Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow meets with group aligned with China
A Chow supporter says such meetings are a ‘necessary evil’ to reach Chinese immigrants, while another cautions ‘not to jump into any conclusion’
Author of the article:Tom Blackwell
Published May 15, 2023
Olivia Chow has generally not been a close friend of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The veteran NDP politician has in the past organized events defending democracy activists in Hong Kong, was among a handful of MPs who stood in the House of Commons and commemorated the Tiananmen Square massacre and attended Tiananmen vigils.
But the leading contender in Toronto’s mayoral byelection is raising some eyebrows after speaking to and being welcomed with a gift from a group that has aligned itself repeatedly with the Chinese government and some of its most controversial policies.
The Council of Newcomer Organizations, founded by former Liberal MP Geng Tan, claims its goal is to unite “all Canadian ethnic communities” and has received $160,000 in funds from federal departments over the years.
But it has also issued public statements harshly criticizing pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong – before that movement was all but crushed by Beijing – and decrying a parliamentary motion in 2019 that accused China of perpetrating a genocide against its Muslim Uyghur minority.
Called the Federation of Canadian Chinese Associations in Chinese, the council sends Canadian youth on “roots-seeking” trips organized by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the CCP branch that spearheads Beijing’s influence and interference efforts worldwide. Two former presidents of the group attended official events in China recently at the invitation of the UFWD. And an Australian report profiled the group as a case study of how Beijing spreads propaganda about the Uyghurs.
Charles Burton, a Macdonald Laurier Institute expert on China, said Chow once invited him to take part in an event featuring a Hong Kong critic of Beijing. He said he was surprised she would associate with the Council.
“I think it’s regrettable that she attended this meeting and received a gift from them,” Burton said. “The whole thing is puzzling. I just don’t understand. I am puzzled that she would be so involved with a group that seems to have such close ties to the Chinese consulate.”
A supporter of Chow’s who asked not to be identified said he also wished she had not met with the Newcomers organization. But the person said such meetings were a “necessary evil” for any politician who wished to reach out to Toronto’s community of mainland-China immigrants.
“I would be cautious not to jump into any conclusion at this point of time,” added Gloria Fung of the group Canada Hong Kong Link, a staunch critic of Beijing. “Proxies of CCP like to endorse any candidate with winnability. That does not necessarily imply the candidate they endorse has been compromised.”
The Council did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Shirven Rezvany, a spokeswoman for Chow, said the group did not invite her to the meeting and did not endorse her. She arrived midway through and “brought greetings.”
“Olivia Chow has always stood up for the forces of freedom, human rights and democracy here in Canada, in China and beyond,” said Rezvany. “Since 1989, Olivia has stood side by side with pro-democracy advocates at the annual Tiananmen massacre commemoration in Toronto and incurred the wrath of some people that supported the Chinese government.”
The candidate does not agree with any organization that denies rights abuses or stifles democracy, she added.
Recent polls have placed Chow in first place among several candidates vying to replace John Tory, who stepped down as mayor suddenly after admitting to having an affair with a member of his staff.
The election is slated for June 26.
In fact, she’s not the only prominent Toronto-area politician to have rubbed shoulders with the Council. Current Liberal Trade Minister Mary Ng posted pictures of her celebrating the lunar New Year with the group in 2019, praising its efforts to promote “diversity and inclusion.”
More recently, interference and influence efforts by China or its representatives have come to dominate Canadian politics, after media reports quoted intelligence documents that accuse Beijing of meddling in federal and other elections.
Among those reports, the Globe and Mail cited a Canadian Security Intelligence Service briefing that said Chinese diplomats tried to get sympathetic candidates elected in last year’s Vancouver municipal vote, in part by using diaspora groups that represented Beijing’s interests. Ken Sim, who won the mayor’s race in a landslide, has denied that such interference played any part in his victory.
According to a report on the Easyca.ca site, Chow spoke to the council April 30 about her campaign, before the group’s executive chairman, Xing Jiyuan, presented her with a gift of a large Chinese porcelain vase and wished her electoral success.
Despite its stated goal to bring together various ethnic groups, the council’s charter stipulates that member associations must represent Chinese Canadians.
At least twice in recent years, it has publicly echoed talking points of the PRC government. In one newspaper ad it condemned the mass Hong Kong protests of 2019 as the work of extremists colluding with foreign powers. In another, it dismissed the Commons resolution on Uyghur genocide as the product of “ignorance and prejudice” against China.
Its ties to Beijing reach further, though. Then head Zhu Jiang, a member of the People’s Liberation Army before immigrating to Canada, was invited by the United Front to Beijing for 2019’s lavish celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. Zhu wept while watching a military parade through Tiananmen Square, realizing how much he “loved the motherland,” he told the SuperLife news site.
About the same time, a former leader of the council was acting as “class captain” at an event in Beijing for “overseas Chinese” leaders, who were urged in part to defend “the core interests of the Chinese nation.”
The council was cited by Australian academics in a report last year on how the Chinese government tries to mold world opinion about the Uyghur issue by using front groups in other countries.
Its statement on the genocide motion was repeated by China’s state media “to prove that members of the Chinese diaspora disagree with the Canadian parliament’s decision,” said the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report.