A Canadian member of parliament has stepped down from his party’s caucus over allegations he was involved in Chinese political interference.
Han Dong has been accused of lobbying a Chinese diplomat to keep two Canadians imprisoned in Beijing.
On Wednesday, Mr Dong said that he will leave Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberal Party to sit as an independent. Mr Dong has denied the allegations against him.
“To all my colleagues in the parliament, media reports today quoting unverified and anonymous sources have attacked my reputation and called into question my loyalty to Canada,” Mr Dong, who was elected to parliament in 2019, said in an emotional evening address to Canada’s House of Commons.
“Let me be clear, what has been reported is false. And I will defend myself against these absolutely untrue claims,” he said.
In an unconfirmed report published by Canadian media oulet Global News citing anonymous national security sources, Mr Dong was accused of suggesting to China’s consul-general in Toronto, Han Tao, that the release of two imprisoned Canadians should be delayed.
The two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were imprisoned in China for more than 1,000 days on spying charges. The pair became known worldwide as the “Two Michaels”.
Their detention was widely viewed as retaliation for the 2018 arrest of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada at the request of the US, who was seeking her extradition on fraud charges.
According to the Global News report, Mr Dong allegedly suggested to the diplomat in February 2021 that a release of the two Canadians would benefit the federal Conservative Party of Canada, which is seen as unfriendly to Beijing.
Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor were eventually released on 24 September, 2021. The following day, Ms Wanzhou was released from detention in Canada and returned to China following a deal with US prosecutors.
The allegations against Mr Dong come as Canada grapples with wider accusations that China attempted to interfere in the last two federal elections and a mayoral election in Vancouver.
A series of reports published in recent months by broadcaster Global News and newspaper The Globe and Mail, based on anonymous national security sources and leaked classified documents, indicated concerns that Beijing interfered by putting pressure on its consulates in Canada to support certain candidates.
The alleged interference is not believed to have altered the outcome of either federal elections.
Mr Trudeau has faced growing political pressure to launch a public inquiry and this month appointed an independent special rapporteur to look into the reports and determine whether such an inquiry is needed. A majority of MPs in the House of Commons on Thursday passed a non-binding motion calling for a public inquiry, with most Liberals voting against it. Mr Dong cast his vote in favour.
In February, the prime minister defended Mr Dong following a report that the MP might have been compromised.
“I want to make everyone understand fully that Han Dong is an outstanding member of our team and suggestions that he is somehow not loyal to Canada should not be entertained,” Mr Trudeau said.
Mr Dong confirmed to Global News that he did speak with diplomat Han Tao but said he called for the immediate release of the two Canadians.
In statement to Global on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Mr Trudeau said the prime minister’s office “only became aware that a conversation took place after Mr Dong told us, following recent media questions”.
The Chinese consulate in Toronto said on Thursday that claims of interference by China “are utterly groundless”.
“It is the responsibility of consular posts to have extensive contacts and carry out friendly exchanges with local governments and all circles of society,” the statement said.
A spokesman for China’s minister of foreign affairs, Wang Wenbin, did not comment on the specific allegations against Mr Dong, but 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.
Some Chinese-Canadian politicians have raised concerns about the anonymous allegations in news reports, saying they may be racially motivated.