An escalating diplomatic dispute between China and Canada is heightening fears Beijing is not only intimidating critics abroad but also ramping up efforts to influence the political system of one of the world’s leading democracies.
The two countries have now expelled diplomats in tit-for-tat moves, after Canada said a Chinese official based in Toronto was involved in targeting one of its lawmakers and his family. Beijing denied the allegation and responded with what it said Tuesday were “reciprocal countermeasures.”
“The expulsion of diplomats from both countries is a serious act,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the International Affairs Research Center at China’s Renmin University. “It proves that the relationship between the two countries is greatly regressed.”
The saga, which follows years of fractious ties, comes as China is increasingly bidding to be seen as a neutral powerbroker as it attempts to elbow out the U.S. on the world stage.
NBC News takes a look at what’s behind the feud.
What’s behind the uproar in Canada?
At the heart of this incident is a leaked report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The spy service alleged that a Chinese diplomat based in Toronto, Zhao Wei, was involved in efforts to intimidate opposition Conservative lawmaker Michael Chong and his family in Hong Kong.
Chong was singled out, it said, after he spearheaded Canada’s legislative efforts to label as genocide China’s alleged human rights abuses against its minority Muslim Uyghur population, something it denies despite documentary evidence and witness testimony.
The 2021-dated report became public after The Globe and Mail newspaper reported the news last week, but details have not been released publicly by the spy agency.
It said that China has “taken specific actions to target Canadian” lawmakers — including gathering information on Chong’s family members “who may be located in” China “for further potential sanctions,” the newspaper said. This, the Globe said, citing unidentified intelligence sources, was part of a broader effort to oppose Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing and boost Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberals.
Other revelations have included allegations of covert funding, and a lawmaker quit Trudeau’s party after denying improper dealings with Chinese officials.
NBC News has not confirmed the details in the leaked intelligence reports. But Trudeau has all but confirmed the thrust of them, telling reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday: “We will not be intimidated. We will continue to do everything necessary to keep Canadians protected from foreign interference."
Chong said he had not been warned by intelligence agencies that his family may have been at risk, and was “profoundly disappointed” to find out from a national newspaper report.
On Monday, Canada’s foreign ministry declared Zhao “persona non grata” and told him to leave. Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said in a statement that Canada would “not tolerate any form of foreign interference.”
The revelations have ignited a storm in Canada and focused criticism on Trudeau, who says he was unaware of the intelligence report, as well as on the Chinese government. Commentators and political opponents have questioned why Trudeau only expelled Zhao a week after the intelligence was leaked — let alone two years after the report was written.
What was China’s response?
China’s riposte was swift.
Its Foreign Ministry said that Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, a Canadian diplomat based in Shanghai, had four days to leave the country, calling it a “reciprocal countermeasure in reaction to Canada’s unscrupulous move.”
Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused Canada on Tuesday of “a smear campaign against China,” and “ideologically based political manipulation” that was “nonsensical” and based on “lies.” He called the leaked intelligence document “unsubstantiated and purely fabricated with ulterior motives.”
“We advise the Canadian side to immediately stop unreasonable provocations,” Wang added. “If the Canadian side does not listen to advice and acts recklessly, China will resolutely and forcefully respond.”
Writing in the Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid, its former editor Hu Xijin accused Canada of being an “American puppet state” that was “painting China in its own ugly image.”
NBC News has reached out to the Canadian embassy in Beijing for comment.
Why does the dispute matter?
The story touches on a few key themes in the uneasy relationship between China and the West.
For critics of Beijing, Chong’s alleged targeting by China would be another example of Beijing seeking to exert pressure on people and institutions overseas who have been critical on issues that it feels defensive over.
In the past it has pulled NBA games off the air in retaliation for comments made by stars and team owners, allegedly harassed members of the Uyghur diaspora for speaking out and been accused of setting up illegitimate police stations in New York and elsewhere.
Trudeau has appointed former Governor General David Johnston to further study the issue of alleged Chinese interference, including whether a public inquiry is needed.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China, said it was “totally appropriate” for Canada to expel the diplomat.
“In fact it should have been done some time ago,” he told NBC News. “It sends a very clear message to China that the Canadian government will not tolerate any more interference.”
He also called China’s response “proportionate” because "they could have decided to expel someone more senior.”
For China’s part, it is more proof that Western countries are being swept up in anti-China sentiment at the behest of the U.S.
“Canada simply doesn’t put the fundamental interest of China-Canada relations at a very high level of analysis, and they simply yield to the pressure points from Washington,” said Victor Gao, a prominent political affairs analyst with strong links to the Communist Party. “They follow very closely to the anti-China hostility initiated by the United States.”
China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner. But the countries have certainly had a few rough years. Trudeau has previously accused China of meddling in Canadian elections in 2019 and 2021, without changing the result — something Beijing denies.
In 2018, Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and China detained “the two Michaels” — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — all three of whom were released in an apparent exchange in 2021.
If the mood was bad then, the view from China is that now it’s substantially worse.
“It seems that Canada is increasingly subjugated to the anti-China tsunami launched by the United States, and it seems that the Canadian government is more and more being subjugated to such anti-China hostilities,” Wang, at Renmin University, said.