, but also a lot of chatter about how this all seems to have been motivated by anti-Asian racism.
And let’s also be clear: this deflection has worked. Most of us are spending much more time parsing how Trudeau responded than we are noting that he didn’t answer the question about whether or not CSIS briefed him and his team about Dong’s connections to China, if any.
So yes, Mr. Trudeau. You're quite right. It's not up to unelected security officials to make these calls. In 2019, it was entirely up to you. And the more you and your colleagues try to muddy the waters when asked direct questions, the more we wonder what you're afraid to talk about.
Further to the above, Trudeau’s deflection did prompt more revelations, however. First there was yet another bombshell — been using that word a lot — from the Globe. On Tuesday, the paper cited an unnamed national security source who said that a Chinese billionaire named Zhang Bin was directed to donate $1 million to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation ahead of the 2015 election in which Trudeau won.
Now, we already know that the Trudeau Foundation found itself flush with cash in line with Trudeau Jr. improving political prospects, although Trudeau himself stepped back from the foundation as his ascension to the prime ministership became imminent.
The money shot from the Globe story was this: “The source said the diplomat instructed Mr. Zhang to donate $1-million to the Trudeau Foundation, and told him the Chinese government would reimburse him for the entire amount.”
Seven months later, Trudeau did come to power and, according to the Globe, that same Zhang attended a Liberal fundraiser that honoured the newly minted prime minister. Weeks after that, Zhang and another businessman named Niu Gensheng did donate $1 million in honour of Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who is still widely admired in China for opening relations with Canada during the 1970s.
From the Globe:
“Of the $1-million, $200,000 went to the Trudeau Foundation, which provides scholarships, academic fellowships and leadership programs. Another $50,000 went to pay for a statue of the elder Mr. Trudeau, and $750,000 went to the University of Montreal’s faculty of law to fund scholarships.”
If true — and we stress the “if” — what we have here is a pretty direct attempt by the Chinese government to launder cash into the Trudeau family’s charitable foundation, presumably in order to curry good relations with the new Canadian prime minister. The fact that this is all seen as some kind of continuation of a dynastic tradition just adds a touch of Daddy Issue creepiness to the vibe.
To that end, here’s another little tidbit from last year in the Globe: in 2016, a Chinese-owned publishing company republished a Chinese translation of Trudeau’s memoir, Common Ground, under the title The Legend Continues. The legend, of course, being that of the Trudeau familial legacy of strong and deepening ties with China.
To be clear, we don’t think that there’s any evidence to date to suggest that Trudeau has been directly compromised by the Chinese government. Many of these news bits come from an era in which most liberal democracies, including Canada under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, saw China as the future; many nations were trying to strengthen ties with the country. This was before reports of genocide were widespread, and before the dictatorial usurping of power by current Chinese president Xi Jinping. The shift in consciousness on the China file has been comparatively swift — although not swift enough in some quarters.
Let’s recap: We have a lingering emotional attachment to Papa Trudeau’s geopolitical legacy. Add in strong and deep economic and political attachments to China between Liberals and those in their broader sphere of influence. Not for nothing did so many names pen a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to release Meng Wanzhou during the Two Michaels disaster.
What this adds up to is a sense that a lot of Ottawa establishment types in and around the Liberal party and government milieu are perhaps just slightly too cozy with a China that is growing increasingly authoritarian and unhinged. It all starts to look a lot like “elite capture,” as our friend Terry Glavin put it in his recent post, and that does help explain lingering Canadian elite reluctance to honestly confront the reality of a China that has proven willing to kidnap our citizens and engage in a hell of a lot of hostile diplomacy a la the Two Michaels drama and the economic measures taken against us during the Meng Wanzhou affair.
Oh. Don’t forget the spy balloons!
So we can understand why an already embattled prime minister might be unwilling to court another standoff with the emerging superpower. We can even empathize with a desire to restore more normal diplomatic relations with China given the events of recent years. We can also anticipate why there is a sort of automatic skepticism among anything that has the opposition parties worried. That’s an inevitable fate for a government that’s been in office for a while. Perspective gets lost.
The question we have is this. Does all of this explain why the PM may have lied about the degree and extent to which his own security apparatus had briefed him about just how compromised the upper echelons of our political sphere had become? And, perhaps, then carried on that lie for some months — even going so far as to undermine said security apparatus in order to keep the appearance of peace amid those broader diplomatic efforts?
Because there aren’t many ways to reconcile the statements here. The Globe and Global News are both reporting, with growing specificity and detail, what CSIS was worried about, and what it warned the Liberals about. The PM, for his part, claims he was not warned. Is Global wrong? Is the Globe wrong? Will the PM eventually claim, hey, maybe they briefed some members of my team, but I myself was never part of any briefings?
We don’t know. We do know the PM’s straight-up denials are seeming less and less credible, and responding with non sequiturs about “unelected security officials” isn’t boosting his credibility.
With all of the above swirling around, right on cue, like the Kool-Aid Man barging through the wall in response to the thirsty cries from some summer-spent kids, comes the Rosenberg Report, riding to the rescue of a government drowning in allegations that it was effectively put in place by Beijing machinations.
So we’re up to speed: Leading up to the 2019 federal election, there was growing concern over foreign interference in democratic countries — largely but not exclusively over concerns that Russia had meddled in American politics to Donald Trump’s benefit in 2016. Against that backdrop, Ottawa established a mechanism to permit public warnings if significant interference was detected. The mechanism is called SITE — the “Security and Intelligence Threats to Election Task Force,” made up of members from CSIS, CSE, the RCMP and the “Rapid Response Mechanism” at Global Affairs, established to serve the G7. The SITE panel in turn reports to a group of five deputy ministers, who would then decide whether any purported interference met the threshold for a public warning. In 2021, amidst growing concerns about malevolent domestic actors, SITE’s remit was expanded to include domestic interference in a free and fair election.
As part of this new protocol, after each election someone is tasked with issuing a report on the protocol, its “implementation and its effectiveness in addressing threats” to the election. The first report after 2019 was written by former CSIS director Jim Judd. Until last night, we had been awaiting the 2021 report being written by the respected Ottawa mandarin Morris Rosenberg.
The imminent filing of Rosenberg’s report has been used by the government (and others) as a way of deflecting calls for a judicial inquiry into the steady drip drip of allegations (discussed above) that the Chinese government has been working for years to elect Beijing-friendly MPs in Ottawa, almost entirely to the benefit of the Liberals. And last night during dinner, it finally appeared on a government website.
For some observers, the Rosenberg report is the exact opposite of a smoking gun. As national security expert Wesley Wark put it in a newsletter he released today, Rosenberg makes it clear that during the 2021 election, the panel — that is, the five deputy ministers — did not find that interference constituted a threat that impacted on a free and fair election in 2021. As Wark goes on to say: “That’s the headline.” He then goes on to take some shots at what he sees as the overheated rantings of journalists.
We’re big fans of Wesley Wark here at The Line, but we don’t agree with him on this. Far from putting to bed concerns about foreign interference in 2021 (and 2019), we think the Rosenberg report does absolutely nothing of the sort.
For starters, it’s not news that the panel didn’t find any interference that rose to the level of a threat to a free and fair election. If it had, we would have heard about it during the election. That’s the whole point of the protocol! On this score, Rosenberg isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know.
In our view, the Rosenberg report is more or less completely irrelevant to the issues that the Globe and Global have been reporting on. Rosenberg’s report is not a review of the extent and reach and impact of foreign interference during the last election, it's a review of how the protocol worked. It's a report by a bureaucrat, for bureaucrats. And to that end, Rosenberg makes a number of useful recommendations for how the protocol might be improved, the most useful ones having to do with better public communications in the lead up to an election. All well and good. But anyone who suggests that this report negates the need for a proper inquiry into just what the hell is going on with Chinese meddling in Canada’s elections is, in our opinion, missing the point.
One more point we’d add: while we don’t question Rosenberg’s credentials or his credibility, given the reports that have emerged this week, can we all agree that it’s decidedly suboptimal that the Liberal hivemind is so insular that Rosenberg was president and CEO of the Trudeau Foundation when it cashed that $200,000 cheque from Zhang et al? Even if he is a totally stand-up guy, which we in no way dispute, this obviously raises questions about how disinterested anything he writes about Chinese interference can be perceived to be. We accept that this is just a fluke of timing, and bad optics. But it’s really bad optics.
Can we maybe go a bit further afield when searching for our next able bureaucrat, please? We can’t be facing a shortage of them.
The above covers our main thoughts, but there are a few little short ones we wanted to add before we sign off.
First, something The Line’s editors have noticed and had previously discussed among themselves is how openly and freely senior national security types are communicating these days. The Globe and Global News are clearly benefitting from sources inside CSIS. The Line itself has benefitted from sources inside National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces speaking candidly (and privately, as you’d imagine) with us. Even in terms of on-the-record interviews, we are seeing a lot more openness among security and military leadership about the challenges Canada is facing.
This is really unusual. We can’t stress this enough. Something has changed these last few years.
To be blunt? We think the best conclusion is simply that those in the know in Ottawa, those tasked with securing and defending our nation, are worried. And they’re getting less and less shy about saying so, privately or publicly.
We should probably reflect on that, no?
Another point: Remember all the way back in 2021 when the Liberals were found in contempt of parliament because they refused to provide unredacted papers to security-cleared House of Commons Committee that detailed the firing of “Canada’s top infectious disease lab in Winnipeg, amid concerns over their ties with Chinese military research.”
That issue went all the way to court, and was stalled out only when the Liberals conveniently declared the 2021 election — the one that sent all the parties back to Commons with the same number of seats they had before. We never received much resolution on that file; the details of the firing remain hidden from public view. It’s one of those scandals that just got lost to the fog of events.
Perhaps worth recalling it now, eh?
Something else we should keep an eye on? Reports that Conservatives say they took live reports of Chinese interference to the appropriate, Liberal-created oversight authorities during the 2021 election and were roundly ignored. Given everything else above, this is not a good look.
Look, we at The Line understand that this story is rapidly evolving. It’s why we wanted to bash out this dispatch on Wednesday. We expect the next few days will bring more waves of data to examine and parse.
For the moment, we would like to rise above the partisan mire. A lot of people and pundits are going to be fixated on the political implications of these stories: Is the prime minister lying? When did he know what? Why is he acting that way, etc. etc. We, obviously, are not above enjoying a good, meaty, drippy scandal. We get it. We are wondering these things, too
But let’s look beyond Trudeau. We come away from this story with three major questions:
Somewhat buried in the story published by the Globe on Feb. 17 is this line: “The CSIS report from Dec. 20, 2021 says, political campaigns quietly, and illegally, return part of the contribution — “the difference between the original donation and the government’s refund” — back to the donors.” If true, that means Canadian citizens working for Canadian political parties are laundering cash at China’s behest. This is illegal. It’s a crime. Is anyone actually being investigated?
Above and beyond the criminal or national security apparatus, do we have a political or bureaucratic process to examine and report on reports of foreign interference in an unbiased and non-partisan way? At the moment, the answer to that question is coming up “No,” and we think that’s a problem. Foreign interference is bad regardless of which party it is helping.
Lastly, did credible allegations of Chinese interference in our political sphere contribute to our exclusion from the “Three Eyes” security and defence alliance? We were once considered a useful partner on the global intelligence front, But if our allies can’t actually trust us, that’s a pretty significant problem. Exclusion from this deal presents significant costs to Canadians, both in terms of intelligence sharing and defence opportunities. Trudeau has brushed off our exclusion as saying it was because Canada isn’t interested in nuclear-powered submarines. Okay. Maybe! But was that all? Have our allies decided that they can’t share the really juicy stuff with us?
As more stories about China continue to leak out of our national security establishment, we expect this question will become an increasingly public discussion. Anyway, that’s all we have to note about this file for today. Come back on Friday for whatever we can talk about then.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org