Storm Over Canadian MP's Flirtatious Emails to Xinhua Reporter

Fears of Chinese espionage have been inflamed in Canada by the revelation of flirtatious emails sent by Conservative MP Bob Dechert last year to Shi Rong of Xinhua’s Toronto bureau. From The Globe and Mail:

This all came to light Thursday night when a mass e-mail was sent to more than 240 media, academic, political and business contacts across Canada. The missive contained the text of intimate messages written by Mr. Dechert, including ones where he professes love for Ms. Shi ….

“The person is a journalist whom I have come to know as a friend. I met her while doing Chinese-language media communications,” the MP said.

“These e-mails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that – a friendship. I apologize for any harm caused to anyone by this situation.”

Trying to explain why his amorous e-mails to the Chinese reporter were made public, Mr. Dechert said: “my understanding is that her e-mails were hacked as part of an ongoing domestic dispute.”

While Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, under whom Dechert serves as a parliamentary secretary, has stood by him, others argue that the revelations have rendered that position untenable. Also from The Globe and Mail (from which all remaining blockquotes are taken unless otherwise noted):

Mr. Baird called the whole thing “ridiculous” on Sunday, but one of the country’s leading experts on China thinks Ontario MP Bob Dechert should give up his role as parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister.

“I think that Mr. Dechert should resign from his parliamentary secretary role because he made a serious error in judgment – whether it resulted in the exchange of bodily fluids or not,” said Charles Burton, a university professor who served as Canadian diplomat in China a decade ago.

“This sort of thing should not be allowed to go on. There’s too much of it going on. A message needs to be sent,” Mr. Burton said in an interview. “It suggests that people who have security clearances are not getting adequate briefings of what they should be looking out for.”

The opposition Liberal party, though, has refrained from calling on Dechert to go:

John McCallum, for example, has said that Mr. Dechert “exhibited poor judgment” but he did not call for his resignation. “My own view is that if we are continuously calling for resignations at every misstep, we devalue the message,” Mr. McCallum told The Globe Wednesday morning.

Shi Rong, meanwhile, has returned to China ahead of schedule, her future uncertain.

Media coverage has frequently stressed Xinhua’s position “on a continuum between a legitimate Chinese journalistic organization and an arms-length extension of Beijing’s security apparatus“.

“Any politician in Canada who has any relations with Xinhua should be aware that Xinhua is the voice of the government of China and that one should be very, very careful in his or her dealings,” said [Senator Jim] Munson, a Liberal.

“You have to recognize that Xinhua is the communications arm, the propaganda arm, the voice of the government of China ….”

“The function of the Xinhua news agency is not to provide reporting that will provide information to the Chinese newspaper readership, but to gather information, some of which is used for internal purposes,” said Charles Burton, a Brock University professor and former diplomat to China.

“It should be made clear to Canadians with security clearances that contacts with the Xinhua news agency amount to contacts with agents of a foreign power and therefore one should be very prudent.”

At Ottawa Magazine, however, former Xinhua contributor Mark Bourrie argued that theories of outright espionage are, in this case at least, unconvincing:

It makes for wonderful copy when a middle-aged backbencher sends lusty e-mails to a Xinhua reporter, but if Xinhua is typical of a Chinese spy agency, we have nothing to worry about ….

The story’s been torqued by The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star (which has a business relationship with Xinhua through its Ming Pao Chinese-Canadian newspaper) into a spy scandal, one in which a horny, gullible pol has been ensnared by the inscrutable Chinese.

One of the holes in the “honey trap” theory is the lack of any sign of entrapment of Dechert. Shi’s e-mails to him are hardly seductive. It’s Dechert who seems utterly smitten, as gaga as a 15-year-old boy experiencing his first pangs of lust ….

Another problem with the seduction-by-spy scenario is the fact that Shi is married. You’d think a spy agency that was going to run a sting on a Member of Parliament would choose an operative who does not have a jealous husband.

The Globe and Mail noted that female Xinhua reporters themselves have frequently been subject to suspicion from Chinese authorities, citing Zhang Haiyan, a former Xinhua correspondent who was fired from her position in the Canadian civil service in 2003 because of concerns over divided loyalties:

Ms. Zhang wrote that … young, single women workers like herself were considered “gullible” and “easy targets of corruption by Western ideas and Western men.” Government minders shadowed such correspondents back and forth from China to the field.

For its part, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa has criticised the tone of Canadian media coverage:

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa told The Globe and Mail the country has nothing to say about the personal relationship between Mr. Dechert, 53, and Ms. Shi ….

“We have noted related reports, but are in no position to comment on ‘domestic disputes’ and privacy of those involved,” the embassy spokesman said, asking he not be named. “However, it must be pointed out that it is irresponsible to use this to defame the Chinese Government.”

Sources:

Tory MP apologizes for ‘flirtatious’ e-mails to Chinese reporter – The Globe and Mail
Baird stands by MP who flirted by e-mail with Chinese reporter – The Globe and Mail
Why aren’t Liberals calling for Tory MP’s head over amorous emails? – The Globe and Mail
Journalist in Bob Dechert affair returns to China – The Globe and Mail
China’s Xinhua a trap for unwary Western politicians – The Globe and Mail
Of lust and espionage (Mark Bourrie’s take on the Xinhua scandal) – Ottawa Magazine
Tory MP who flirted with Chinese reporter passed security check – The Globe and Mail
Chinese envoy decries ‘irresponsible’ coverage of Tory MP’s e-mail affair – The Globe and Mail

September 15, 2011 11:30 PM
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