On the face of it, the fledgling organization’s goals seem innocuous enough — to encourage Chinese-Canadians to run for elected office and vote in elections.
The Chinese Council for Western Ontario Elections says it wants to be an “incubator” for candidates who support the community’s interests and educate newcomers about Canadian democracy.
But the council’s links to groups that are closely aligned with the Chinese government — and possibly to a Chinese police station here — are raising concerns amid growing debate about Beijing’s alleged interference in Canadian politics.
The council — launched at a formal event in Mississauga on Sunday — is headed by businessman Guo BaoZhang.
Guo is also executive president of the Canada Toronto Fuqing Business Association, named after a city in China’s Fujian province. Its own website says it was set up under the guidance of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) — a branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whose mission is in part to extend Beijing’s influence worldwide.
The association is also named as the owner of units in a Markham, Ont., commercial building that media in China say is the site of one of three Fujian “police service stations” in the province. The same address is listed on the association website as its own location. The RCMP has said it’s investigating the stations, amid fears they could be used to intimidate Chinese expatriates here.
Two of the Fuqing group’s three honorary leaders are Weng Guoning and Wei Chengyi, the current president and honorary chair of the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations (CTCCO), a group that has long worked with the city’s Chinese consulate to promote Beijing’s positions on contentious issues.
The CTCCO’s Weng is also featured in multiple photographs of the election council’s launch event on Sunday and gave a speech at the ceremony. Someone by his name is listed as a director of another, related elections group.
There’s no indication the council will break any law, but Chinese-Canadian critics of the CCP say the connections are clear, and worrying.
“They are by and large an extension of the apparatus of Beijing,” alleged Karen Woods, founder of the independent Canadian Chinese Political Affairs Committee. “I definitely think this is an area where our security agencies or the police should pay close attention.”
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Woods once worked for a lobby firm that represented China’s Toronto consulate, before growing disenchanted with Beijing. Her association touts itself as being independent of China and opposed to foreign interference in elections.
“This really is like an ideological invasion,” said Jonathan Fon, a Toronto paralegal and outspoken critic of the Chinese government, about the new group. “I think that undermines our national security, our social security.”
Guo could not be reached for comment by deadline Thursday.
But according to a Chinese-language news report on Sunday’s gathering, the council’s head said its goal was simply to “introduce Canadian democracy to the Chinese community, to help Chinese Canadians better understand Canadian elections, participate in the democratic process, and participate actively in elections.”
“We support candidates of any race, as long as they advocate democratic equality, oppose racial discrimination and support multiculturalism,” Guo is quoted as saying. “We are willing to share our network resources with them to help them gain recognition and support from Chinese voters.”
The council was launched as China’s alleged interference in Canadian politics becomes a burning topic on Parliament Hill, with opposition MPs grilling the Liberals on the issue repeatedly recently.
Some of the attention was prompted by a Global News report that said the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service had briefed the Prime Minister’s Office in January about a Chinese program that gave money to 11 sympathetic candidates in the 2019 election, using a member of the Ontario legislature and community groups as go-betweens.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denied he received such a briefing and says outside experts have concluded the last two elections unfolded fairly, but accused Beijing of playing “aggressive games” with Canada and other democracies. And he says he raised interference in a brief meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Bali. China rejects suggestions it has intruded in any way.
The Western Ontario election council was registered as a federal non-profit corporation earlier this year. It appears to be an offshoot of the Chinese Council for Canadian Elections, which was registered in 2019. An individual with the same name as CTCCO president Weng is listed as one of that group’s three directors. Another of the three has the same family name and address.
A Chinese-language mission statement by the council obtained and translated by Fon says the group will abide by this country’s laws and constitution.
The council will “support incubating Chinese ethnic candidates to participate in the election,” says the statement, adding that it would also back candidates of other ethnicities “who are friendly to the Chinese community” and promise “political views beneficial to the Chinese community after being elected.”
The United Front Work Department that provided “guidance” to Guo’s Fuqing business group was greatly expanded under Xi’s leadership. While it reportedly works closely with diaspora groups to promote China’s interests on issues like Tibet, the Muslim Uyghur minority and Taiwan, it also has an eye on politics in foreign countries.
A leaked handbook for United Front cadres even touted the fact that the number of politicians of Chinese descent elected in Toronto had almost doubled between 2003 and 2006, and urged officials to “work with” them.
The CTCCO, meanwhile, has been a reliable ally of the Chinese government. It ihas defended Beijing’s crackdown on democracy protesters in Hong Kong, while working with the local consulate to promote Beijing’s stance on Tibet, try to bring its Confucius Institute to Toronto schools and celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic. Beijing’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office praised the group on its website.
Honorary chairman Wei himself shook hands with Xi at a 2019 event in Beijing. The CTCCO website includes a profile of president Weng by the “propaganda department and the United Front Work Department of the Fuqing Municipal Party Committee.”
With those sorts of connections, it’s hard not to be wary of the new election council, said Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.
“I’m highly suspicious,” he said. “I would not be surprised if the Chinese consulate or Chinese government is heavily involved.”