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The Liberal government is assessing how painful China's retaliation would be if Canada decides to expel a diplomat accused of targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Thursday she requested that China's ambassador to Canada be summoned over the affair, saying that outright expulsion is an option on the table.

Chong, meanwhile, said he was told that when Canada's spy agency learned about threats against him and his family in 2021, it shared its intelligence with the prime minister's national security adviser and other departments.

That claim appears to contradict Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's assertion on Wednesday that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service chose not to elevate the information about unspecified threats following Chong's criticism of Beijing's human-rights record.

Trudeau's office maintains that he was left in the dark at the time.

At a parliamentary committee, Joly confirmed media reports that CSIS believes a diplomat working out of China's Toronto consulate had taken note of Chong's relatives abroad.

This happened after the MP sponsored a parliamentary motion condemning Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang as genocide, which passed in the House of Commons.

In an interview that aired on CTV's "Power Play" on Thursday, Chong said he was told that the diplomat was trying to collect information about his family members in the People's Republic of China.

"I've been told that the Ministry of State Security in the People's Republic of China was also doing the same," he said.

@melaniejoly weighs Chinese retaliation over expelling diplomat who #CSIS says targeted MP. #CDNPoli #ForeignInterference #China

"It's clear that they were trying to intimidate, by using the family of an MP, to intimidate an MP and other MPs to affect the course of debate in the House of Commons on foreign policy."

Joly called the targeting of Chong and his family "completely unacceptable."

"All options, including expulsion of diplomats, remain on the table as we consider the consequences for this behaviour," she said.

But in a heated exchange with Chong, she said Ottawa isn't sure whether it will follow demands by the Opposition Conservatives to expel the diplomat in question.

"We're assessing the consequences that we'll be facing in case of diplomatic expulsion, because there will be consequences," Joly warned.

"Economic interests, consular interests and also diplomatic interests will be affected."

The minister raised China's 2018 detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, which was widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Beijing also limited Canadian imports such as canola at the time.

Joly also told reporters she would make a decision "very soon" as to whether one or more Chinese diplomats are sent home.

She informed MPs she had instructed her deputy minister on Thursday to tell Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu that Canada will not tolerate any form of foreign interference in its affairs.

Cong responded in a statement Thursday evening to say that China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries. He accused some politicians and media outlets of manipulating China-related issues for their own gain.

"Once again, China strongly urges the Canadian side to immediately stop this self-directed political farce, and not go further down the wrong and dangerous path. Should the Canadian side continue to make provocations, China will play along every step of the way until the very end," said Cong.

The question of what the Liberal government knew -- and when it knew -- is still not settled.

On Thursday afternoon, Chong told the House of Commons that Jody Thomas, the prime minister's national security adviser, had contacted him to say CSIS had provided her predecessor's office with a July 2021 intelligence assessment that said his family was being targeted by a Chinese diplomat.

He said Thomas told him that CSIS sent the intelligence to the national security adviser, the Privy Council Office and other relevant government departments.

Trudeau and several key ministers have said they only learned about the report from a Globe and Mail article published Monday, which cited a top-secret document and an unnamed security source. The prime minister said Wednesday that he ordered Canada's intelligence agencies to immediately inform MPs of any threats against them, regardless of whether those threats are considered credible.

When asked about Chong's allegations Thursday afternoon, Trudeau offered only: "No comment."

Chong, speaking to reporters later in the day, added that Thomas told him neither Trudeau nor his top aide, Katie Telford, had received information about the threats.

Trudeau spokeswoman Alison Murphy said in a statement that Thomas told Chong "information from CSIS was not briefed up to the prime minister or his office."

The government has noted that in 2021, CSIS briefed Chong after China publicly said it would sanction him for criticizing Beijing's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province. The agency never told Chong about any threats.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is calling on MPs to vote in favour of a motion that calls on the government to take more aggressive steps, including to expel Chinese diplomats involved in foreign interference attempts.

Meanwhile, CSIS shed more light Thursday on other ways it sees China as attempting to meddle in Canadian affairs.

In its 2022 public report, CSIS noted reports that subnational affiliates of China's Ministry of Public Security had set up three overseas "police stations" in Canada without permission from Ottawa.

"CSIS has observed instances where representatives from various investigatory bodies in (China) have come to Canada, often without notifying local law enforcement agencies, and used threats and intimidation in attempting to force 'fugitive' Chinese Canadians and permanent residents to return."

Foreign interference directed at Canada's democratic institutions and processes, at all levels of government, can be an effective way for a foreign state to achieve its immediate and medium- and long-term strategic objectives, the CSIS report says.

"Foreign states — again, directly and via proxies — may seek to influence electoral nomination processes, shape public discourse or influence policy positions of elected officials using covert tactics. The purpose is to advance issues or policies that favour the foreign state, or quell dissent."

The report says these threat actors must be held accountable for their clandestine activities.

"We will also continue to inform national security stakeholders and all Canadians about foreign interference to the fullest extent possible under the CSIS Act, in order to build our national resilience to this pernicious threat," it says.

CSIS reiterates warnings that the Communist government has made plans aiming "to exploit the collaborative, transparent, and open nature of Canada's research and innovation sector in order to serve the PRC's economic, intelligence and military interests."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2023.

— With files from David Fraser, Jim Bronskill and Stephanie Taylor.

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