Xinhua under the microscope: The Dechert case

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, has been called everything from an intelligence-gathering arm of the government to a puppet for state officials. We take a closer look.
Toronto-area MP Bob Dechert is pictured with Shi Rong, right, in an undated photo. Dechert, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, acknowledges he sent flirtatious emails to Shi, a Toronto-based journalist with China's state-run news agency.

Conservative MP Bob Dechert has admitted that he sent "flirtatious" emails to Shi Rong, a journalist working in Toronto for China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, a revelation that propelled the politician into the forefront of the news.

Who they are

Bob Dechert: Conservative MP.

Shi Rong: Chinese journalist working for Xinhua in Toronto.

It also raised questions about the nature of Xinhua and whether national security was breached in some way. When the emails were sent in 2010, Dechert was serving as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice.

Dechert apologized, Rong left Canada and opposition members called for the MP’s head on a political platter, a call that could grow more vocal as Parliament resumes this week and attention is once again turned to all things political.

What is Xinhua?

It is a state-controlled news agency (TV, radio, online) that has a number of offices in China and a substantial foreign presence, with reportedly more than 120 journalists around the world.

It’s more than a news organization to many, though, as analysts and foreign governments pay close attention to what items appear on the service, as a given article may signal a message from the often tight-lipped leadership of the country.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, for example, looked at a Xinhua article that featured foreign experts who claimed China was leading the way in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

A CSIS report noted: "This article appeared to be an effort to counter widespread international — and rising domestic elite —criticism of China’s handling of policy toward North Korea following the Yeonpyeong and Cheonan incidents in 2010."

Xinhua reports on a broad range of stories across the world and domestically, but a search of its website in mid-September showed it had not reported on the Dechert issue.

What is Xinhua’s relationship to the government?

The CIA says it’s a close one. In a report, the agency said senior journalists at Xinhua provide internal reports that are given to high-level state officials. The CIA even suggests that some of the journalists prefer to write this type of material as it is not censored like the pieces written for public consumption.

"A three-to-ten-page report called Internal Reference (Neibu Cankao) is distributed to officials at the ministerial level and higher. The most highly classified Xinhua internal reports, known as 'redhead reference' (Hong Tou Cankao) reports, are issued occasionally to the top dozen or so party and government officials," says the CIA report into the role of the "internal media" in China.

Its editorials often take aim at foreign governments, including this summer when it criticized the Americans on their debt crisis, and the ongoing fights between the Democrats and Republicans.

"With leadership comes responsibility. It is unfortunate and disappointing that political leaders in Washington spar over who is doing good for their country," the article said.

The government itself had not commented on the U.S. spat, so many foreign observers took this as the Chinese leadership speaking.

Are Xinhua reporters spies?

There are lots of allegations but no outright public proof that they are spies. As noted, however, they do work closely with the Chinese state on a number of levels. Various foreign affairs experts and ex-CSIS agents have told media outlets that the Xinhua news organization is indeed a front for Chinese intelligence gathering.

There is the case of former Ottawa bureaucrat Haiyan Zhang, a Chinese-born Canadian who had worked for Xinhua. She was let go from her Privy Council Office job in 2003, reportedly because of concerns about her loyalty to Canada.

Zhang fought the decision. Documents filed with the Public Service Labour Relations Board reveal some of the narrative.

"The CSIS security assessment identified adverse information about the grievor’s loyalty to Canada. Based on that assessment, the Clerk of the Privy Council denied her a Top Secret security clearance and revoked her secret security clearance, which was a mandatory requirement for employment at the PCO.

"The Clerk of the Privy Council also decided that he could not recommend her for employment elsewhere in the federal public service," says one entry among a number filed over the years as the fight dragged on.

One bureaucrat wrote Zhang in a letter of termination: "I have concluded that this constitutes an exceptional circumstance where no such reassignment or assignment is possible. This is because the CSIS security assessment raises serious questions about your loyalty to Canada and your reliability as it relates to such loyalty."

What is the response from the Chinese government?

CBC News asked the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa by email to comment on the Dechert-Shi Rong story, in light of many people suggesting that Xinhua is a front for intelligence gathering for the state.

The response via an unsigned email was terse.

"We have noted related reports, but are in no position to comment on ‘domestic disputes’ and privacy of those involved.

"However, it must be pointed out that it is irresponsible to use this to defame the Chinese Government."

There were no additional comments.