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Pressure on Huawei part of rising worry over Chinese economic espionage

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: western nations increasingly concerned by allegations of Chinese spying; Justin Trudeau's meeting with provincial leaders tomorrow is likely to be awkward.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

U.S. and Chinese flags are seen before Defense Secretary James Mattis welcomed Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., on Nov. 9. Tensions between the two nations and other Western countries are rising over allegations of Chinese spying. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

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  • Growing concerns, backlash over China's economic espionage.
  • Justin Trudeau's meeting with provincial leaders is likely to be awkward.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Spying and China

The official reason why Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and deputy chair of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, is under arrest in Vancouver and facing extradition to the United States is an allegation that she and the company have violated American trade sanctions against Iran. 

But such a bold gambit — Meng is also the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, one of China's most influential players — is surely also intended to send a message about how serious Donald Trump is in his ongoing trade war with Beijing.

And it has more than a little to do with growing concerns over China's economic espionage.

Meng Wanzhou, deputy chairwoman and CFO for the Chinese tech giant Huawei, is reportedly wanted by the United States for allegedly contravening U.S. trade sanctions against Iran. (

Huawei has already been singled out for special scrutiny, with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand having blocked the use of the company's technology and equipment in new 5G wireless networks over fears of Chinese intelligence gathering.

Earlier this week, the heads of Britain's MI6 and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — the two other partner nations in the "Five Eyes" communications monitoring system — both issued public warnings about state-sponsored 5G spying.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, is shown around the offices of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. in London by company president Ren Zhengfei in this October 2015 photo. (Matthew Lloyd/Reuters)

The alarm over China's espionage activities is based on more than just one firm, however.

In recent months, U.S. authorities have indicted or arrested at least 11 alleged Chinese spies and hackers over a supposed government-backed plot to steal aircraft engine technology from French and American companies that dates back to 2010.

And just last week, there were reports that the White House is pushing for tough new background checks on Chinese students and considering shortening the visa duration for those studying aviation, robotics or advanced manufacturing from five years to just one. All due to fears that a significant number of the 360,000 that the U.S. welcomes each year might be there to spy as much as learn.

The suspicions about China's intentions have also gone global.

Since August, intelligence authorities in the U.S., Germany, Britain and France have all warned that the Chinese government is using LinkedIn and other professional social networks to "harpoon" business executives and product experts. The allegations involve befriending them through social media in order to harvest their contacts, then extending invitations to collaborate with Chinese companies in hopes of eventually recruiting them as sources. 

A woman looks at Social Networking applications Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Twitter, Messenger and Linkedin on a smartphone. China is accused of using social media to target espionage activities. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the other China-spying-related concerns in recent weeks:

  • A new Reuters report suggesting that Chinese hackers might be behind a massive Marriott hotels data breach, in which the records of up to 500 million customers were stolen.
  • The revelation that the Chinese government has been requiring all electric vehicle makers in the country — a list that includes Tesla, GM, Ford, BMW and Volkswagen — to share real-time data about where their cars are being driven, mileage and battery charge; surveillance at the push of a button.
  • News reports in Australia that questioned Labour MP Pierre Yang's membership in two Chinese federations and his secondment as an Australian Army reservist to a Chinese vessel engaged in the search for Malaysian airlines Flight MH370. In parliament today, Yang, who emigrated 20 years ago, tearfully proclaimed his loyalty "only to Australia."

Last March, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University produced a report on Chinese espionage around the world. It concluded that several nations, including the United States, France, Germany, Japan and Canada, are constantly at risk, with New Zealand and Australia being in the most danger.

The paper describes a two-pronged spying effort.

The first is designed to "observe and harass its diaspora community," in order to shut down voices that are critical of the Chinese government.

The second seeks to "penetrate institutions in democratic states that might draw attention or raise obstacles to Chinese Communist Party interests," making it easier for Beijing to act just as it desires at home and abroad.

A sign for the National Security Agency (NSA), U.S. Cyber Command and the Central Security Service, is seen near the visitor's entrance to the headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Md. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Nicholas Eftimiades, a former CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency employee and now a lecturer with Penn State University's Homeland Security Program, recently published an analysis of 274 documented cases of Chinese worldwide espionage since the year 2000.

He concluded that Chinese spying operations have expanded massively over the past two decades, as Beijing makes a "national concerted effort to expand China's economic and security interests." He says the Chinese Communist Party is using every means it has to harvest secrets, including quasi-government agencies, academics and state-owned companies.

In the past couple of years, that espionage has mostly been focused on military and space technologies, but as the government pursues its strategic "Made in China 2025 plan" the push is also on to find shortcuts to advance sectors like agriculture, AI, manufacturing and green technologies.

The question is whether anything can really be done to reduce or limit the scale of Chinese intelligence gathering, since stopping it seems impossible.

The arrest of Meng Wanzhou is certainly grabbing worldwide headlines, but Eftimiades expresses doubts that Trump's get-tough approach is making any difference.

"China's espionage activities continue unabated despite a large number of arrests, public exposure, and most recently, U.S. trade sanctions," he notes.

At Issue

Justin Trudeau's meeting with provincial leaders tomorrow is likely to be awkward, writes Rosemary Barton.

I'm on the road again this week — this time in Montreal, where the prime minister and his provincial and territorial counterparts are gathering for the first ministers meeting.

And while the talks officially begin tomorrow, the mood here is already tense.

Trudeau is expected to face criticism from premiers about what's on the official agenda — or more likely, what was left out.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Christmas Fund drive in Montreal on Thursday morning. His meeting with the first ministers in the city on Friday is likely to feature fewer hugs and smiles. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

You can bet that the carbon tax, pipelines and the oil price crisis will make their way into the discussions. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe even sent a letter the prime minister earlier this week demanding that oil be formally added to the agenda.

In a scrum yesterday, Trudeau said that oil and natural resources would "of course be on the agenda," and that he would be willing to discuss "anything the premiers want to talk about."

He may not have a choice. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has said that, "if the agenda doesn't change, the premiers will change the agenda during the meeting itself."

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe want Prime Minister Trudeau to make the oil price differential an agenda topic at this week's meetings in Montreal. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press, Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

This will be Trudeau's fourth meeting with the first ministers since 2015 — and it's likely going to be the most divided one we've seen since since he came to power.

A lot has changed since the last time they met. As Chantal Hébert explains in her column this week, political goodwill may be in short supply this time around. Trudeau has lost several key provincial allies, and those remaining are in delicate political positions.

Thankfully it's At Issue tonight. Chantal, Andrew Coyne and Chris Hall will be here to talk about the lead-up to the meeting, along with whatever else happens on the political front over the next few hours.

Hope you can join us.

- Rosemary Barton

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Quote of the moment

"We feel it's a First Amendment issue, we have other displays there -- a Hanukkah menorah and Nativity scene. If you have displays of one type you need to be consistent and allow everyone to do so, aside from hate speeches and other unacceptable things."

- Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state, on a decision to allow theSatanic Temple of Chicago to place statue in the lobby of the Capitol building in Springfield this holiday season.

What The National is reading

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  • Liberals drop contentious anti-abortion test for summer jobs funding (CBC)
  • France protests: Government fears 'major violence' in coming days (BBC)
  • Amazon robot sets off bear spray, puts 24 in hospital (Guardian)
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Today in history

Dec. 6, 1989: Gunman massacres 14 women at Montreal's École Polytechnique

Anne St-Arneault, 23; Geneviève Bergeron, 21; Hélène Colgan, 23; Nathalie Croteau, 23; Barbara Daigneault, 22; Anne-Marie Edward, 21; Maud Haviernick, 29; Barbara Klueznick, 31; Maryse Laganière, 25; Maryse Leclair, 23; Anne-Marie Lemay, 22; Sonia Pelletier, 23; Michèle Richard, 21; and Annie Turcotte, 21.

Gunman kills 14 women in Montreal

33 years ago
Duration 3:35
A massacre takes place in a Montreal university when a man opens fire on engineering students. Aired on CBC's The National with reporter Paul Workman on Dec. 6, 1989.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.