Any “malicious interference” in domestic affairs by foreign representatives here would be inappropriate, a federal official warned Wednesday in the wake of incidents that saw students from China angrily attack Tibetan and Uyghur activists at two Ontario universities.
But the spokeswoman for Kirsty Duncan, minister responsible for universities, declined to address a call for Ottawa to investigate whether Chinese diplomats are using such students to meddle in Canadian post-secondary institutions.
The request for a federal probe raised to a new level concerns over Beijing’s attempts at moulding opinion in Canada — even as Chinese diplomats deny they played any part in the two recent episodes.
Two Muslim student groups, Uyghur-Canadian activist Rukiye Turdush and Students for a Free Tibet raised the issue in a letter Wednesday to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
“We are asking for an investigation into the role of the Chinese Government in these two incidents to ensure that we can freely exercise our constitutional rights,” they said.
It does seem to be quite problematic if the Chinese embassy feels it can direct the activities of Chinese students in Canada in ways not consistent with the norms of academic freedoms
In one of the cases this month, Chinese students launched a petition — garnering 11,000 digital “signatures” — calling for the removal of a Tibetan-Canadian woman just elected as a student union president at the University of Toronto, as the student herself, Chemi Lhamo, faced a barrage of abusive online messages.
In the other incident, five Chinese student groups — acknowledging they had been in contact with the Chinese consulate — criticized McMaster University in Hamilton for permitting a talk by a Uyghur–Canadian woman that highlighted well-documented abuses against her people in China’s Xinjiang province.
There’s no direct evidence the Chinese students were acting under Beijing’s orders, but in online messages the McMaster students mentioned contacting China’s Toronto consulate. The Tibetan and Uyghur activists are convinced local diplomats were involved.
Freeland and Goodale’s offices referred a query from the National Post to the office of Science and Sport Minister Duncan, who’s also responsible for universities.
Any place of learning should be free of abuse, discrimination, harassment and hate, said Duncan press secretary Daniele Medlej in a statement.
“It is also important to note that any malicious interference in domestic affairs by foreign representatives to Canada would be inappropriate,” she added.
China’s embassy could not be reached for comment Wednesday. In an earlier statement, it denied playing any role, while accusing critics of trying to stir up anti-China sentiment. It also said Beijing opposes anyone who “provides support and convenience of any kind to the Xinjiang separatists forces and Tibet-independent activities.”
Added the embassy: “We strongly support the just and patriotic actions of Chinese students.”
Outside experts supported the call for the federal government to get involved, saying Ottawa has for too long seemingly paid little heed to China’s covert soft-power campaign.
“It does seem to be quite problematic if the Chinese embassy feels it can direct the activities of Chinese students in Canada in ways not consistent with the norms of academic freedoms,” said Charles Burton, a Brock University professor and former Canadian diplomat in Beijing.
If they are using those students to monitor the activities of others at universities, that would be a violation of their diplomatic status and possible grounds for being declared persona non grata — which would have them expelled from Canada, he said.
Given past history, it is hard to believe the embassy’s assertion that it was not involved in the Toronto and McMaster affairs, says author Jonathan Manthorpe, whose just-published book “Claws of the Panda” deals with Beijing’s influence campaign here.
“This appears to be another case where Ottawa should step forward and make clear it will not allow (Chinese Communist Party) agents to mastermind acts of intimidation in Canada,” he said.
Cheuk Kwan, spokesman for the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said he is convinced the Chinese consulate was involved in the two university conflicts.
But he said such campus free-speech questions are a relatively minor issue, and that the federal government should focus more on addressing China’s influence on politicians in Canada.