Canada’s ambassador to China says the coming inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections will be a difficult moment for Beijing, but Canada must move forward with a balance of co-operation and resilience in its relationship with China.
Jennifer May says Canada must pull off complex balance between co-operation and resilience
Jennifer May, Canada’s ambassador to China, in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)Canada’s ambassador to China says the coming inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections will be a difficult moment for Beijing, but Canada must move forward with a balance of co-operation and resilience in the bilateral relationship.
In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio’s The House, Jennifer May said the inquiry, which will hold its first preliminary public hearings on Jan. 29 and run over a period of months, will cover issues ranging from disinformation to espionage — many of which could cast China in a negative light.
“I think there is a reality that this is going to be something that is going to be deeply uncomfortable for the Chinese government,” May told host Catherine Cullen.
May, who has been Canada’s envoy to Beijing for over two years, took over the role after what may have been the lowest point in Canada-China relations in decades.
China released Canadian nationals Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor after 1,019 days in detention in September 2021, but attempts to thaw the frozen relationship were again undermined by accusations of election interference that surfaced in early 2023.
The House13:22Foreign interference inquiry ‘deeply uncomfortable’ for Beijing, says Canada’s ambassador
Canada’s ambassador to China is warning the upcoming foreign interference inquiry is going to create some moments that will be ‘deeply uncomfortable’ for Beijing. Jennifer May talks about the difficult conversations she has with her Chinese counterparts and tells us why she sees Canada’s relationship with China as that of a “complicated dance partner.”
May said the foreign interference inquiry is an important step in sorting out where Canada stands in relation to the world’s second largest economy and second most populous country.
“I think it’s important for us to be able to work through all of this for us as a society, and to really be able to come to grips with what this all means,” she said.
The foreign interference inquiry was launched in response to allegations of Chinese inference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. After initially resisting opposition pressure to call an inquiry— led by the Conservatives — the Liberal government eventually relented and announced an inquiry to be headed up by Justice Marie-Josée Hogue.
Conservative MP and foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, himself a target of an alleged interference campaign, has been given full standing in the inquiry, while the Official Opposition has been given standing as an intervener. The NDP also gained intervener status, while NDP MP Jenny Kwan — who says CSIS has told her she has been targeted by the Chinese government — has full party status in the inquiry.
China has repeatedly denied any allegations related to foreign interference or espionage.
May told Cullen that Canadian and Chinese officials have had several tough conversations about foreign interference.
“I can assure you that they’re difficult,” she said.
Canada’s ambassador to China says inquiry will be ‘deeply uncomfortable’ for BeijingIn an interview on CBC Radio’s The House, Canada’s ambassador to China Jennifer May says that the range of topics to be covered in an impending inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections — from disinformation to espionage — will make the hearings a “deeply uncomfortable” moment for the rising superpower.
“You know, we get pretty firm pushback from the Chinese side as well. These are open, they’re candid discussions that we bring forward. These are tough discussions, but that’s an important part of diplomacy — to be able to have tough discussions.”
May skirted a question about the potential for Chinese interference in Canada’s affairs in the future, saying this country should be prepared to resist all threats.
“I think … the most important thing is for us to try to be resilient, to be able to push back and to be able to make sure that we’ve got strong, robust democratic systems and processes, so that whether there’s a threat from anywhere that we’re ready to withstand it,” she said.
“This is a changing and evolving space.”
This week, the federal government named more than 100 institutions in China, Russia and Iran which it says represent the “highest risk to Canada’s national security.” The government says the listed institutions are connected to those countries’ militaries and state security agencies and Canadian institutions affiliated with them will soon be ineligible for federal grants.
May said Canada is far from being the only country concerned about industrial and technological espionage and China itself has acted on such national security concerns.
“The Chinese also have their no-go zones. They also have their approaches to this,” she said. “They have a very strong national security lens. The difference is that it’s not transparent and open.”
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In search of a nuanced relationshipDespite the challenges in the relationship, May talked about a path forward for the two countries which would see Canada co-operate with China on some issues and oppose it on others.
“It’s not going to be a complete … full steam ahead and all positive. But just because we have setbacks in some areas doesn’t mean that we can’t pursue positive areas of co-operation in other areas,” May said.
“It’s a complicated dance partner, and anybody who dances knows that sometimes you’re moving forwards and sometimes you’re moving backwards, and other times you’re spinning around. And so that’s how I see our dance with China.”
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping have not had a substantial meeting in years. The two briefly interacted on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco last fall.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly did speak earlier this month with her counterpart Wang Yi. After that meeting, Wang released a statement saying both countries have important influence in the Asia-Pacific region and claimed that the two countries don’t have conflicting interests.
Co-operation possible on opioids, May saysOne issue where the two countries may have an opportunity to co-operate is the toxic drug crisis in Canada. Canadian law enforcement officials have identified China as a major source of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, which is responsible for the vast majority of overdose deaths in this country.
“The scourge is incredible and the Chinese side recognizes that. They understand that we’re facing an incredible crisis that’s affecting individuals families, communities,” May said.
“So the types of conversations that are being held now are really about, how can we get at this ever-changing problem and how can we work together? So China is engaging with us on this. That’s a good news story.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With files from Catherine Cullen, Kristen Everson and The Canadian Press