Are Canada’s local politicians a target for Beijing’s global PR machine?
VANCOUVER—Back in March, as elected officials around the world were accusing the Chinese government of covering up the early spread of the coronavirus, at least one politician in small-town British Columbia was praising Beijing’s handling of the pandemic instead.
“China was ultimately, I think, successful in containing the virus,” Al Richmond, former chair of the Cariboo Regional District in B.C.’s Interior, told the Xinhua news agency.
In a short video, he explained why Ottawa had a lot to learn from Beijing: “The folks I know in China, my friends, are more accepting of (the) government’s recommendation to stay home,” he said.
It seems a small endorsement — the kind of thing that would not make headlines in this country. Many might have agreed with his sentiment.
But China’s premier state-run news outlet extensively promoted Richmond’s remarks on its international social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter — platforms that are banned inside China.
This wasn’t the first time Chinese state media had quoted Richmond. Last June, amid tensions over the arrest of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou and China’s detention of two Canadian citizens in apparent retaliation, Xinhua ran the headline: “Canadian small Internet suppliers like to use Huawei technology: local official.”
The article related that Richmond supported a deal for Huawei Canada to fund a trial project to install equipment to bring high-speed internet to the small, remote town of Lac La Hache in the Cariboo region.
He told Xinhua, “Anything we can do to move forward, to safely move forward with high speed broadband access to rural Canada will be good for the economy and good helping (sic) for the people.”
In a conversation with the Star, Richmond expressed surprise that Xinhua shared his comments on COVID-19 so widely and portrayed him as someone prominent in Canada. He said the news agency “sought him out” during his visit to Vancouver.
He also said his comments on Huawei last year were about basic internet access, and that he does not have a position on whether the use of Huawei technology in 5G networks would pose a cybersecurity risk.
Richmond confirmed, however, that he has worked to establish closer ties with the Chinese government in recent years, “with the goal of facilitating trade, tourism and business connections” for constituents in his mostly rural community.
In the eyes of some, wittingly or not, Richmond had been pulled into the international public relations and influence machine that is China’s state-controlled press.
His media appearances are the kind of thing that is increasingly prompting experts to issue warnings to Canadian politicians and public figures at all levels. Beijing, they say, is looking for ways big and small to change the global narrative about the regime and to exert its influence.
“Municipal politicians are often the prime target,” said Stephanie Carvin, a professor at Carleton University and former national security analyst for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“They can often make decisions over land use and educational issues, so for foreign governments, in some cases, it’s much easier to try to influence at the municipal level.”
Richmond is just one local politician among thousands across Canada, and there’s no indication of any improper actions on his part.
But Richmond’s experiences underscore the issues at play for untold others across this country.
First elected to the Cariboo Regional District leadership in 1993, Richmond served nine years as chair of the rugged, mountainous area of 80,000 square kilometres that includes the municipalities of Williams Lake, Quesnel, 100 Mile House and Wells.
While the sprawling district has a population of only 62,000, according to the 2016 census, it is rich in resources; key industries include mining, forestry and fishing. It doesn’t have a sizable ethnic Chinese population, but forestry and mining are both industries that depend heavily on the Chinese market.
Richmond has been an influential figure in B.C. politics. He was president of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) from 2015 to 2016. He currently serves as the vice-chair of the Municipal Finance Authority, which has provided billions of dollars in financing to communities and public institutions in the province.
His name has popped up over the years in various functions with connections to China.
As vice-president of the UBCM in 2012, Richmond endorsed the inauguration of what would become a controversial yearly tradition of having the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver host a cocktail party for municipal politicians at their yearly provincial convention.
Beijing was the only foreign government that sponsored the gathering, paying approximately $6,000 each year to host the cocktail receptions, where consulate officials would hobnob with politicians and make speeches.
Mayor Brad West of Port Coquitlam spoke out last autumn against the reception, pointing out that Beijing was currently holding Canadians “hostage” and arguing the UBCM could not in good conscience accept sponsorship from that same government. Later that year, the UBCM voted to adopt a policy that it would no longer allow sponsorship of events by foreign governments.
Richmond told the Star that he still doesn’t see anything wrong with the Chinese Consulate’s sponsored reception. He said he felt that the event was a “useful networking opportunity” for past attendees.
He said the cancellation denies an opportunity for politicians and businesses from more remote areas of B.C. to seek out foreign investment in tourism and other areas at the UBCM convention. This has been challenging for the Cariboo, which is more than a six-hour drive from Vancouver International Airport, he said.
“Our work has been in trying to promote Barkerville as our tourism anchor for our region … it has a rich history as the place many Chinese migrants came during the Cariboo Gold Rush,” he said.
“In the last four years, we’ve had many large delegations come up from the Lower Mainland and … we’re trying to attract more tourists to come from China.”
In a 2016 speech, Chinese Consul General Liu Fei singled out Richmond for thanks in supporting cultural exchanges as an example of “contributions to the friendly interaction and win-win co-operation between China and Canada.”
In 2017, Richmond organized a large trade delegation of B.C. mayors to China. It was funded in part by businessman James Wu of the Canada China City and Town Friendship Association — one of numerous similar organizations around the world that promote closer ties with Beijing and collaborate with government-affiliated associations in China.
The two-week trip that May involved meetings and receptions in areas across the prosperous Chinese province of Guangdong, as well as the cities of Suzhou, Wuhan and Shanghai.
Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay told the Tri-City News that “most meals and activities in China are being sponsored by local governments and trade offices.”
Walt Cobb, the mayor of Williams Lake, told the Williams Lake Tribune the trip for him and his chief administrative officer would cost the city only about $4,400 for flights “and some meals.”
“Our accommodation is being covered and we will be attending several banquets which we won’t have to pay for,” he said.
Richmond told local media outlets at the time that he had also been working closely with Chinese government officials to arrange the delegation.
“The intent of the people we were working with is to build relationships,” he told the Star. “We live in a global economy and need to understand how other people work and play and do business.”
One online Chinese article shows Richmond giving a speech in Vancouver at a February 2017 symposium where controversial political issues such as China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were endorsed by other attendees, according to the event summary.
The veteran municipal-level politician said many of the economic, cultural and educational exchanges he’s supported in the past have stalled as relations have deteriorated.
“A lot has shifted in the (Canada-China relationship) in the last two years, which senior levels of government are working on, so it’s beyond my ability to comment,” Richmond said.
However, he argued that both sides seem to have more negative perceptions of the other country than is perhaps necessary.
“When I was over (in China) touring, I never felt pressure from a Chinese government official at all,” he said.
On the plight of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have spent more than 18 months in Chinese prisons and now face espionage charges, which are widely seen as retribution for Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, Richmond said: “I think Canadians are safe in China … If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, that does happen. But generally, it’s safe.”
When it comes to human rights abuses in China and abuse of the rule of law which can affect Canadians, Richmond reiterated that it was all out of his purview.
“I don’t have the ability to change, amend or do anything about (bilateral relations).”
How one sees the efforts of someone like Richmond — either as an envoy striving to build connections, or as a Canadian politician pronouncing favourably upon China and its government — very much depends on who is watching.
That, say experts, is part of the problem.
Carvin said politicians at all levels should be briefed when they take office about speaking with foreign media organizations or attending events hosted by foreign governments. It’s part of what she said should be wider training on clandestine foreign influence and espionage activities, which can include targeting individual politicians as well as the spread of misinformation online to manipulate public opinion in Canada.
Carvin said that while in this country Richmond, for instance, may see himself and be seen as a local politician focused on helping his own community, in China, municipal leaders often rise to positions of national power.
“In the best-case scenario, your comments are going to be used in propaganda. That doesn’t violate any laws, because there is free speech in Canada, but if, say, you give an interview to an Iranian TV station, for example, that could bolster the regime in the eyes of many viewers,” she said.
A Vancouver city councillor told the Star he had to learn this the hard way.
“I’ve attended events organized by Chinese government officials and see how they later manipulate the messaging to go hard on a nationalistic framing of the people attending their event and implying things that weren’t perhaps expressed by the attendees,” said Pete Fry, who has served as a councillor since 2018.
Complicating matters, said Fry, is that it is part of municipal politicians’ jobs to attend cultural and “quasi-diplomatic” events — particularly in a city such as Vancouver, which hosts more than 80 foreign consulates.
Stewart Prest, a political science lecturer at Simon Fraser University, said there’s a long-standing assumption among municipal-level politicians that doesn’t suit the complexity of modern times.
“They see their role in relation to foreign countries as purely economic, where they can leave political concerns to more senior levels of government,” Prest told the Star.
“There’s typically nothing illegal going on; it’s more naiveté on the part of Canadian politicians and not understanding the stakes involved in terms of broad-spectrum diplomatic efforts to extend influence in every area,” Prest said.
At a time of high diplomatic tensions, Prest said politicians can’t afford to assume any level of government is below notice.
“All have to be aware that this is a time where we have multiple powers around the world vying for their interests, and the Chinese state is at the forefront of manoeuvring to advance their political agendas abroad,” he said.
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Then there are those who worry that Beijing is doing more than PR work — that it is trying to influence and interfere with other countries.
A comprehensive report published in June by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank founded by the Australian government and partly funded by the country’s Defence Department, mapped out the structures, methods and effects of what it calls China’s global foreign interference system and the activities of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department.
“Diplomats might see United Front work as ‘public diplomacy’ or ‘propaganda’ but fail to appreciate the extent of related covert activities,” according to the report.
“Security officials may be alert to criminal activity or espionage while underestimating the significance of open activities that facilitate it. Analysts risk overlooking the interrelated facets of (Chinese Communist Party) influence that combine to make it effective.”
By using techniques such as political donations, offering paid trips to China and showering them with flattery, the United Front can seek to co-opt international politicians, too.
Canada should carry out detailed studies of United Front work across the country as well as in specific sectors, and communicate findings to the public to promote general understanding, the report’s author, Alex Joske, told the Star.
When the Star asked Richmond whether he was aware of details of Beijing’s foreign influence strategies, he said he found it difficult to make sense of the facts amid a highly charged political atmosphere.
“I certainly don’t have all the insights and historical context, and it would be nice to be better informed about it,” he said.
In 2016, when Richmond was chair of the Cariboo district, he attended a ceremony in Barkerville, a town at the centre of the 19th-century Cariboo Gold Rush, where he accepted donations totalling $100,000 from the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations (CACA) for the repair of a cemetery containing remains of people of Chinese descent.
CACA is a group of more than 100 organizations committed to strengthening Chinese-Canadian ties. As a Star investigation found in 2018, the alliance appears to have very close ties with the Chinese government.
The CACA website states that its leading representatives have met multiple times in the last decade with senior staff of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, a Chinese government body, according to activity reports translated by the Star.
Joint meetings between the alliance and members of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office are still listed as part of the alliance’s charter on its website.
Richmond told the Star he did not know about the group’s connections with the Chinese Communist Party.
In February 2017, he was among several Canadian politicians who attended a Lunar New Year celebration and symposium involving CACA, other Canada-China “friendship” associations and senior members of the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver.
Some of the other politicians present, according to event photographs and an event summary on the CACA website, included Burnaby city councillor James Wang and John Yap, a member of the B.C. legislature.
Richmond was pictured giving a speech with the help of an English-Chinese translator. He told the Star he attended the event to promote tourism to the Cariboo region, and wasn’t aware of any political discussions at the gathering, which was mostly conducted in Chinese.
The summary of the event by CACA, which included Richmond’s photograph, included a statement supporting Beijing’s controversial territorial claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea.
It also said the “joint conference” was meant to “initiate a series of activities to support and encourage the participation of Chinese in politics and elections during federal elections and provincial and municipal elections; and to support and encourage outstanding talents in the joint committee to … become active candidates in Canadian elections.”
A year later, during the run-up to B.C. municipal elections of November 2018, the RCMP opened an investigation into allegations of vote-buying in support of candidates of Chinese descent by the city of Richmond, B.C.-based Wenzhou Friendship Society, which is a member of CACA. The RCMP later said it had found no evidence that merited a criminal charge and urged anyone who felt they had been a victim to come forward.
John Townsend, the head of media relations for Canada’s domestic spy agency, CSIS, told the Star that not only politicians but all Canadian residents should be vigilant and educate themselves about what foreign influence looks like.
The scope of such activities can be broad, including state-sponsored media, hacking and traditional espionage, with the aim of interfering with the Canadian public and democratic institutions and processes, according to CSIS public reports.
“Foreign powers have attempted to engage in foreign influence and espionage activities in order to fulfil their own strategic and economic objectives … This is not new,” Townsend said.
“CSIS routinely engages with a variety of stakeholders including other levels of government, the private sector and post-secondary institutions to discuss potential threats to the security and interests of Canada,” he added.
While they are still unlikely to break laws, Carvin said politicians must be vigilant about separate incidents adding up to a situation where there could be a negative public perception — whether valid or not — that they’ve come under the influence of a foreign state.
“So you have a trade trip to Beijing, meetings with Chinese officials, and now you’re speaking with pro-China propaganda outlets. Each itself is not a problem, but in aggregate, there might be national security issues to worry about.”
However, she stressed that politicians — like all Canadians — enjoy a high level of freedom of speech and freedom of association, and she would much rather see more public discourse and education rather than the introduction of new laws and punitive measures.
“I think there’s a realization now that we have to have these conversations. And we can do it in a way that is not jumping to immediately ban Xinhua or imposing many new rules about what politicians can do,” she said.
Some countries, such as the U.S. and Australia, have foreign actor registries where media outlets and organizations have to disclose their links with foreign governments.
Canada does not have a foreign actor registry.
In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said the government instead has a “range of tools at its disposal to address the threat of foreign interference.”
“Improving Organizational Readiness was one of the four pillars of the 2019 Plan to Protect Canada’s Democracy … As part of this pillar, the government of Canada offered technical advice, including online security measures and internal security practices, to Canadian political parties and election administrators to help them better protect their own cyber systems; sensitized decision-makers to the nature of foreign interference; and provided classified threat briefings to key political party leadership,” the statement said.
Federal authorities did not provide such briefings to each and every elected official in Canada.
A spokesperson for the B.C. government said security briefings are currently conducted on an assessed “case by case” basis, and are not mandatory for elected officials.
“The briefings have not previously included municipalities, but would be extended to them on request,” he said.
Both Carvin and Prest argue that local-level politicians must not be overlooked.
Without better awareness, Carvin added that she is concerned about knee-jerk racism and xenophobia, too, since it would be wrong to think that every China-focused association has links with the Beijing government and that politicians should therefore steer clear of all of them.
“There is an educational element that needs to be put out there, and the federal government needs to be sharing information with provincial and municipal-level leaders. One of the things I did in the past as an intelligence analyst was that I was flown out to different provinces to brief staff about terror threats.
“I don’t see why this shouldn’t happen for foreign influence issues,” Carvin said.
For his part, Richmond wholeheartedly agrees.
He said he hopes that not all Chinese Canadian groups will become tarnished as politicians become more vigilant about potential foreign influence.
“Some of the people we were working with are Canadians who have been here for decades,” he said. “I don’t see anything untoward in their helping with projects to promote and preserve Chinese culture in Canada.”