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Why does Canada have a disproportionately high number of Chinese diplomats?

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As former governor general David Johnston prepares to release his report on foreign interference Tuesday, new data provided by Global Affairs Canada (GAC) sheds light on the breadth of China's diplomatic presence.

A comparative analysis of Chinese foreign representatives in Western democracies by CTV News reveals the disproportionate attention China places on Canada. According to some national security experts, the disproportionate numbers could indicate diplomatic influence has tipped over into interference.

SPIES AMONG US

According to GAC, as of May 17, there are 176 Chinese nationals with diplomatic credentials in Canada. This number includes diplomats and consular employees, as well representatives with the International Civil Aviation Organization. Sixteen people are considered "administrative or technical staff."

Not included in the 176 is Zhao Wei, who worked out of the Chinese consulate in Toronto, and has since been expelled from the country. The Trudeau government declared Zhao persona non grata on May 8, after intelligence leaks revealed the agent had targeted Conservative MP Michael Chong. It's likely more diplomats other than Zhao have crossed the line.

Before a parliamentary committee earlier this month, Michel Juneau-Katsuya, the former CSIS Asia-Pacific chief, said the majority of Chinese diplomats in Canada are involved in espionage.

"Some of them are literally responsible to spy on the community. Many others are responsible to acquire influence on politicians and to get the politicians or elected officials to support Chinese policy in Canada," said Juneau-Katsuya.

The former intelligence officer says media reports of Beijing's intimidation of politicians and alleged efforts to get certain politicians elected is "just the tip of the iceberg."

COMPARING DIPLOMATIC PRESCENCE

China has the second largest diplomatic presence in Canada after the United States, which has 290 foreign representatives. The United Kingdom has 44 accredited representatives in Canada, while Japan has 73.

Russia and Iran, which have also been cited as foreign interference threats by CSIS, have a significantly smaller presence in Canada compared to China. Seventy-nine Russians have diplomatic credentials in Canada, and only one Iranian representative is accredited through the International Civil Aviation Organization. Iran closed its embassy in Ottawa in 2012 after the federal government cited concerns about Iran's support for terrorism.

The above data was gleaned through an online database of foreign representatives administered by GAC. Other democratic countries also provide similar databases listing foreign representatives, including the United Kingdom and Australia. A search of these registries raises even more questions about China's disproportionate diplomatic focus on Canada.

BEIJING INFLUENCE

The U.K.'s active database of foreign representatives indicates there are 124 Chinese diplomats working on British soil—50 fewer than there are in Canada despite having a much larger population of 67.3 million, with 4.7 million people identifying as ethnic Chinese in Britain.

Canada's population is 37 million, with 1.7 million identifying as ethnic Chinese. Our demographics are similar to Australia, yet Canada has nearly three times as many Chinese foreign representatives. Australia has granted diplomatic credentials to 64 Chinese officials, compared to Canada's 176.

That statistic raised Robert Daly's eyebrows.

"You would expect Canada to be closer to Australia," said Daly, a former U.S. diplomat to China, who provides analysis for the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

"China sees those two countries as similar. Both of them have a lot of resources that China wants to import. Both of them have very large diasporas, both of them host a lot of Chinese students. Only one of them is, of course, close to the United States of America geographically. And that may very well be a factor," Daly said.

The number of Chinese diplomats, consuls and attaches south of the 49th parallel is almost identical to the number north of it. The most recent data from 2020, shows that the U.S. accredited 178 Chinese nationals, just two more than current Canadian numbers. It's a surprising statistic given that the population of the U.S. is 10 times the size of Canada. America is also China's top trading partner and the most popular immigration destination for Chinese nationals.

AMERICAN CRACKDOWN

Canada's closest ally is also more willing to hold China in check. In the summer of 2020, the U.S. government ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, accusing diplomats of trying to steal scientific research.

Recently, law enforcement in the U.S. has raided suspected Chinese police stations and arrested alleged foreign agents.

Former Canadian diplomat Charles Burton, who has been posted to China twice, says Beijing may place more diplomats in Canada because it sees this country as an "easy mark" because it has weak laws against foreign interference.

Now a senior fellow with the McDonald-Laurier Institute, Burton says the federal government needs to better monitor the activities of diplomats and prosecute foreign interference. The Americans, British and Australians have created foreign agent registries, requiring people who work to advance the interests of a foreign government to register their names, not doing so could be punishable by law. The Canadian government is still consulting on the matter.

Burton points out Canada's participation in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand could be at risk if the government doesn't take sufficient steps to guard against espionage.

"We're of interest to China because we're a member of the Five Eyes consortium. We share a lot of military information with the United States. We could be seen as a weak link in the alliance and able to transfer to agents of the Chinese military data that's shared in the Five Eyes."

THE CHICKEN AND THE MONKEY

Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says Canada should brace for retaliation as it fights interference.

Robertson says China is willing to do things to Canada that it won't do to the U.S.

"There's a Chinese expression, 'Kill a chicken to scare the monkey.' In this case, we're the chicken," said Robertson.

There are approximately 50 Canadian diplomats working in China. The Communist regime has already expelled a Canadian diplomat in retaliation for the expulsion of Zhao, and has threatened to escalate.

Robertson, a former diplomat, says the federal government should have taken action against Chinese interference a decade earlier, and inaction has only emboldened China.

"The Chinese understand strength and they also understand weakness. We've only shown weakness by tolerating it." 

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