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Canada claims China interfered in its elections

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing criticism over his handling of allegations of Chinese meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections there. The Chinese vehemently deny all accusations. Crispin Thorold has this report.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Tonight, more questions for the prime minister about meddling by China in Canadian elections.

CRISPIN THOROLD, BYLINE: Turn on a Canadian news bulletin in recent weeks...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: On this Friday night, new claims of foreign interference.

THOROLD: ...And there's been no way to avoid the subject of China...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A parliamentary committee continues to study allegations of Chinese interference.

THOROLD: ...Which has made for a difficult time for the prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I understand the extent to which Canadians have very real questions about this.

THOROLD: Trudeau's response was to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate claims of foreign electoral interference. Intelligence leaks to the media alleged that Beijing favored a Liberal minority government at the 2021 elections - that was the result, and the Liberals are Justin Trudeau's party - and also that the Chinese actively supported campaigns against several Conservative MPs at the last two national elections.

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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Mandarin).

THOROLD: There were already tensions which burst into the open last year when China's President Xi Jinping was caught on camera giving Justin Trudeau a very public dressing-down at the G-20.

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XI: (Speaking Mandarin).

THOROLD: The accusation - that Canada had leaked information from private discussions. Diplomatic relations had improved when Justin Trudeau first came to power, but they disintegrated in 2018 when two Canadians were detained in China in apparent retaliation for the Canadian arrest of an executive from the telecoms giant Huawei.

LYNETTE ONG: President Xi is under a lot of pressure to shore up his power, to maintain his legitimacy and, at the same time, to appear strong on the international front.

THOROLD: Lynette Ong is professor of political science at the Munk School at the University of Toronto.

ONG: Right now, there's some sort of pressure on the government to appear strong on China. While that may make the government more popular, it wouldn't necessarily help to come up with effective strategy in dealing with China.

THOROLD: And a long-term Canadian strategy may be what's needed according to activist and author Cheuk Kwan.

CHEUK KWAN: China has a very long-range strategic plan to infiltrate our society, to manipulate people's opinion, as well as to make sure that Canada enacts some policies that might be favorable to China.

THOROLD: China strongly denies wrongdoing. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must be hoping that a visit by President Joe Biden to Canada next week will provide a distraction from the latest allegations. And while the public agenda does not mention China, it's a subject that neither leader can ignore.

For NPR News, I'm Crispin Thorold in Toronto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Crispin Thorold