A Conservative senator has apologized to a former Conservative MP after accusing him of “lying” to another senator about a disinformation campaign that he says cost him his seat in the last election.
“I would like to apologize to former MP Kenny Chiu, Senator Leo Housakos, and to all my colleagues here in the chamber for making an unsupported claim during my questioning of Senator Housakos yesterday,” Victor Oh told the Senate on March 30, making reference to his exchange with Conservative Senator Leo Housakos on the issue in the Senate.
“I disagree with Mr. Chiu and Senator Housakos about the issue of disinformation during the last general election but should not have said that Mr. Chiu lied.”
On March 29, Oh told Housakos in the Red Chamber that Chiu, a former Conservative MP, has been “lying to you” about how he fell victim to a disinformation campaign set up by pro-Beijing groups in the country.
Chiu, known for his pro-Chinese democracy stance and an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, lost his seat in the B.C. riding of Steveston–Richmond East in the 2021 federal election.
“It’s nothing compared to what I’ve seen—it’s multi-dimensional,” Chiu said, referring to social media posts, radio commentaries, and online articles in pro-Beijing media that portray him negatively.
As an MP, Chiu had introduced Bill C-282, a private member’s bill that sought to compel those working on behalf of foreign entities to register as foreign agents in order to increase transparency.
But the bill, meant to combat foreign interference, was “deliberately” misrepresented to mislead those in the Chinese community to believe it’s against their interests, Chiu said.
Housakos, who introduced Bill S-237 last month, a bill similar to Chiu’s, told the Senate on March 29 that the disinformation campaign against the former MP and Bill S-282 “was clearly linked to a foreign power.”
The disinformation effort against Chiu was also documented by the Atlantic Council think tank’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), in an article published through Medium, an online publishing platform, in November 2021.
The article noted that HuayiNet, a private translation service with deep ties to the Chinese consulates in Canada, has been taking cues from Chinese state media to spread disinformation through its official WeChat accounts to influence the minds of the Chinese Canadian diaspora community.
One such official WeChat account bears the name of “torontolingshiguan” or “Toronto consulate” in translation. The author Kenton Thibaut said the account, however, was run by an employee of HuayiNet and not directly by the Chinese authorities, as the name would imply.
“This fact appears to be intentionally obscured to give users the initial impression that it is a formal part of the Chinese government, as opposed to being connected to—but not a direct part of—it,” said Thibaut, a resident China fellow with the DFRLab.
Thibaut noted that on September 10, 2021, torontolingshiguan posted an essay it lifted from an article posted a day earlier on “jiarenjiashi,” an official WeChat account run by Today Commercial News, a media outlet purported to share business and lifestyle-related news to Chinese speakers in Canada.
Thibaut pointed out that the essay “urges readers to spread the word” that if Chiu got elected and his bill passed as law, it would result in “widespread suppression and monitoring of the Chinese community in Canada.”
‘I Warned Him’
In the Senate on March 29, Oh accused Chiu of “going bizarre” and acting like a “Minister of Foreign Affairs” while he was still in office. Chiu was vice-chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development from Oct. 20, 2020 to Aug. 15, 2021.
Chiu has cast supportive votes in Parliament to recognize China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims as genocide and called for Magnitsky sanctions on officials responsible for rights violations in Hong Kong.
Oh, however, told the Senate that Chiu was “supposed to work for Canadians, and not Foreign Affairs,” and recounted advising Chiu this in a previous conversation if he wanted to get re-elected.
“But he chose to jump to a different way, and I warned him, and finally, enough. So what happened to the result?” Oh told the Senate.
The Globe and Mail reported that Oh is a frequent traveler to China who accepted an all-expense-paid trip by the Chinese authorities in 2017.
In February 2014, Oh, together with former Canada’s ambassador to China John McCallum, and former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Michael Chan, were also among a group welcoming Qiu Yuanping, then head of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) when she visited Toronto, according to reports on the website of the Chinese Consulate in Toronto.
Federal Court Justice Vanessa Rochester affirmed in January that the OCAO, which operates under China’s United Front apparatus, engaged in espionage activities that are “contrary to Canada’s interest.”
In a document removed from the website of Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo, but that was publicly archived in 2019, it appears that Oh had joined Woo in leading a forum discussion in 2018 in a manner biased against proposed foreign agent registration laws in Canada.
According to the document, the panel discussion was “co-sponsored by Liberal MP Joyce Murray, NDP MP Don Davies, Conservative Senator Victor Oh, and Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo.”
“This was a non-partisan event that was designed to advance parliamentarians’ understanding of the issues in order to minimize the risk of politicization and public over-reaction to concerns about Chinese influence and interference,” the document said.
In the Senate on March 29, Woo again questioned the need for establishing a foreign registry proposed by Housakos through Bill S-237.
Anders Corr and Omid Ghoreishi contributed to this report.