British Columbia

Blogger vs. businessman: defamation lawsuit rallies supporters in Chinatown

A real estate developer who once hosted the Canadian Prime Minister at his home is suing a local journalist for defamation, arguing that spiteful, false posts hurt his reputation.

'Harm to the plaintiff’s reputation has been considerable, and likely can never be fully undone'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen here at a fundraiser held at the West Vancouver mansion of B.C. developer Miaofei Pan. (Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the Wenszhou People's Government)

Hundreds of people have donated money to help defend a Chinese journalist accused of defaming a high-profile developer in an ongoing civil case in B.C. Supreme Court.

Bing Chen Gao's supporters say the court case is a fight for freedom of speech, but the plaintiff in the case says it's a battle to stop "malicious falsehoods" against him.

The case that's been delayed by interpretation issues highlights the challenges of clarifying what's fact — and what goes too far — when posting online.

Last June more than 280 people gathered at the Floata Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver's Chinatown where Gao raised at least $69,000 toward his legal defence.

Gao has become an outspoken activist bent on ridding Canada of so-called "problematic" leaders in the Chinese community, according to closing submissions filed by the plaintiff in a defamation case against Gao in B.C. Supreme Court.

"Here I'm standing tall with journalist Bing Chen Gao," wrote former COPE mayoral candidate Meena Wong under a picture of herself and other supporters outside court.

She says Gao's writings are blocked in China, but he has a lot of support in Canada.

"We are Canadian, we have to stand with what we value. Freedom of speech. Freedom of press. Not to be afraid of being sued by millionaires," Wong told CBC on Friday.

In closing submissions filed by the plaintiff Miaofei Pan, who was the subject of some of Gao's posts, he claims the blogger unfairly targeted him and painted the respected businessman as a "hideous character."

In court documents Pan calls Gao's online tirades both spiteful and false.

The real estate developer who once hosted the Canadian Prime Minister at his home is suing the Surrey-based journalist for defamation, arguing reputation damage. 

Gao's online posts published on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media site, are the focal point of the the civil matter.

He's fighting to have official Chinese documents admitted as evidence, to prove his stories.

In court Pan's lawyer argued that those documents are unreliable, and he's been tarred unfairly.

"There is an old Chinese saying that if three people all say that this rock is a tiger, then it becomes a tiger," Pan said in closing submissions for his case.

"'Harm to the plaintiff's reputation has been considerable, and likely can never be fully undone," added his lawyer, saying Gao's posts were "made recklessly without regard with whether they were true or false."

Gao admits accusing Pan of a series of misdeeds, including buying leadership positions, in court documents.

Pan made international headlines last year after hosting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Liberal Party fundraising event at his West Vancouver mansion that touched of debates about whether such events equated to "pay for access."

Pan said news reports about the dinner were "honestly mistaken by certain facts." His lawyer sent out a warning letter, but only sued Gao, as he refused to stop.

In a matter unrelated to the court case, Pan faced a recent personal tragedy.

Less than a year after that dinner, on October 22, Pan's $14-million Shaughnessy Mansion — which had stood for more than a century — was destroyed by a fire .

But in court documents Gao claims that Pan's troubles stem back to China, and is trying to have evidence accepted he says proves that.

Pan moved from mainland China to Canada more than a decade ago where he was embroiled in business "troubles" and lawsuits back in his home country, according to Pan's legal submission.

Gao alleged in posts that Pan defrauded real estate investors in China, used a pseudonym to evade $8.3-million in Chinese taxes and collected Canadian child tax benefits, according to Pan's lawyers in documents.

Pan denied all of these claims in court.

"He did not collect child tax benefit because he had enough savings to raise his children comfortably," said his lawyer Lisa Ridgedale in closing arguments in court on Nov. 14 after Pan's accountant testified to the same.

Despite this, the Burnaby newspaper staffer kept posting controversial stories as a "self-styled blogger," using the pen-name Huang Hebian, Pan's legal team said.

Gao, who came under fire in 2016 for controversial attacks of Chinese and Canadian authorities, founded an organization to push Canada to restrict allegedly corrupt Chinese immigrants from entering the country, according to Pan's legal team.

Gao — who is representing himself — is expected to present closing arguments in February.

He did not respond to interview requests.

Pan's legal team refused to do interviews while the court case is ongoing.

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

With files from Jodi Muzylowski