Huang and Gao, both originally from Mainland China, are the founders of the 60-member Alliance Guard of Canadian Values. Since 2009, they’ve been trying to get Canadian governments to “be aware, really aware about the influence of the Chinese communist government in Canada,” Huang said.
Gao doesn’t speak much English, so Huang does the talking. Gao sits quietly next to him, checking his phone and waiting for brief translations of what is being said.
Huang says the Canadian political class just doesn’t get it. Instead of pushing for human rights in China, it cozies up to Beijing hoping to boost business. Rather than address the Communist Party of China’s attempts to infiltrate Canadian institutions, Canadian politicians ignore the problem.
Observers say the aftermath, including the detention of two Canadians in China and new restrictions on Canadian canola exports, has opened Canadians’ eyes to the reality of dealing with a totalitarian regime. Huang and Gao hope the sudden high-profile spat will turn the pernicious problem into an election issue.
“We came from China because we don’t like the Communist Party. We want to live in a freedom-of-speech, freedom-of-human-rights country,” said Huang, a former medical doctor and researcher who now works as an education consultant.
Gao, a journalist, has a reputation for taking on powerful and connected people. He was found guilty of defamation for articles he wrote about Vancouver developer Miaofei Pan, alleging he wasn’t paying his taxes.
Pan is the former president of the Canada Wenzhou Friendship Society and worked with the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations. In that capacity, he met with officials from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee of China’s national legislature. Pan also once hosted a Liberal fundraiser at his home, with Justin Trudeau in attendance.
Nearly 300 supporters donated $70,000 to Gao for his legal defence. In the end, the judge awarded Pan only $1 in damages.
The Alliance Guard of Canadian Values also stages protests, including one in 2016 demanding former Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang resign after he participated in a ceremony raising China’s flag over Vancouver city hall.
“We think there’s a need to spread the values of Canada — human rights, freedom of speech — to spread these values in our Chinese community,” Huang said. “Why? Because we noticed the influence more than 10 years ago, the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in Canada.”
Last year, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) issued a report warning China uses influence gained through commercial ventures to push the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda abroad. In 2010, then-CSIS director Richard Fadden suggested in a television interview that numerous public officials in Canada were under the influence of the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, Canadian officials and big business continue to advocate closer trade relations with the country. A 2017 story in The Globe and Mail cited parliamentary records that show MPs and senators have accepted dozens of trips to China, paid for by Chinese business groups and arms of the Chinese government.
On Monday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer demanded Primer Minister Justin Trudeau pull Canada’s funds out of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The Liberal Party of Canada and Conservative Party of Canada did not reveal whether they plan to introduce policies on Canada-China relations during this year’s election. The NDP told the Star it will craft policy.
Huang and Gao said Canada has wasted enough chances to bring in “proper” policy and say the issue can no longer be avoided.
Gao said he himself was a victim of China’s influence in Canada. He once had a substantial presence as a columnist in the local Chinese media but was fired from a newspaper a few year ago after a story critical of a Chinese official. He said his editor cited a complaint from the Chinese consulate in Vancouver. He’s been dropped by a number of other media outlets and suspects similar pressure is to blame.
“We talk about the Chinese government using the Chinese community in Canada to make their goals, not only in business but also on a political level,” Huang said. “Which is more of a threat to our foundation of freedom.”
Australia’s foreign interference law, which makes it a crime to covertly take action to influence policy at the behest of a foreign power, is something Huang wants to see discussed in Canada. He also wants Canada to challenge China on trade the way the United States has, citing a large imbalance between the two nations.
It isn’t just Huang who predicts Canada-China relations will be an election issue.
Nik Nanos, chair of Nanos Research, said Canada’s political parties will need “issue specific” policies on trade, Huawei and 5G development with China during this year’s election.
“Canadians have had a clear indication of what China’s really like, based on how it’s lashed out on the canola file, based on the rhetoric that is put out there related to the detaining of the Huawei executive,” Nanos said. “It’s put more of a real face on how China operates and what they think of Canada.”
Canada-China Policies will be especially important in British Columbia, he said, which is more Pacific oriented both culturally and economically.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that Canadians understand the opportunity and importance of China but at the same time are worried, as a small power negotiating with a super power, any trade deal may not work out well for us,” Nanos said.
Huang warns the push for deepened relations with China — in order to appease some big Canadian business and hopefully win votes from the Chinese community — is misguided. The Chinese community in Canada is not a monolith, and such actions by Canadian politicians do Canada no favours.
“The government, they don’t fully understand,” Huang said. “They know less — just a little bit — about our society, our culture and our political views.”
But expecting Canadian politicians to learn and adjust may not bear fruit, said a leading scholar on China’s political interference in western countries, who just wrapped up a trip to Canada to examine the situation here.
Clive Hamilton is a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, who has been a harsh critic of attempts to influence his own country’s politics.
Hamilton told Star Vancouver his recent trip to Canada left him “quite worried about the capacity of Canada to extricate itself from the unwelcome and undemocratic influence of the Chinese Communist Party.”
He said it’s clear China has been “cultivating” friends in high places and penetrating Canadian institutions for some time. He’s worried agreements could be made by Canada’s biggest political parties to avoid the topic this year.
One party breaking away and making China relations an issue could force other parties to follow suit or risk public backlash, he said.
Hamilton added it’s important parties hammer home they are concerned about the Chinese Communist Party, not China or the Chinese people, who “ought to be welcome” in Canada.
After all, they’re facing the most pressure to support Beijing’s actions.
“Chinese Canadians are the biggest victims of the Communist Party’s influence operations in Canada. They’re the ones who have the most at stake,” he said. “They’re the ones whose families are penalized or whose businesses are shut down if they displease Beijing.”
Jeremy Nuttall is the lead investigative reporter for Star Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports