Chinese TV star accuses Canada's tourism agency of censoring him

A Chinese television star is accusing the Crown corporation that promotes Canadian tourism abroad of censorship for its opposition to an episode of his program that puts a spotlight on the rights of Canada's Aboriginal people.

Episode focused on Indigenous rights pulled after Destination Canada voices concerns

In the first of four special Canada-themed episodes, popular Chinese TV host Gao Xiaosong travelled to Niagara Falls, Ont., and to Vancouver. He accuses Destination Canada of censoring a later episode of his show because it focuses on Aboriginal rights. (iQiyi)

A Chinese TV star is accusing the Crown corporation that promotes Canadian tourism abroad of censorship for its opposition to an episode of his program that looked at the rights of Aboriginal people.

Gao Xiaosong, a singer and a former judge on China's Got Talent, had an episode of his talk show pulled from popular Chinese video-streaming site iQiyi.com last Friday after Destination Canada intervened to voice its concerns about an interview with a First Nations chief.

The agency, which sponsored the episode, took issue with the show's focus on the plight of Canada's Indigenous people rather than on popular tourist attractions.

Gao took to Sina Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, to criticize the tourism agency for interfering in the production of his show, calling the agency "arrogant" and "aggressive" in its reaction to a preview of the episode.

The talk show host said Destination Canada, which was formerly known as the Canadian Tourism Commission, threatened legal and diplomatic action if the content was not removed.

Gao posted this email to Weibo, saying it is from Destination Canada. The email asks for changes to an episode of his web TV show to remove a 15-minute segment on Aboriginal issues, among other things. (Gao Xiaosong/Weibo)

Destination Canada disputes aspects of Gao's characterization of the disagreement.

According to the series of events outlined in Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party of China, the tourism agency demanded — through a sponsor and then directly with the show's producers — that Gao remove all content about the human rights of First Nations.

In a screen grab of an e-mail posted by Gao to Sina Weibo, a person purported to be working for Destination Canada in China told Gao that Indigenous rights are a sensitive subject akin to talk of Tibetan independence in China.

"We have always emphasized not to mention the Aboriginal peoples because it's... history that is not to be proud of," the e-mail says. The authenticity of these e-mails has not been verified by CBC News.

Gao then told his followers that the next episode would be "delayed indefinitely" because of the "strong obstructions."

Destination Canada confirmed in an e-mailed statement to CBC News on Monday that it partnered with Ctrip, the largest travel agency in China, to craft four online advertising videos to help reach potential travellers in China and "inspire them to visit Canada."

"As a client of Ctrip, Destination Canada can suggest changes to the videos that are produced," the statement said. "Destination Canada made recommendations to ensure a focus on Canadian tourism, and these suggestions were accepted by the production company."

TV program a 'paid editorial': tourism agency

Gao denied Sunday that Destination Canada was in any way involved in the production of his program. "The changes and removals Destination Canada demanded account for up to 20 minutes. Even if we had a contract, which we don't, the harm to the episode would be unacceptable," he posted on Sina Weibo.

But Destination Canada contradicted Gao's claim Monday, calling its relationship with Gao and iQiyi.com, which produces Gao's show, a "paid editorial."

"Destination Canada's programs in China focus on working with Chinese travel companies who have access to celebrities to tell the story of travel in Canada. In advance of production, Destination Canada provides a briefing and guidelines; [it] respects the tone and manner of our content partners," the spokesperson said.

The first of the four Canada-themed episodes of Gao's show was set in Vancouver, where he met with the city's mayor, Gregor Robertson. Gao called Robertson "one of the most reasonable, and most reliable, leftists. He is not very radical."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, wife Sophie Grégoire and daughter Ella Grace wave as they board a government plane in Ottawa on Monday on their way to Beijing for an official visit. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the same episode, Gao called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "Little Potato," a reference to Trudeau's last name, which sounds like a Chinese word for potato. Later, he visited Niagara Falls, Ont., a destination that has seen a surge in Chinese tourists.

Overall, Chinese vists to Canada were up 24.9 per cent year-over-year in May, according to Destination Canada.

The war of words between the Crown corporation and the Chinese star comes just as Trudeau is set to touch down in China for a nearly two-week visit to meet with leaders and senior government officials and to attend the G20 meeting in Hangzhou.