A widening diplomatic spat between China and Canada is raising fears that Beijing is not only intimidating critics abroad but stepping up efforts to influence the political system of one of the world’s leading democracies.

The two countries have now expelled diplomats in tit-for-tat moves, after Canada said a Toronto-based Chinese official was involved in attacking one of its lawmakers and his family. Beijing denied the accusation and responded with what it said on Tuesday were «reciprocal countermeasures.»

«The expulsion of diplomats from both countries is a serious act,» said Wang Yiwei, director of the International Affairs Research Center at Renmin University of China. «It proves that the relationship between the two countries has regressed to a great extent.»

The saga follows years of contentious ties, but comes as China increasingly tries to be seen as a neutral power as it tries to nudge the United States out on the world stage.

NBC News takes a look at what’s behind the dispute.

What’s behind the fuss in Canada?

At the center of this incident is a report leaked by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The spy service alleged that a Toronto-based Chinese diplomat, Zhao Wei, was involved in efforts to intimidate opposition Conservative lawmaker Michael Chong and his family in Hong Kong.

Chong was singled out, he said, after he spearheaded Canada’s legislative efforts to label China’s alleged human rights abuses against its Uyghur Muslim minority population as genocide, something he denies despite documentary evidence and witness testimony. .

Conservative lawmaker Michael Chong and his Hong Kong relatives were allegedly attacked after Chong criticized Beijing’s human rights record. File Sean Kilpatrick / AP

The report dated 2021 was made public after The Globe and Mail newspaper reported the news last week.but the spy agency has not made the details public.

It said China has «taken specific steps to target Canadian lawmakers» including collecting information about Chong’s family members «who may be located in ‘China’ for potential additional sanctions,» the newspaper said. This, the Globe said, citing unnamed intelligence sources, was part of a broader effort to oppose conservative politicians seen as hostile to Beijing and boost Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ruling liberals.

Other revelations included allegations of covert funding and saw a lawmaker quit Trudeau’s party after denying improper dealings with Chinese officials.

NBC News has not confirmed the details of the leaked intelligence reports. But Trudeau has all but confirmed his push, telling reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday, “We will not be intimidated. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to keep Canadians safe from foreign interference.»

Chong said he had not been warned by intelligence agencies that his family might have been at risk and that he was «deeply disappointed» to learn from a national newspaper report.

On Monday, the Canadian Foreign Ministry declared Zhao «persona non grata» and told him to leave. Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said in a statement that Canada «will not tolerate any form of foreign interference.»

The revelations have sent up a storm in Canada and have focused criticism on Trudeau, who says he was unaware of the intelligence report, as well as the Chinese government. Commentators and political opponents have questioned why Trudeau only ousted Zhao a week after the intelligence leaked, let alone two years after the report was written.

What was China’s response?

China’s response was swift.

Its Foreign Office said Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, a Shanghai-based Canadian diplomat, had four days to leave the country, calling it a «reciprocal countermeasure in reaction to Canada’s rogue move.»

Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accused Canada on Tuesday of «a smear campaign against China» and «ideologically-based political manipulation» that was «absurd» and based on «lies.» He called the leaked intelligence document «baseless and purely fabricated with ulterior motives.»

“We advise the Canadian side to immediately stop the unreasonable provocations,” Wang added. “If the Canadian side does not listen to the advice and acts recklessly, China will respond with determination and forcefulness.”

Writing in the Global Timesa state-backed nationalist tabloid, its former editor Hu Xijin accused Canada of being an “American puppet state” that was “painting China in its own ugly image”.

NBC News has contacted the Canadian embassy in Beijing for comment.

China said on May 9 it would expel Canada's consul in Shanghai in a tit-for-tat move after Ottawa announced it would send home a Chinese diplomat accused of trying to intimidate a lawmaker.
The Canadian consulate general in Shanghai on Tuesday. Hector Retamal / AFP – Getty Images

Why does the dispute matter?

The story touches on some key themes in the uneasy relationship between China and the West.

For critics of Beijing, China’s alleged attack on Chong would be another example of Beijing seeking to put pressure on people and institutions abroad that have been critical on issues it feels defensive about.

In the past, he has pulled NBA games from the air in retaliation for comments made by stars and team owners, allegedly harassed members of the Uyghur diaspora for speaking out and has been accused of setting up illegitimate police stations in New York and elsewhere.

Trudeau has appointed former Governor-General David Johnston to look further into the issue of alleged Chinese interference, even if a public inquiry is needed.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said it was «totally appropriate» for Canada to expel the diplomat.

«In fact, it should have been done a while ago,» he told NBC News. «It sends a very clear message to China that the Canadian government will not tolerate any further interference.»

He also called China’s response «proportionate» because «they could have decided to expel someone higher up.»

On China’s side, it is further proof that Western countries are being swept up in anti-China sentiment at the behest of the US.

«Canada just doesn’t put the fundamental interest of China-Canada relations at a very high level of scrutiny, and they just cave to pressure points from Washington,» said Victor Gao, a prominent political affairs analyst with close ties to the Communist Party. Party. «They are closely following the hostility against China initiated by the United States.»

China is Canada’s second largest trading partner. But the countries have certainly had some difficult years. Trudeau previously accused China of meddling in the 2019 and 2021 Canadian elections, without changing the outcome, something Beijing denies.

In 2018, Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and China detained «the two Michaels,» former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, who were released in an apparent exchange in 2021.

If the mood was bad then, China’s view is that it is substantially worse now.

«It seems that Canada is more and more subjugated to the anti-China tsunami launched by the United States, and it seems that the Canadian government is more and more subjugated to such hostilities against China,» said Wang of Renmin University.