Talking to an Investigative Reporter Who Exposed Chinese Influence in Canada
Talking to an Investigative Reporter Who Exposed Chinese Influence in Canada
by Sebastian Rotella
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
An exclusive news report dominated the headlines in Canada in recent weeks: Canadian intelligence had warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about a vast campaign of political interference by China. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service had learned that Chinese consulate officials in Toronto had covertly funded a network of at least 11 political candidates in federal elections in 2019, the report said. The Chinese operation had also targeted Canadian political figures and immigrant leaders seen as opponents of the regime in Beijing, subjecting them to surveillance, harassment and attacks in the media, the report said. Trudeau responded with promises of action, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they were investigating the alleged foreign interference. The Chinese foreign ministry denied the allegations.
Not surprisingly, the report’s author was Sam Cooper. An investigative journalist for Global News, a private Canadian media organization, the 48-year-old Cooper has done hard-hitting work about a surprisingly active criminal underworld rooted in a large diaspora from Hong Kong, a bastion of the mafias known as triads. His best-selling 2021 book, “Wilful Blindness: How a Network of Narcos, Tycoons and CCP Agents Infiltrated the West,” examines violent international gangs involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and, most alarmingly, Chinese espionage and influence activity in Canada.
Cooper and other experts (including U.S. national security officials interviewed by ProPublica) say Canadian political leaders have ignored or minimized the extent of the threat from China. Cooper has received criticism from pro-Beijing figures in the Chinese-Canadian community and is fighting two defamation lawsuits from subjects of his coverage. But his reporting has drawn praise from national security officials, dissidents of Chinese origin and academics in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. It helped spur a governmental inquiry known as the Cullen Commission, which recently concluded that organized crime had laundered billions of dollars in the province of British Columbia. And the latest revelations of Chinese interference are having a potentially dramatic impact on the political debate in Canada.
ProPublica’s conversation with Cooper has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I wanted to ask you first, in terms of your background, how you got involved in this topic.
I went to University of Toronto. I ended up traveling to Japan for some post-university work and culture. And so I really became enamored and fascinated with East Asian culture.
As a young reporter in Vancouver, and also a young family guy, there were things that I noticed. I started to break ground on how influential money from Hong Kong and mainland China was in Vancouver real estate, how it appeared to be driving prices incredibly high in comparison to local incomes. And that led to finally understanding or digging into the underground casino and underground banking nodes and networks that have been feeding Vancouver.
I recognized pretty early there was a huge, high-level pushback on the reporting to dig into the roots of what I eventually found were extremely high-level tycoons from Hong Kong with triad connections [who] had been developing big portions of Vancouver since the 1980s. And this led to a lot of discoveries.
What's remarkable about the history of this issue in Canada in the past decades is that there’s this prophecy that is rejected or ignored. What was your assessment of Project Sidewinder [a Canadian intelligence report leaked in 1999 that warned of the threat from China-connected tycoons, gangsters and spies] when you were looking at this stuff?
Sidewinder, for let’s just call it the Western or Canadian mind, it was too much too early to understand what they were alleging and pointing to. It just was hard to believe. And so … I took the report with a grain of salt. I didn’t swallow it as truth. And there had been a huge pushback on that report from Ottawa, so I was cautious. But you’re absolutely right. This was basically raw intelligence, it was leaked. So people were able to point to a few flaws, or maybe even the odd overreach. But it is absolutely confirmed and true based on my current work, and my book, that the basic elements of what's alleged — that is, that Chinese intelligence and foreign influence operations use high-level gang bosses to both send money abroad and to corrupt Western societies — is absolutely true and confirmed.
In U.S. press and politics, there’s this ongoing focus on Mexico: drugs in Mexico, corruption in Mexico. There’s very little attention paid to national security issues related to Canada. If you read your book, one has to wonder why there hasn’t been more focus on Canada and the extent to which there is a crisis in Canada that just doesn’t get the attention it should in the United States.
Yeah, that’s right. In some ways, Canada makes the perfect host for very sophisticated, powerful, transnational organized crime that doesn’t typically hang bodies from overpasses. The level of sophistication of Asian organized crime is that people that would appear to be gentleman bankers or stockbrokers can be the leaders of transnational drug trafficking gangs. And further than that, people that are respected officials in the Chinese Communist Party at the end of the day are the handlers and bosses of these elite, transnational Asian gangs. Canada as a G-7 nation, as a banking economy that is tied in at the highest levels of respect with the other leading industrial nations, makes a perfect disguise and host for very sophisticated transnational crime.
There is concern in the U.S. government about some of these structural weaknesses in Canadian legislation and the Canadian law enforcement and judicial culture. You give the example that it takes seven months to get a warrant for a wiretap on Sinaloa cartel guys that would take a couple of days in the U.S. or Australia.
I, like many Canadians, you know, just have the innate sense that Canada’s such a stable, well-ordered, law-abiding society. And often that’s true. But what is missed by so many people is that the laws that … prevent overreach into the lives of law-abiding citizens have been exploited, really, by transnational gangs that have so much cover in Canada.
The perfect example of this is Tse Chi Lop, the Canadian citizen who I and others have reported was at the top of this network of networks of the highest triad bosses, The Company. I reported that there clearly are interconnections with Chinese state police and intelligence agencies. This man, this Canadian, was about to fly from Asia to Toronto. And I understand there was some sort of international police operation to divert his flight away from Canada because Australian and United States police did not have the trust that if Mr. Tse landed in Toronto he would be able to be prosecuted and extradited. The concerns there are that Canada’s legal system is just full of holes. It is much too difficult to prosecute powerful criminals. One of the other issues is the lack of an anti-racketeering law to deal with real organized crime. [ProPublica note: During an extradition hearing in the Netherlands last year, Tse told a judge he was innocent of drug trafficking charges.]
But another huge one … is a growing sense that elite capture, and even corruption, within [the] Canadian government, could be an inhibition to tackling people like Mr. Tse. The questions are: Do Mr. Tse and his network, in a roundabout or even a direct way, have hooks into people like Cameron Ortis, the former Canadian RCMP intelligence boss, who fell in a massive corruption case that I wrote about? Beyond Mr. Ortis, could powerfulpoliticians be linked to powerful triad members or triad leaders in Canada? [ProPublica note: Ortis is awaiting trial and has not yet entered a plea, according to press reports. His attorney did not return a request for comment.]
Your book really lays out your focus on organized crime and the casinos. And that underworld then takes you into the question of political influence and how aggressive the People’s Republic of China has been in political influence operations in Canada, with organized crime as a weapon in that. Why do you think that the PRC has been able to do that?
Australia has been … pretty much a perfect analogue of the PRC methods of infiltration and corruption. Australia and Canada [are] very similar societies. Australia and Canada were in the same dire straits in 2015 when, as we know, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping elevated his United Front [the Communist Party’s overseas influence arm] interference networks. But the response since 2015 has been very different. Australia rightly responded with foreign interference laws around 2017, 2018. And we’ve seen some very, very powerful people now implicated in investigations.
In contrast, in Canada, nothing has been done for the similar threat. We have a bipartisan Parliament group of senior officials with access to intelligence reports, sensitive reports, they make recommendations to government. For several years now, they’ve been asking the Liberal government to follow Australia’s example. And there has really been no change.
And what justification do opponents of something as basic as a foreign agent registration act give for opposing it?
I can't find a good justification. Unfortunately, I think we can look at news circumstances such as when Canadian parliamentarians were debating whether to declare China’s actions in Xinxiang a genocide in 2021. Some Canadian senators … went on the record saying that these kinds of discussions would fan anti-Asian racism.
I probed very deeply [former Canadian legislator] Kenny Chiu’s case. The evidence at the time came from what he told me himself, what I had heard about Canadian intelligence’s deep concerns with what happened to Kenny Chiu and others in the 2021 federal election. And also open source reports at the time that said that clearly Mandarin-language media, which is influenced by the Chinese Communist Party and WeChat networks, attacked Kenny first and foremost ahead of the 2021 election, smearing him as an anti-Asian racist. Again, this is a Hong Kong-born Canadian. They call him a racist because he suggested a foreign influence registry. He did not even name China in the bill. He lost his seat.
So that’s what I call a two-pronged attack on Canadian democracy. Beijing is seeking, I have reported, based on Canadian intelligence, to in corrupt ways fund and advance its interests in candidates. And it is seeking to attack Canadian members of Parliament that it would see as threats to Chinese Communist Party objectives.
The response to your latest reports about a Chinese political influence campaign in Canadian politics seems to be unprecedented.
We can see there’s a very robust debate now about what is lacking in Canada’s foreign interference laws. How deep could this corruption go? How aggressive are China’s actions? Could they turn elections in their favor? These questions are now being debated almost every day in Canada’s Parliament. And I can say we’ve never seen that level of attention before.
And in your case, personally, there must be some sense of vindication.
Now I have access to the intelligence that can’t be refuted that exactly what I was reporting was happening. And not only do I believe, I’ve been told my reporting has been [the] subject of counternarratives from Chinese espionage and intelligence networks who are very uncomfortable and angry about my reporting. So I don’t know that vindication is the word more than I just, I deeply believe, and I’m told by a lot of people, that really this could be precedent-setting historic work for helping us support Canada's democracy.
People in Canadian police and intelligence, and in other countries, those communities are starting to share information because they see that I’ve got it right, because they see that it’s making a difference in areas where it needs to make a difference.
And even more importantly, my sourcing comes from the communities that are most directly impacted by these networks: Chinese-Canadian, Hong Kong-Canadian, Taiwanese, Uighur communities. And certainly not to suggest that they’re victims without agency. They have great agency, they are some of the best sources to police and intelligence themselves.
And I would add that people inside United Front criminal networks are some of my best sources. And how could that be? Well, China rules by fear, and also inducements and greed. And there are people that could fall out of favor, and people that have consciences, and yet maybe we could say they’re trapped within those networks, that are very eager to share information. They don’t want to see criminal thugs holding a lot of power in the broad community or just in the Asian community in Canada.
Sebastian Rotella is a senior reporter at ProPublica. An award-winning foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, he worked for almost 23 years for the Los Angeles Times before joining ProPublica in 2010. He covers international security issues including terrorism, intelligence, organized crime, human rights and migration. His reporting has taken him across the Americas and Europe, and to the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.
In 2020, Sebastian was part of the ProPublica team whose coverage of the pandemic and the CDC was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for public service. The Association of Health Care Journalists gave that coverage the Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism in the investigative category.
In 2016, he was co-writer and correspondent for Terror in Europe, a Frontline documentary that was a finalist for the Investigative Reporters and Editors broadcast/video award. In 2013, his Finding Oscar investigation with This American Life won a Peabody Award, a Dart Center Award, and two awards from the Overseas Press Club. In 2012, he was recognized with Italy’s Urbino Press Award for excellence in American journalism. His A Perfect Terrorist investigation of the Mumbai attacks (with Frontline) was nominated for an Emmy, and the online version of the story got an Overseas Press Club Award in 2011.
In 2006, he was named a Pulitzer finalist for international reporting for his L.A. Times coverage of terrorism and Muslim communities in Europe, which won the German Marshall Fund’s senior award for excellence in European reporting. He was part of a team whose coverage of al-Qaida received an Overseas Press Club award and finalist honors for Harvard University’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2002. In 2001, he won Columbia University’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize for his career coverage of Latin America. His work in Latin America also won honors from the Overseas Press Club, Inter-American Press Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
At the L.A. Times, Sebastian served as a correspondent at the Mexican border, in South America and in Europe. His border reporting inspired two songs on Bruce Springsteen’s album The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995).
Sebastian is the author of three novels: Rip Crew (2018), The Convert’s Song (2014), and Triple Crossing (2011).He is also the author of Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border (1998). He speaks Spanish, French and Italian. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, studied at the University of Barcelona, and was born in Chicago.
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.