China has accused Canada of smearing its reputation after Canadian federal police announced this week that they were launching an investigation into alleged Chinese “police stations” operating secretly in the province of Quebec.
During a news conference on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Canada should “stop sensationalising and hyping the matter and stop attacks and smears on China”.
“China has been … strictly abiding by international law and respecting all countries’ judicial sovereignty,” Mao said.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said on Thursday that it had launched a probe into two “covert police stations” believed to be working on behalf of the Chinese government in Montreal and the nearby suburb of Brossard, Quebec.
“The RCMP recognizes that Canadians of Chinese origin are victims of alleged activities conducted by these centres,” RCMP Sergeant Charles Poirier said in a statement, as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
“These activities and any form of intimidation, harassment or harmful targeting of communities or diasporas in Canada won’t be tolerated.”
Mao, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, did not comment on the existence of the police stations or whether they were operated by Chinese government authorities.
Safeguard Defenders, a Spanish human rights organisation, said China has dozens of such stations across the globe, including in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In a report last September, it said the stations were used to “harass, threaten, intimidate and force targets to return to China for persecution”.
In October, the Dutch foreign ministry said it was investigating reports the Chinese government had set up illegal police stations in the Netherlands to intimidate dissidents. Beijing called those reports “absolutely false”.
The Chinese foreign ministry has previously described the foreign outposts as service stations for Chinese people who are abroad and need help with bureaucratic tasks, such as renewing their Chinese driver’s licences.
Speaking to reporters in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the presence of Chinese police stations in Canada “concerns us enormously”.
“We’ve known about the [presence of] Chinese police stations across the country for many months, and we are making sure that the RCMP is following up on it and that our intelligence services take it seriously,” he said Thursday.
Still, the latest allegations have heaped pressure on Trudeau, who for months also has faced growing calls to investigate allegations that the Chinese government has interfered in the country’s elections.
In November, Canadian media outlet Global News reported that Canadian intelligence officials had warned Trudeau that China was “targeting Canada with a vast campaign of foreign interference”, including through meddling in the country’s 2019 elections.
Last month, The Globe & Mail newspaper also reported that “China employed a sophisticated strategy” to disrupt the 2021 Canadian elections, “as Chinese diplomats and their proxies backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals … and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered to be unfriendly to Beijing”.
“The full extent of the Chinese interference operation is laid bare in both secret and top-secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents” viewed by the newspaper, it said.
Trudeau knew Beijing was interfering in our elections and did nothing to stop it.
He only seems to care about protecting himself and his party.
— Pierre Poilievre (@PierrePoilievre) March 9, 2023
The China-Canada relationship has been frosty for several years, especially after Canadian authorities detained Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018 on a US arrest warrant. China then arrested two Canadians on spying charges.
While the standoff ended when all three people were released in 2021, relations have remained sour over several points of contention, including human rights and trade.
On the sidelines of the G20 summit in November, for instance, Chinese President Xi Jinping was caught on video chastising Trudeau for alleged leaks of an earlier meeting in which the Canadian prime minister raised “serious concerns” about the alleged interference.
“Everything we discussed has been leaked to the paper; that’s not appropriate,” a smiling Xi told Trudeau through an interpreter in the footage, which was published by Canadian broadcasters.
Trudeau calls for investigations
This week, Pierre Poilievre, leader of the opposition Conservative Party of Canada, called for an “open, public, independent public inquiry” into the allegations of Chinese election meddling.
“Trudeau knew Beijing was interfering in our elections and did nothing to stop it,” Poilievre wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “He only seems to care about protecting himself and his party.”
Trudeau has said he would appoint an independent special investigator to probe the alleged election interference by China. The special rapporteur would be an “eminent Canadian” and would have power to make recommendations on foreign interference including a public inquiry, the prime minister said on March 6.
Trudeau also has asked lawmakers in parliament’s national security watchdog, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), to start an investigation and report its findings to legislators.
Additionally, the prime minister has asked another oversight agency, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), to conduct a review of how Canada’s national security agencies handled the threat of foreign interference in elections, especially “around the flow of information from national security agencies to decision makers”.
On Friday, the Canadian government also launched consultations on its plan to introduce a foreign agent registry.
“We are at a critical juncture when it comes to the security of our democratic institutions,” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said during a news conference in Ottawa.
“And now, we’re taking another step in protecting them,” he said, adding that the goal of the registry is to promote transparency in regards to legitimate foreign state lobbying activities.