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“PRC influence operations and élite capture in Canada presents a critical threat to Canadian democracy and our national sovereignty. It is more than devious, underhanded and unethical diplomacy. The operations of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department (UFWD) in Canada and extensive infiltration of agents of China's Ministry of State Security into our policy making institutions, universities and think tanks, and media pose an increasing threat to Canadian values in the national dialogue and weakens Canada's support for a just and fair rules-based international order.”  (Charles Burton, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, former Counsellor for Political and Economic Affairs at the Canadian Embassy to China)

Perhaps one would argue that since all governments leverage their power to influence the policies of other countries anyway, where and how to draw the line as to what is acceptable and what is not?

Legitimate Influence vs. Unduly Interference

Yes, even Charles Parton, author of “China–UK Relations Where to Draw the Border between Influence and Interference?” [1] admits that the boundary between influence (legitimate) and interference (unacceptable) is neither clear nor easy to define. He said the business of influencing other governments and peoples, of promoting soft power, sometimes known as “public diplomacy”, is an acceptable part of foreign policy carried out by all countries. But there is a border between activities which constitute influence and activities which constitute interference. When influence goes beyond diplomacy, it enters into the more subtle, incremental and mostly unspoken grey area and becomes interference.

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull once defined interference as “foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive, or corrupt [2]”. According to this definition, the shady acts that are over and beyond the boundary of public diplomacy would have all or most of these key elements: foreign (coming directly from a foreign state or indirectly through their local agents of influence), covert (deceptive and often under the radar), coercive (involuntary due to unequal footing, unbalanced power or fear to offend) and corruptive (undermining in nature, including corrupt political processes, media markets, public debate and academic freedom, for example, by using improper inducements falling short of criminal bribery). 

Applying this definition, it is obvious that many of the large infrastructure projects built under the Belt and Road Initiatives that the PRC has been pushing in most developing countries have gone beyond the boundary of legitimate “diplomacy” and fallen within the sphere of “interference.” 

A good example: 

Sri Lanka’s Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port 

The Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port was built for about US$1.4 billion, 85% of which was funded by PRC money (i.e. foreign). Faced with a cash shortage and the failure to repay the loan, in 2017 the Sri Lankan government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of associated land to the PRC for 99 years (involuntary repayment, i.e., coercive). The deal gave the PRC control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival, India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway (with a covert motive). 

In the mean time, Sri Lanka was embroiled in a constitutional crisis [3] accompanied by bribery accusations, attempted assassinations and parliamentary suspension. Without the incumbent prime minister formally dismissed, their former president, who was close to the PRC and spearheaded most of the Belt and Road projects, was appointed as prime minister, but had to resign soon after in order to ease the crisis. Even without the bribery accusations, just the constitutional crisis, which is corrosive (i.e., corruptive) in nature, would have severely eroded the democratic underpinnings of Sri Lanka.


This is one of the most vivid examples of how the PRC uses loans and aid to covertly gain exceeding influence, how coercive and how ready it is to play hardball if countries are not able to repay, and how corruptive and damaging such strategic maneuvering of financial power can be to the economy and democracy of another country.   


Another example: The Confucius Institutes

The other typical example would be the Confucius Institutes around the world, including 12 that are in Canada, which are located at Carleton University, St. Mary’s University, Brock University, Dawson College, Seneca College and the universities of Regina, New Brunswick, Alberta, Saskatchewan, as well as in some schools of British Columbia.

Through the state-funded programs of the Confucius Institutes, which provide free teaching materials and teachers from China, the PRC imposes its world view and values very different from ours. The PRC also encourages self-censorship and self-limiting policies in spheres which it sees as harming its interests, such as any discussion of politically sensitive subjects, including Tibet, Taiwan or Falun Gong. 

For example, parents in Fredericton, New Brunswick, have complained that the Confucius Institute program in their province “is propaganda in that it's an effort to brainwash and influence people's ideas of a certain place.” 

"The reason why these partnerships exist is because China wants to enhance its soft power globally. That means teaching students a one-sided story about their country: how do we raise awareness of China being an exclusively wonderful place.”


In addition, some provinces/schools clearly benefit financially from relationships built from the Confucius Institute. For example, merely sending four trustees to visit the PRC would generate approximately $32,000 [7] of additional revenues for School District 43 (SD43) in Coquitlam, British Columbia, which has run the Confucius Classroom for over 10 years. The school district also has one of the largest intake of international students in the province.

According to the TriCity News, Coquitlam’s local community newspaper, “China provides the largest contingent of the approximately 1,600 to 2,000 students who will pay $16,500 to go to school in SD43, up $1,500 for 2019/2020, and with SD43 dependent on funds from the international education program, which contributes 12% to the bottom line, it’s also vulnerable to geopolitical trends and changes.

“Such a risk was noted in the school district’s budget, which pointed out that SD43 finances are ‘heavily reliant’ on international education revenues and summer programs, at the same time that it is vulnerable to ‘recent geopolitical events and escalating economic variables.’”

It is obvious that the Confucius Institutes, armed with their state-owned resources, is rolling over Canadian classrooms, taking over Chinese language learning and academic exchanges and promoting one single perspective to look at everything about China. 


Both the Belt and Road Initiative and the Confucius Institutes are only a small part of the covert but rigorous and ruthless overseas campaign of the PRC to advance the Chinese Communist Party’s interests and values at the expenses of freedom, civil liberties and the rule of law. 

Across the globe, we can see a rapidly growing but worrying trend about self-censorship and self-limiting policies. The Communist regime in Beijing is getting more and more brazen, aided by the extensive reach of the Internet and their trolls, the so-called “five-cent troopers.” It is obvious that their overseas operatives are much less covert than that of before. 

The recent self-censorship cases involving business giants such as Apple Inc., the National Basketball Association (NBA), Blizzard Hearthstone, Tiffany and Co. and the like clearly demonstrated how swift and unforgiving the PRC could be with their political bottom line. These are alarming examples of how the PRC blatantly and ruthlessly interferes into the business world, using its commercial status and financial clout to advance their political agenda and goals while defying universal business norms, a level-playing field, freedom of expression and ideas, market mechanism as well as the rules-based international order.

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