Woo: The election-interference discussion can easily slip into racism
Why do some Canadians bristle at the suggestion that recent reporting on foreign interference in our democracy encourages racism?
Setting aside partisan point-scoring, let's assume that the reason is an inability to see how genuine concern about foreign interference could be construed as racist.
Revelations about foreign interference reported by the Globe and Mail and Global News have been based on selectively leaked classified documents from anonymous sources. None of it has been verified and senior officials have testified that this kind of information is "incomplete," akin to "rumours" and not to be taken as truth.
Yet, the names of Chinese-Canadian politicians - federal, provincial and municipal - have been bandied about, creating a frenzy of insinuations about disloyalty to Canada and their legitimacy as elected officials.
Foreign interference should be denounced regardless of ethnicity, and there is nothing racist about highlighting proven cases of bad acts. But anonymous, unsubstantiated allegations focusing exclusively on Chinese-Canadians reeks of racism.
And what of the revelations? They are based largely on the observation that Canadian politicians, myself included, have had interactions with Chinese officials in the country.
Chinese diplomats are said to have interfered with our elections by "grooming" preferred candidates. But that is exactly what diplomats do. Our representatives abroad seek out up-and-coming politicians and try to establish good relations with the ones who are sympathetic to Canadian interests. We don't describe it as "grooming" but it is part and parcel of political outreach.
Our diplomats are, of course, very careful to not break the laws of the countries they are posted to. The same standard should be held of foreign representatives in Canada. We already have strict laws around political donations, corruption, and coercive or threatening behaviour. If these laws are insufficient to deal with threats to Canadians, we should consider new measures. Even so, it should be stressed that no charges to-date have been made on any of the breathless claims raised in the media.
Which gets to the issue of a foreign influence registry. Creating a list of names is at best an indirect way to deal with the most troubling reports of foreign interference, which have to do with intimidation of Canadian citizens by foreign agents. This suggests the need to put more energy into law enforcement and new criminal code offences rather than on a registry as such.
To the extent that a foreign influence registry is needed, it should not be so broad that someone is required to register because of that person's background, affiliations or views.
Previous attempts at such a registry, including a private member's bill currently in the Senate, are deeply flawed because they would require anyone with a connection to a legally constituted entity in China to register if they wanted to speak to a public official. This would require thousands of Canadians with ties to the people's Republic of China to have the label of a foreign agent or force them to cut off benign connections to their native country.
In such a formulation, there will be many grey areas where the need to register is questionable. An alumni association of a Chinese university, for example, could be an entity that is registrable, subject to the discretion of officials. How will the decision be made?
In the current climate, I fear that registration in grey areas will default to whether the individuals hold views that are deemed acceptable. Welcome to the Registry of UnCanadian Activities. If you have any doubt that we are headed in this direction, consider the chatter at the start of the consultation process for a foreign influence registry. Skeptics of a registry are assumed to be foreign agents not because of any evidence of such but because of the views they hold.
The standard line is that someone who repeats a "Chinese Communist Party talking point" is a de facto agent. It is used both as a conversation stopper, and to discount any suggestion that a foreign influence registry could be racist.
It is baffling that such ideological conviction can blind one to the possibility of racism in a registry that explicitly focuses on the "foreign." Why give the CCP credit for what should be our decision to make sure that a registry does not discriminate against certain communities? The determination of advocates to deny any risk of discrimination is even more reason to fear that it could come to pass.
As bad as the innuendo is for Chinese-Canadian politicians, it is even worse for voters. The subtext to unproven electoral interference claims is that Canadians who backed a smeared candidate are disloyal or dupes, or both.
Chinese-Canadians are no more or less susceptible to disinformation in an election campaign than other voters. Allegations that a candidate was unfairly helped by a foreign power are in effect allegations against the voters who supported that candidate. Without any evidence of voter fraud, intimidation or corruption, such claims seek to disenfranchise entire communities because of the political choices they made. It is voter suppression dressed up as national security.
In our zeal to counter disinformation and foreign interference, let's not cause more harm than good.
Yuen Pau Woo is an independent senator from British Columbia.
Published in the Ottawa Citizen