VANCOUVER—Vancouver’s mayor has rejected parts of a newspaper report suggesting the China’s consulate in the city was looking to groom politicians and use community groups as proxies to interfere in the municipal election last fall.
Ken Sim, who in winning that election became the city’s first Chinese-Canadian mayor, says what he called “insinuations” in the report are racially motivated, and said that people “wouldn’t be having this conversation” if he were a “Caucasian male.”
“I look at the history of our city, and I thought we came a long way,” Sim said Thursday. “And it’s very clear we have a long way to go.”
Sim finds himself in the orbit of a heated national conversation on Chinese interference in this country’s affairs. Advocates say Canada has failed for years to grasp the scope of the issue — one that is only now starting to more fully surface outside the diaspora.
Since last fall, reports of the People’s Republic of China’s interference in Canada’s democratic processes have been making headlines. Pressure has ramped up within the past month, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week naming a special a “special rapporteur” Wednesday to look into the issue, a move many say doesn’t go far enough.
The next day, the Globe and Mail published an article based on Canadian Security and Intelligence Service documents alleging China’s consulate in Vancouver interfered with last fall’s municipal election.
The story said Tong Xiaoling, then China’s consul general in Vancouver, talked about “grooming” candidates for positions in senior governments to push the Beijing’s agenda in Canada. It said community groups in the Chinese diaspora were used in efforts to elect Beijing-friendly candidates to city council.
Sim, for his part, told reporters he’s not aware of any foreign interference in the 2022 municipal election.
Last year, CSIS had briefed then-mayor Kennedy Stewart and other municipal politicians in the area on information that had led the spy agency to believe China planned to interfere in the campaign. Stewart went public with the fact he’d been briefed and was accused of promoting conspiracy theories.
Mabel Tung of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement said China’s consulate in the city has long looked to cultivate relationships with people they believe would be sympathetic to the PRC’s interests and convince them to run for office.
“They’ve been doing it for a long, long time and nobody really paid attention, and nobody really discussed it,” she said. “Every election, no matter if it’s municipal, provincial or federal, you see a lot of new faces trying to work into each campaign.”
Often community groups play a role in such efforts, she said, by holding events for politicians and help with fundraising for candidates. Some people will vote for a candidate if they are endorsed by a community group, while others may simply vote for someone if they are the same race, Tung said.
“I see half and half,” she said, “some people really want to have a Chinese mayor no matter who they are.”
During the last election, there was chatter on WeChat to vote for Sim because he is of Chinese descent. Stewart, then running for reelection, was a vocal critic of China; he lost by more than 35,000 votes in a campaign largely fought on crime and street-disorder issues.
Stewart told the Globe and Mail that invitations to Chinese community-group events dried up as his time in office went on. Tung said there are many such groups serving the interests of Beijing, despite many Chinese Canadians opposing that regime.
That such activities have trucked along without any major pushback has not been surprising, said Andy Yan, the director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program. He said the situation shows the stewards of the country’s institutions, including government and media, haven’t kept up with a changing world that has become more transnational.
“It’s the failures of institutions to change, reflect and serve the wondrously diverse communities we’ve become,” Yan said. “It shows you the limits of our institutions in understanding the global society that has emerged in Canada.”
In response to Sim’s accusation of racial motivations, Yan said a nuanced discussion is needed.
“We really do need to have this conversation, as local elections in the city of Vancouver are swept by these intrigues of international geopolitics,” Yan said. “And to build a seawall that is informed, but not trapped, by this history of racism in Canada but committed to our protection of liberal democracy and the freedoms of all Canadians.”
Yan was himself accused of racism in 2015 when he released a report about foreign buyers and their influence on Canada’s real estate market. He said the fear of such accusations have sometimes been used to the advantage of the Chinese Communist Party.
More broadly, he said, such accusations deter those in Canada’s institutions from raising the issue of interference from China’s government.
“To hear cries of racism to silence the challenge of power is almost a uniquely Canadian situation,” he said. “It’s such a slap in the face for those that have been facing oppression or facing marginalization because it’s using the accusation of racism just to shut down the questioning of power.”
Beijing has repeatedly slammed Canada and its media. Canada should “stop sensationalizing and hyping the matter and stop attacks and smears on China,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily briefing last week.
A Vancouver city councillor named in the Globe and Mail report, Lenny Zhou, said he is in full support of a public inquiry, rather than just a special rapporteur, into concerns of foreign interference in elections at all levels of government in Canada.
Zhou said assertions in the article that he is pro-Beijing are false and not in keeping with his beliefs.
“This is the place where I have built a life for myself and am now raising a family,” he said. “I believe in free speech and I believe in democracy.”