Chinese Canadians say they want action on foreign agent registry, not lengthy public hearings

Members of the Chinese diaspora in Canada say the country can't afford the lengthy public hearing process that will only tell them what they already know. Instead, they are demanding action on a foreign agent registry.

Canadians can't afford to wait for a months-long public hearing process, advocate says

Flags are placed in a row
Special Rapporteur David Johnston says he plans to hold public hearings to get feedback from diaspora communities directly impacted by alleged interference by Beijing. Advocates say it's a process that will only delay urgent action needed to protect diaspora communities, dissidents and the broader Canadian society from foreign interference.  (Fred Dufour/Pool/The Associated Press)

The head of a Canadian group that lobbies for democracy in Hong Kong says Chinese Canadians can't afford to wait for the months-long public hearings on foreign interference and is instead demanding action on a foreign agent registry.

"We have been talking about this long enough," said Cherie Wong, executive director of the Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK). "We are tired, we want to see change and we want to see our community members protected. The time for action is now." 

Wong was speaking on CBC's Power and Politics Friday about her organization's most recent report, Murky Waters: Beijing's Influence in Canadian Democratic and Electoral Process. 

ACHK's report recommends the Canadian government adopt new legislation to create a public registry of individuals, organizations and proxy-representatives actively acting on behalf of foreign principals in Canada.

WATCH | 'The time for action is now,' advocate says:

Chinese Canadians say they don’t need public hearings to tell them what they already know

4 months ago
Duration 8:10
Cherie Wong, Executive Director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong talks to Power and Politics about her organization's newest report detailing foreign election interference in Canada.

"We don't need another person to tell us there's foreign interference, we don't need another person to study the tactics, we have studied it and we have presented it in this beautiful report," Wong told CBC's David Cochrane. 

Last week, David Johnston, the Independent Special Rapporteur on election interference, recommended against a public inquiry and instead will conduct a public hearing process. 

According to Johnston's report, during these hearings he plans to hear from diaspora communities that are directly impacted by Beijing's alleged interference — a process Wong says will only delay urgent action needed to protect those in the community.

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Special rapporteur debate distracting: advocate

The group's report comes after members of Parliament this week voted in favour of ousting Johnston from his mandate of independent Special Rapporteur on foreign interference.

Trudeau has dismissed claims that Johnston has a conflict of interest as politically motivated attacks. 

The debate over Johnston and the public hearing gets in the way of urgent action needed to protect members of the diaspora community, according to Wong. 

While ACHK reviewed Johnston's first report and acknowledged its consistency with some of their observations, Wong says members of the Chinese-Canadian community feel they have been talking about this for years without government action. She pointed out that her organization has released reports on foreign interference in 2020, 2021 and the most recent one this year. 

"We can't wait for a 12 to 16 month process to tell us something that we already know." 

Cheuk Kwan in a park.
Cheuk Kwan, co-chair for the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, says the time for consultation on foreign interference is over, and what's needed now is action. (CBC)

Wong's frustrations echo that of Cheuk Kwan, co-chair for the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. 

"We've been saying the same [thing] for a long long time," Kwan told Power and Politics on the day Johnston's report came out. "I think the time to do consultation is over. We need to directly confront the situation that we have in hand."

Kwan says he will participate if asked to speak at the public hearings, but he isn't very hopeful that it will produce different results or a deeper understanding of the problem.

Registry would foster trust, report says 

Instead, he says the public registry the community is recommending will help strengthen the measures that law enforcement can use to break the cycle of foreign interference and help re-establish confidence in Canada's electoral system. 

ACHK's report says such a registry would foster trust, resilience and transparency to ensure Canadians have confidence in the country's democratic institutions. It also calls for collaboration and co-operation between intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the judicial system to streamline the process of converting intelligence into admissible evidence.

While the government says it will move forward with the creation of a foreign agent registry, if the Justice Department is not able to draft the legislation in time, it may not come until the fall. 

Though she finds the government's pledge encouraging, Wong is concerned that it's not enough.

"We need to see all of the political actors, all of the partisan actors come together and create a long-term, sustainable movement so that we're not only talking about foreign interference now, but we're continuously addressing new tactics and new issues that Canada will encounter in the future."

She says it's important to get commitment from those who can create legislation that diaspora communities, dissidents and the broader Canadian society are safeguarded from foreign interference. 

Despite the mounting debate surrounding Johnston as the choice for special rapporteur, he is set to testify in Parliament on Tuesday.