Trudeau MP accused of colluding with Beijing to delay release of Canadian diplomats

·3-min read
Han Dong
Han Dong

An MP in Justin Trudeau’s party has resigned amid allegations he urged Chinese officials to delay the release of two imprisoned Canadians for political benefit.

Han Dong, a lawmaker from the governing Liberal Party caucus who represents a district in Toronto, allegedly told Beijing’s general consul in early 2021 that the release of the two men should be delayed because an earlier release would benefit the opposition Conservative Party going into an election.

Mr Dong’s resignation is the latest chapter in a growing scandal for the progressive prime minister involving allegations of Chinese meddling in Canada's elections.

China detained Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, in late 2018 on espionage charges. However, the move was widely seen as retaliation for the earlier arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a US extradition request.

Mr Meng, Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor were released and allowed to return to their countries in September 2021. Mr Dong admitted that he did meet with the diplomat but disputed how the conversation about the men known as the “two Michaels” was characterised.

Meng Wanzhou - Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg
Meng Wanzhou - Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg

Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper had reported that Chinese diplomats and their proxies worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered more hostile towards Beijing during the 2021 election.

Shanghai-born Mr Dong, who moved to Toronto aged 13, was named last month as one of the MPs helped by an election interference network that intelligence agencies claim was run out of the Chinese Consulate in Toronto.

The case has mounted pressure on Mr Trudeau, threatening to bring down his fragile government as lawmakers say that at best he is not taking the allegations seriously and at worst he has something to hide.

The prime minister’s office said on Wednesday that it had only become aware of the controversy when questioned by the newspaper. A spokesman suggested Mr Dong was not acting on behalf of the government, saying the MP was never used as a “back channel”.

Mr Trudeau had dismissed the allegations against Mr Han as racist and defended his caucus member, saying that Canadians of Chinese origin should be encouraged to get involved in politics.

Calls for public inquiry

The prime minister repeatedly resisted calls for a public inquiry, instead announcing he would appoint an “eminent” Canadian as a special rapporteur into the issue of election interference.

Mr Trudeau has said Beijing has attempted to meddle in Canada's elections, but he insists that two reports by an intelligence task force set up to study foreign influence in elections have said the outcome of both the 2019 and 2021 elections were not altered.

In a tearful address to the House of Commons which received a standing ovation, Mr Dong announced he was stepping down from the Liberal Party on Wednesday. He plans to sit as an independent.

“I raised the status of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig and called for their immediate release,” Mr Dong said. “At every opportunity before they returned home, I adamantly demanded their release to Canada without delay. Any suggestions otherwise are false and are attempts to mislead you and your readers, and slander me.”

Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China's minister of foreign affairs, did not comment on the specific allegations against Mr Dong, but has denied that Beijing ever attempted to interfere in Canadian politics.

"China opposes interference in other countries' internal affairs. We have no interest in and will not interfere in Canada's internal affairs," Mr Wenbin said on Thursday.