Politics Chatter
Politics Chatter

POLITICS CHATTER: Of lust and espionage (Mark Bourrie’s take on the Xinhua scandal)

Contributing Editor Mark Bourrie notes that he has never been propositioned (by spies or MPs) while working in the employ of Xinhua.

At a Parliament Hill Christmas party in 2009, my wife, kids and I sat with a nice Chinese family who were just a few weeks from moving back to Beijing after a four-year stint in Canada. Yang Shilong was Xinhua’s bureau chief. The agency was looking to go mainstream, he said, and they needed staff and freelancers.

I’d never heard of Xinhua. A little research found that it was the official Chinese news agency. In recent years, because of budget cuts, it had gone into construction, public relations, and special interest magazines to make ends meet. It was about to launch a Chinese and English-language news network, a sort of Chinese al Jazeera.

The idea of talking to China, being a Canadian voice in the Chinese media, was intriguing. The country is the most dynamic place on earth right now. If I could define Canada for Chinese readers, I could help build bridges between the two countries. Hopefully, China would continue to reform, and Chinese-Canadian links would be beneficial to both countries.

There was one drawback. It was a common perception Xinhua was a spy agency.

The split-level house in Billings Bridge was described in Canada’s media as the “Xinhua compound.” The husband and wife teams sent out from Beijing were supposedly agents of Chinese intelligence agencies.

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.

Tory MP Bob Dechert has made a fool of himself by sending love letter e-mails to Shi Rong, a member of Xinhua’s Toronto bureau. (In the entire country, Xinhua has about ten staffers and a handful of freelancers). The “scandal,” which was unleashed when Shi’s husband — obviously a brave man, if you buy the espionage narrative — sent the emails to about 250 Canadians ranging from the Prime Minister to obscure professors.

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.

“You are so beautiful. I really like the picture of you by the water with your cheeks puffed. That look is so cute, I love it when you do that. Now, I miss you even more,”  Dechert said in an April 17, 2010 e-mail.

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.

Xinhua is a strange, very Chinese organization. It is controlled by the Chinese state, but Beijing has been cutting its budget and privatizing it for years. The government owns just 40 percent of Xinhua directly and had, on average, been cutting its budget by 7 percent a year recently.

To make ends meet, Xinhua’s had to try to make it as a legit media organization, while still pleasing its major shareholder. It has agreements with most of the world’s major news services to share stories and pictures. In the Third World, where China is trying to generate economic and political influence, Xinhua is a major news supplier to media that can’t afford the rates charged by Western agencies.

But anyone dealing with any Chinese state–owned company, including Xinhua, should always keep in mind that they are dealing with the Chinese government. The idea of an adversarial press doesn’t go down well in the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. Xinhua prides itself on being the official Chinese news service. When you go to Chinaview.net and read the stories about China, you’re reading the government line.

Outside China, things are different. In my 18 months selling articles to Xinhua, I’ve never seen any sign of partisanship when it comes to Canadian politics. Xinhua’s tiny Canadian contingent treats everyone in power with a level of reverence that would make even the most egotistical politician blush.

Xinhua’s Ottawa people scrupulously cover the speeches and actions of the Governor-General, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Speaker of the Senate. Hold any kind of gala for anyone with a title and Xinhua will likely send someone to cover it.

They are intrigued by elections, but not by polls. The sports-like coverage of politics rarely shows up in Xinhua copy. Instead, they want to know what party leaders are saying about domestic issues. And if a leader says something good about China, they carry a story on it. If someone slams China or its policies, Xinhua ignores them.

If anything, Xinhua brings to its coverage of Canada the same deference that it applies to China. The Xinhua people I’ve met in Canada have a tenuous grasp on Canadian politics, a complete ignorance of the public service, the lobbyists and the political operatives that actually run things in Ottawa, and have no interest in Canadian economics, except to publish official stats on unemployment, inflation, and the Bank of Canada rate.

It does follow the comings and goings of Falan Gong and the Dalai Lama. If anyone is being spied on by Xinhua, it’s them. Still, the Dalai Lama’s handlers accredited Xinhua for a speech last week in Montreal by the exiled Tibetan leader.

There’s a strong anti-China lobby whose front men are ex-CSIS agents who are being quoted in this country’s best papers saying Xinhua is an arm of Chinese intelligence. They’re right that anything you tell Xinhua is being told to someone who might tell someone in Beijing. Giving anything sensitive or secret to any reporter is a dumb thing to do.

When dealing with any journalist, Xinhua or New York Times, don’t tell them anything you don’t want on a billboard. Simple as that.

(Writing lusty e-mails to married women, reporters or not, is always profoundly stupid.)

As for Xinhua being a security risk, it’s one that CSIS doesn’t seem to take too seriously. Before writing for Xinhua, I gave CSIS a call. The brusque man who answered the phone in both official languages put me through to an answering machine.

I told the machine I had been approached by Xinhua. I asked the CSIS machine if Xinhua was a danger to the Canadian state. I told it that if there was any reason why I should not write for Xinhua, could a human call me back.

No one ever did.

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