The Canadian government has alleged it was “highly probable” that China played a role in an online campaign targeting one of the country’s opposition lawmakers, as tensions persist over questions of foreign political interference.
In a statement on Wednesday, Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign affairs ministry, said its Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) had detected “an information operation” targeting Conservative Party legislator Michael Chong in May.
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The operation was detected on WeChat, a messaging platform popular in China. But the ministry’s statement stopped short of accusing China outright.
“An analysis by the RRM to determine the possibility of state involvement revealed that, while China’s role in the information operation is highly probable, unequivocal proof that China ordered and directed the operation is not possible to determine due to the covert nature of how social media networks are leveraged in this type of information campaign,” the ministry said.
In early May, Canada expelled diplomat Zhao Wei after accusing him of being involved in a campaign to intimidate Chong, who has been an outspoken critic of Chinese government policies.
“I have been clear: We will not tolerate any form of foreign interference in our internal affairs. Diplomats in Canada have been warned that if they engage in this type of behaviour, they will be sent home,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said on May 8.
The Chinese government rejected allegations that it interfered in Canada’s internal affairs, saying at the time that it had “no interest whatsoever in doing so”. The Chinese embassy in Ottawa also condemned the expulsion of its diplomat.
The international spat came after The Globe and Mail, citing a classified report from Canada’s spy agency, published a story that said China had sought information about relatives of an unnamed Canadian legislator “who may be located” within its borders.
The Canadian newspaper said the move was part of a likely effort to “make an example of this MP and deter others” from taking anti-China positions. A national security source in the article identified the targeted legislator as Chong.
The Canadian lawmaker had been sanctioned by China in 2021 after he spearheaded a parliamentary motion condemning Beijing’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority as a “genocide” — a charge rejected by the Chinese government for years.
The accusations of Chinese interference in Canada’s internal affairs have led to renewed tensions between Ottawa and Beijing.
The two countries have had frosty relations for years over a range of issues, including human rights, trade and the arrests of Canadian and Chinese citizens.
In Wednesday’s statement, the Canadian foreign affairs ministry said “information operation” on WeChat between May 4 and 13 involved “a coordinated network” of accounts that shared and amplified “a large volume of false or misleading narratives about Mr Chong”.
“Most of the activity was targeted at spreading false narratives about his identity, including commentary and claims about his background, political stances and family’s heritage,” said the department.
While the ministry said that nothing observed on WeChat represented a threat to Chong or his family, it said it would raise its “serious concerns” with China’s representatives in Canada.
“We will also convey that it is completely unacceptable to directly or indirectly support information operations that target parliamentarians, their families or any Canadians,” the statement said.