BEIJING (AP) — China announced the expulsion of a Canadian diplomat on Tuesday in retaliation for Ottawa ordering a Chinese consular official to leave the country over alleged threats he made against a Canadian lawmaker and his family.
The Foreign Ministry said China was deploying a “reciprocal countermeasure to Canada’s unscrupulous move,” which it said it “firmly opposes.”
It said Jennnifer Lynn Lalonde, the top Canadian diplomat in the business hub of Shanghai, has been asked to leave by May 13 and that China “reserves the right to take further actions in response.”
The Canadian Embassy in Beijing had no immediate comment on the expulsion order.
“We understand there is retaliation but we will not be intimidated,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said after the Chinese move. “We will continue to do everything necessary to keep Canadians protected from foreign interference.”
Trudeau's government said it is expelling a Chinese diplomat whom Canada’s spy agency alleged was involved in a plot to intimidate an opposition lawmaker and his relatives in Hong Kong.
China took control of the former British colony in 1997, and in recent years has effectively ripped up an agreement to maintain its unique political and civil rights for 50 years by gutting its democratic institutions and free press. China regularly uses threats against family members to intimidate critics in the Chinese diaspora.
A senior Canadian government official said Toronto-based diplomat Zhao Wei has five days to leave the country. It wasn’t immediately clear if Zhao was still in Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a statement that Canada declared Zhao “persona non grata” and that Canada would “not tolerate any form of foreign interference in our internal affairs.”
“Diplomats in Canada have been warned that if they engage in this type of behavior, they will be sent home," she said.
Canada’s spy service indicated that in 2021, opposition Conservative lawmaker Michael Chong and his Hong Kong relatives were targeted after Chong criticized Beijing’s human rights record. Canada’s spy agency has not released details publicly.
Chong has been critical of Beijing’s treatment of members of the Turkic Muslim Uyghur ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region, hundreds of thousands of whom have been detained in prison-like political reeducation camps. China says attendance at what it calls vocational training centers is purely voluntary and aimed at eliminating tendencies toward Muslim extremism while teaching job skills.
Chong said Zhao's expulsion should have happened years ago.
“I hope that this makes it clear not just to the People’s Republic of China, but other authoritarian states who have representation here in Canada, that this crossing the line of diplomacy into foreign interference threat activities is utterly unacceptable here on Canadian soil,” Chong said.
The senior Canadian government official said the week delay in announcing the expulsion was to allow the foreign minister to meet with cabinet colleagues who had trade-related responsibilities so they could prepare for any economic retaliation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
In a statement posted on its website, the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa said Zhao's expulsion was “based on rumors of the so-called ‘China Interference’ hyped up by some politicians and media.”
“This has seriously violated international law, basic norms governing international relations and the related bilateral agreements, and sabotaged the China-Canada relations,” the statement said. It added that “all consequences arising therefrom shall be borne by the Canadian side."
“China never interferes in other countries’ internal affairs,” it said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin doubled down on China's rejection of the accusations and threats to take further action against Canada.
“China is unwavering in its determination to safeguard its own interests," Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.
"We urge the Canadian side to immediately stop unreasonable provocations. If Canada does not listen to the advice and acts recklessly, China will fight back resolutely and forcefully, and the Canadian side must bear all the consequences arising from this.”
China in recent years has expelled members of the foreign media in retaliation for their reporting or limitations placed on members of the entirely Communist Party-controlled Chinese state media posted in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Expulsions of diplomats are much more rare. In 2020, China ordered the closure of the U.S. Consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu in retaliation for Washington ordering the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which it said was a center of state-sponsored commercial espionage. China denied the allegation.
The revelation about Chong is the latest in a string of foreign interference attempts allegedly made by the Chinese government in Canada in recent years, including efforts to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
Trudeau has appointed former Governor General David Johnston to further study the issue, including whether a public inquiry is needed.
China-Canada relations nosedived after China detained former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, shortly after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecoms giant Huawei and the daughter of the company’s founder, at the behest of U.S. authorities who accused her of fraud.
Many countries labeled China’s action “hostage politics,” while China accused Ottawa of arbitrary detention. The pair, who were accused of vague national security crimes, were released hours after Meng's lawyers ended the nearly 3-year-long feud embroiling Ottawa, Beijing and Washington with a deal under which she accepted responsibility for misrepresenting the company’s business dealings in Iran.
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.