The newcomer landed in a district of northern Toronto and announced his bid for Canada’s Parliament. Though few knew him, an important factor helped offset his lack of name recognition — the backing of prominent local Chinese-Canadians.
“I’m very happy that I feel very well supported, surrounded by friends,” the candidate, Han Dong, said at a news conference.
But a government-appointed special rapporteur said there was “well-grounded suspicion” Mr. Dong also had help from a hidden source as he vied for the Liberal Party’s nomination: the Chinese Consulate.
Mr. Dong’s victory — eventually propelling him to Parliament in 2019 — is one of several Canadian campaigns that have raised fears about Chinese election interference.
His case is almost certain to be a focus of a long-delayed public inquiry launched in September, just as Canada’s worries over foreign meddling broadened to include India, whose agents Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused of killing a Canadian Sikh leader.
The hearings are scheduled to start in January, focusing on the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Canadian intelligence officials have long warned China is exploiting Canada’s election system by swaying votes in populous suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, which can tip general elections.
In half a dozen cities with large Chinese diasporas, Beijing has increasingly deployed diplomats and proxies to undermine elected officials critical of it, especially on human rights, according to Canadian elected and intelligence officials.
On the flip side, officials say, Beijing and its allies have supported candidates considered friendly. Lawmakers are separately examining whether China interfered in the 2019 election to support 11 candidates in the Toronto area. Most belonged to Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party, according to Canadian news outlets, but only one — Mr. Dong — has been named.
The lawmakers began investigating after an extraordinary series of intelligence reports leaked to Canadian outlets, which reported that the Chinese Consulate funneled money to the 11 campaigns through intermediaries, and that some campaign staffers had consulate ties.
Under President Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy, China has tapped into diasporas worldwide to extend its reach, and interfered in elections in Asia, Canada, the United States and Australia, officials say.
But while nations like Australia have tried to curb Chinese interference, Canada has gone easy on Beijing, critics say. Mr. Trudeau — whose party is strong in districts with ethnic Chinese voters and who has been criticized over fund-raising events in wealthy Chinese-Canadians’ homes — long opposed calls for the public inquiry.
“Civil society organizations like ours have repeatedly been warning our government about the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party’s infiltration, manipulation and intimidation on Canadian soil,” said Gloria Fung, the president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, a private organization focusing on Chinese interference. “Unfortunately, the Canadian government has not taken concrete, effective steps to combat foreign interference.”
China’s embassy, which has consistently denied any interference, did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Trudeau’s office and the ministry that oversees foreign interference declined interview requests. Mr. Dong also declined interview requests, but has publicly denied receiving the Chinese Consulate’s help.
‘They dismiss Chinese interference’
While Mr. Dong campaigned in Don Valley North, a safe Liberal district, he found his most influential backers in Markham, just north of Toronto.
Ethnic Chinese account for nearly half Markham’s 340,000 residents. Chinese businesses dominate its strip malls and avenues. New arrivals from China have surged in recent decades, gaining prominence thanks to their wealth.
The newcomers — who often have relatives in China and depend on consular ties for their businesses — give the Chinese government leverage in local affairs, according to elected officials and activists opposed to China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and its increasing influence in Canada.
Having pro-Beijing positions, or even being supported by Beijing, is not evidence of knowingly accepting support from China. There was no evidence that the 11 candidates in 2019 knew that the consulate or its proxies were helping them, according to The Globe and Mail. The government rapporteur said he had found no evidence Mr. Dong was aware of the consulate’s “potential involvement in his nomination.”
But under Mr. Xi, China has built support for its positions in diaspora communities and interfered in elections, according to intelligence and elected officials and experts.
Markham’s dominant ethnic Chinese business and community groups have aligned with Beijing, including on Hong Kong. Chinese-language news organizations now avoid sensitive issues, journalists say.
“They dismiss Chinese interference as anti-Asian, anti-Chinese racism,” said Joe Tay, a journalist who has worked for several Chinese-language outlets.
Some Markham City Council members have consistently taken positions favorable to Beijing’s interests, current and former officials say. The council has rejected a proposal to create a lobbyist registry, which would have required councilors to disclose whom they meet, as well as a motion that would have prohibited China’s flag from being flown on city property.
Current and former members say the council tipped even more toward China with last year’s election of Deputy Mayor Michael Chan, a veteran of Canadian politics known for his fund-raising prowess in the Chinese-Canadian community.
In 2015, The Globe and Mail revealed that Canada’s top intelligence official had warned the Ontario government that Mr. Chan was too close to Toronto’s Chinese Consulate and under undue influence. Ontario’s premier at the time expressed full confidence in him.
His entrance into local politics surprised many.
“As deputy mayor, Michael Chan is generally doing a good job,” said Reid McAlpine, a councilor who pressed for the lobbyist registry, partly to fight foreign meddling.
“But there is an elephant in the room,” he said. He believed China’s strategy was not to interfere in daily affairs, he said, but “to get the right people in the right place in the long run, just to create a more general influence and that you’ve got allies in place when issues arise.”
Mr. Chan declined to comment.
“There’s no question in my mind, no question, that there has been interference,” said Don Hamilton, a former deputy mayor. He added that, after his unsuccessful run for mayor, he was interviewed by intelligence officials about possible interference.
A well-connected Liberal backer
Mr. Chan was one of Mr. Dong’s most important campaign supporters, but the extent of his involvement is unclear.
In February, Global News reported Mr. Chan was being investigated by Canada’s intelligence agency for providing political information to Chinese diplomats and orchestrating Mr. Dong’s nomination.
Citing intelligence officials, the network said Mr. Chan had used his influence inside the Liberal Party to oust an incumbent — who had angered Chinese diplomats by planning to visit Taiwan.
Canada’s intelligence agency declined to comment on specific cases. But a spokesman, Eric Balsam, said the agency has seen an increase in the “frequency and sophistication” of state-sponsored interference seeking “to covertly influence decisions, events, or election outcomes to better suit their strategic interests.”
Born in China in 1951, Mr. Chan immigrated to Canada in the late 1960s. He owned an insurance business and became active in Markham’s Liberal Party before being elected a provincial lawmaker in 2007 and holding several provincial government positions.
Jack Heath, a former Markham deputy mayor and Liberal veteran, described Mr. Chan as “extremely likable” and “very good at fund-raising.”
But Mr. Chan also has a long history of taking positions his critics call pro-Beijing, including defending China’s human rights practices and calling for a public inquiry into Canada’s intelligence agency.
In 2019, as the Chinese government deepened its control over Hong Kong amid enormous protests, Mr. Chan made comments siding with Beijing and said he supported “Hong Kong’s police strictly handling unrest.”
That year, he backed Mr. Dong.
Speaking to a room full of Chinese-language journalists, Mr. Dong, himself an immigrant from China, said he had the ability to speak to residents, “whether it’s Mandarin, Cantonese or English.’’
‘Robust’ rules under question
After clinching the Liberal candidacy, Mr. Dong cruised to a general election victory.
A Liberal spokesman said Mr. Dong was nominated according to the party’s “robust” rules.
But the party election was marked by “irregularities,” including the “busing in of people and students” to cast ballots for Mr. Dong, according to the government rapporteur. Global News, citing intelligence officials, reported that those people included Chinese international students with fake addresses.
Experts say the irregularities stemmed from lax party rules. Noncitizens can vote in party elections as long as they are permanent residents living in a district. People can vote in Liberal elections after 14 days of party membership, which Mr. Trudeau made free to make the party more inclusive.
The government rapporteur described nominations as not properly regulated, indicating they were a source of worry for Canada’s intelligence agency.
“With respect to foreign interference,” said Rob Currie-Wood, a University of Alberta expert, “there can be hostile actors that leverage this inclusivity to try and make gains.”
Judi Codd, Liberal Party president in Don Valley North, declined to comment.
Mr. Dong gathered other heavyweight endorsements from people regarded as close to Beijing.
John McCallum — who was fired as Canada’s ambassador to China for making comments that appeared to side with Beijing during a diplomatic crisis — sent his “full support and endorsement,” according to the news conference emcee. Mr. McCallum declined to comment.
Mr. Dong also had the backing of Wei Chengyi, the owner of Foody Mart, a supermarket chain.
Chinese-Canadian activists say Mr. Wei has long pressed China’s interests, citing his leadership role in the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations.
The Confederation has publicly supported China on key issues, including a 2020 national security law giving Beijing sweeping powers over Hong Kong, and a failed effort for the Toronto school board to host the Chinese government’s cultural and language program.
The Confederation did not return calls seeking comment from it and Mr. Wei.
As a Liberal lawmaker, Mr. Dong hewed to the party line, except on a critical vote: He skipped a unanimous vote, led by Mr. Trudeau, to resettle 10,000 Uyghurs fleeing Chinese persecution.
Initially, Mr. Trudeau described Mr. Dong as “an outstanding member of our team.” In June, three months after Mr. Dong became an independent, Mr. Trudeau tempered his remarks, saying only that he looked forward to talking “about whether he wants to come back” to the Liberals.
Mr. Dong immediately expressed his desire to do just that. Half a year later, he has yet to be invited back.