When journalist Mark Bourrie began working for the local bureau of the Chinese news agency Xinhua, he was excited by the prospect of informing China about Canadian politics. But a questionable request during the Dalai Lama’s visit in April was too much for his journalistic conscience. He quit. Now Bourrie gives a behind-the-scenes account of his two years in the employ of Xinhua
IT ALL BEGAN 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 away from moving back to Beijing after a four-year stint in Canada. Yang Shilong was bureau chief for the Chinese news agency Xinhua. We got to chatting. The agency, which until then had been staffed by Chinese nationals, was looking to go mainstream, he told me, and planning to hire Canadian journalists to write about national politics and finance for Xinhua’s rapidly expanding audiences in China, the West, and the Third World. The job sounded interesting and the prospect of a steady gig was happy news, given that I’d just recently finished two years of teaching in the journalism department at Concordia University, returning to freelance writing just as the recession started to bite hard and magazine work dried up.
When I expressed interest, Yang immediately offered me some freelance work. A few months later Xinhua dangled the prospect of a full-time job as head of the agency’s English-language bureau in Ottawa. The cynic in me wondered if the offer might be too good to be true. Indeed, when I mentioned Xinhua to friends, their first reaction was often to ask whether this meant I would be a spy.
But wasn’t that an old-fashioned attitude? Canadian corporations were forging links with China. So were governments. Why not be the person who informed China about Canadian politics? It was a huge audience. Xinhua stories appeared in newspapers that had more readers than all Canadian daily papers — put together. Still, I was skeptical. Were they spies? Was I being recruited to be the Western face of an arm of China’s repressive regime? Before accepting Xinhua’s job offer, I set out to do some basic research on the agency and its work.
It is owned by the Chinese government — a red flag to any freedom-loving individual — but then almost everything in China is owned by the government or by the People’s Liberation Army. Whatever is left is under Beijing’s strict control. I also discovered that although it was the country’s largest news agency (with more than 100 foreign bureaus, as well as dozens of offices within China), the government covers just 40 percent of Xinhua’s costs. Xinhua makes up much of the rest of its revenue by selling its news — especially financial stories — to Chinese-language media in the West and to newspapers in the Third World. At the time I was considering Xinhua’s offer, the agency was in the midst of an ambitious plan to almost double its number of bureaus outside China — to about 200 — and looking to employ as many as 6,000 journalists abroad. (Over the next two years, Xinhua would also launch a 24-hour English-language news station and set up shop in a skyscraper in New York’s Times Square. It even created an iPhone app for “Xinhua news, cartoons, financial information, and entertainment programs around the clock.”) Xinhua was obviously planning to expand fast, and my role, along with potentially thousands of other journalists, would be to provide much-needed content.
Looking beyond the numbers, it was clear to me that Beijing also realized it had an image problem — both in China and abroad — and believed that Xinhua could be used to change people’s view of China and strengthen China’s “soft power.” That said, I knew the news agency had not yet shaken its reputation as an intelligence front for the People’s Republic of China.
I had two job interviews at that time. One was with Kory Teneycke, head of the Sun News Network, who wanted me to do investigative pieces on left-wing activists. (I left the interview with the impression that there would be little room for objective reporting.) The other was with the Xinhua bureau chief, who said his agency did not care which party was in power in Canada. “We need good, objective news from Ottawa.” Despite Xinhua’s image problems, they had made the better offer.
BEFORE TAKING THE JOB with Xinhua, I also called an old friend who had worked for years in the Canadian military. He had spent most of his career going into extremely dangerous places in Africa and Asia, sizing up hellholes to see if they were safe for United Nations peacekeeping operations. Over lunch, he told me that the military didn’t care about Chinese media operating in Canada. At most, he said, they pick up scraps of information available to anyone with Internet access. The real threat comes from spies operating in high-tech industries and university labs. “Why don’t you call CSIS, just to be sure?” he suggested. “At least they could give you some advice.” Good idea. The federal Canadian Security Intelligence Service is, among many other things, tasked with analyzing intelligence on threats to the country’s national security. I went to the CSIS website, looked up the main number, and gave them a call.
“I’d like to speak to CSIS about an approach that a Chinese news agency has made to me,” I told the CSIS phone attendant.
“You can’t talk to anyone,” he answered. He put me through to a voice-mail machine, where I left a message explaining who I was and the offer I was contemplating from Xinhua. More than two years later, I’ve never received a call back.
BY THE SUMMER OF 2010, Xinhua had a new Ottawa bureau chief, Zhang Dacheng. He told me he had previously been an army officer. He had worked for Xinhua in East Africa and Iraq. His wife, Shi Li, was a soft-spoken woman who covered financial news for Xinhua. He said his job was to set up a large bureau in Ottawa, and a full-time job might be in the cards. (When I started working for Xinhua, I was paid by the story. Later, I negotiated to be paid a monthly retainer based on a minimum number of stories per month.)
It was clear from the beginning that Zhang had never been briefed on how the Canadian political system works. He would call with frantic requests for me to demand interviews with the Speaker of the House of Commons and sent an email asking if I could get an interview with the Governor General. He wanted them to speak on behalf of the government on important issues of the day. He had never heard of lobbyists and did not understand their role in the political process. When the subject of opposition politicians came up, he regarded them simply as troublemakers. Nor was Zhang interested in spending time on the Hill to learn more about how Canada’s democracy operates. In the two years that I worked for him, he seemed mainly to shuttle from his house in Alta Vista to the Chinese Embassy and to Chinese cultural events around town in his SUV.
Still, he insisted that he wanted to build a bureau in downtown Ottawa. I took him office hunting in towers around Parliament Hill. Xinhua needed room for a television studio, he said, and space to house several Canadian staffers who would work on round-the-clock monitoring of news in Canada.
Canada was very much on the Chinese agenda that first summer. The nation had just been put on the Chinese government’s official list of approved tourist destinations — a huge potential boon for the Canadian economy — and the thaw of Canada-China relations was further cemented with the late-June visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Ottawa and to Toronto for the G20 Summit. The Harper government was keen to up the level of Canadian corporations investing in China, while Sinopec, the Chinese state-owned petroleum and petrochemical company, was plowing investments into the Alberta oil sands.
But when President Hu Jintao arrived in the capital on June 23, he was greeted by a small group of protesters, offset somewhat by loyal Chinese university students bused in by the Chinese embassy. It would be a common enough occurrence for a Western prime minister or president, but the Chinese were not impressed. The Xinhua bureau chief told me he needed to know who the protesters were and where they were staying. (Zhang Dacheng did not respond when contacted by Ottawa Magazine to fact check this statement.) “Canadian reporters don’t do that,” I explained. The subject was quickly dropped, and I went back to my regular work for the agency, writing about Bank of Canada announcements, new crime and immigration laws, royal visits, and quirky news.
But warning bells sounded for me again in the fall of 2010. This time it was a request for a report on evil religions. Zhang wanted to know how Canada “governs the religious organizations,” how this country “restrains evil religions and worship,” and how it “restrains racial and tribal discrimination and hostility.” This started an extended email discussion on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and freedom of religion. But though Zhang said he understood freedom of religion, he continued to demand to know how the Canadian government suppressed “evil cults.” I explained to him that people were free to believe in all kinds of things. It was a matter for the cops and the courts only if they committed criminal acts.
“Frankly speaking, this is NOT what I need,” Zhang told me in an email after reading the story I had submitted. He wanted to know: “Which ministry or department is in charge of managing evil cults?” Were there evil cults in Canada now? “Does the government limit or strike the evil cults? How does it do it? Will the evil cults practitioners be brought to court? How does Canada tell religions from evil cults? What are the different policies and management?”
And, finally, the heart of the matter: “What is the status of Falun Gong in Canada? Is it a [sic] legally accepted?”
IN BRIEF, FALUN GONG is a spiritual movement that emerged in China in 1992 as a sort of New Age variant of several traditional disciplines. Falun Gong beliefs and exercise practices spread very quickly in China until 1999, when the Beijing regime banned them. State media took to calling Falun Gong beliefs “feudal superstitions” and labelled its founders as “swindlers” who jeopardized “social stability.” Since then, both sides have engaged in a sophisticated, if ham-fisted, propaganda war against each other. Falun Gong’s supporters in the West draw attention to the jailing of thousands of its members in China. They also claim that the Chinese state murders Falun Gong members, selling their organs for transplant, often to Westerners.
In Canada, former Liberal MP David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas are, along with a handful of Canadian Falun Gong members, vocal political critics of China. Falun Gong, which is engaged in a campaign to destroy China’s Communist Party, has its own daily newspaper The Epoch Times, with worldwide distribution, and television and radio networks broadcasting to North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia by satellite.
Locally, Xinhua is present at all Falun Gong news conferences and events, recording them on video. But nothing about the news conferences appears on Xinhua’s English-language website, Chinaview.cn, which is, obviously, geared to non-Chinese readers. For the most part, the English site presents an innocuous face to the world, posting a smattering of rather tame political, crime, and weather news from around the world augmented by cheesecake shots of Western and Chinese supermodels, celebrity features, and global freak-of-the-week stories.
Over the past year or so, Canada has been prominently featured only a few times. In the spring of 2011, Xinhua carried a daily wrap-up of the federal election campaign. Its Ottawa coverage was fairly deferential to the Stephen Harper Conservative Party — far more so than that of the mainstream Canadian media. Opposition criticism of Harper’s policies was present but muted in Xinhua copy. After all, political attacks on the prime minister might cause him to “lose face.” And it covered stories about the successes and troubles of ethnic Chinese living in Canada. More recently, Xinhua carried daily stories about the May murder of Chinese student Jun Lin, whose body was dismembered and mailed this past spring to political offices in Ottawa and schools in Vancouver.
Zhang also pushed for more Canada-China cultural co-operation-type stories. After Mayor Jim Watson visited China in June 2011, Zhang had photos of China’s cities and landscapes framed and put up in Jean Pigott Place to set the scene when Watson, on his return, held a public meeting there to report on the trip. Xinhua also records the frequent visits of Canadian politicians to the Chinese Embassy for events like the receptions that were held in 2010 to celebrate 40 years of China-Canada diplomatic relations and the awarding of an honorary doctorate from a Chinese university to the Governor General in 2012.
In 2010 and 2011, Zhang, as a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, joined a small group of reporters who travelled with the prime minister on his late-summer Arctic trips. The trip gave him access to the prime minister’s senior staff and to briefings about Canada’s Arctic sovereignty policy. China has a keen strategic interest in the Arctic and its resources. In 1993, China bought the world’s largest non-nuclear-powered icebreaker, a ship far superior to anything Canada has in the Arctic. In 2009, it ordered two more. Xinhua, though branded as critical of the Chinese regime and distrusted by many people in official Ottawa, seemed to be successfully developing credibility in Ottawa. But the thinness of that veneer of trust was exposed just a few weeks after the 2011 Arctic tour.
ON SEPTEMBER 9, 2011, a few hundred members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and other people working in the Canadian media received a mass mailing from China, supposedly from Xinhua’s Toronto bureau chief, Shi Rong. The email contained gushy love notes from Conservative MP and old Asia hand Bob Dechert to Shi.
“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 one email. Other emails professed Dechert’s love and his eagerness to see Shi again.
Both Dechert and Shi were married. And it turned out that Shi’s angry husband had collected and sent out the exchange and then added a few unpleasant adjectives about his wife to the missive.
China’s and Harper’s critics were quick to leap on the emails as proof that the Chinese had run a “honey trap” spy operation on Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. The Liberals and NDP jumped on the story as proof that the Conservatives were soft on Chinese spies, but the Tories refused to cut Dechert loose. While the Toronto-area MP did feel the need to sneak out of the Parliament building through the back door to dodge reporters, he did manage to hang on to his job. Shi was ordered back to China. (In the hysteria of the reporting, only a few souls noted that the emails, if real, were not in any way suggestive of a honey-trap sting. To most, it appeared that Dechert was pushing whatever relationship existed. Shi’s emails to her friends seemed to show her uncertainty and confusion.)
Television networks and newspapers carried dozens of stories about the scandal, with many noting that Xinhua was suspected of links to Chinese intelligence services. Some of the coverage was over the top, portraying Dechert as some sort of dupe, conned by a puffy-cheeked Mata Hari.
Personally, I knew I had never written anything for Xinhua that I would not have filed to a Canadian newspaper. If, in fact, Xinhua was engaged in entrapping Canadians to do China’s bidding, it had overlooked me. For the record, Xinhua’s website did not carry a word about the Dechert affair. But it was obvious that Xinhua’s Ottawa contingent found the episode very embarrassing.
AS THE MONTHS WENT BY, Xinhua’s big parliamentary bureau failed to materialize. In 2011, Zhang bought a 7-kilo brass plaque with the inscription Xinhua News Agency Ottawa. In the presence of the First Secretary of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China and several video and still photographers, he set it up on the bookshelf of my desk in the Hot Room, the old Parliamentary Press Gallery. There it stayed for months, along with some very sinister-looking but never-used black computer equipment, until it fell one day and nearly brained me.
By and large, I found writing for Xinhua to be boring, with infrequent strange requests and orders. I wrote hundreds of stories on everything from the 2011 federal election to the conservation status of polar bears. Most were used on the Chinaview.cn web page with very little editing, and if Zhang particularly liked one, he added his name to the byline. There were some odd moments. Zhang reprimanded me early on for trying to sell an article to Xinhua’s Toronto bureau. He made it very clear that Xinhua has the country divided into western, central, and eastern coverage zones and that Canadian freelancers working in one zone must not talk to Xinhua editors in another region.
In addition to me, Zhang hired a freelance videographer and several photographers. All of us were caught in the same bind. What would we do if and when Xinhua wanted coverage of Falun Gong and other critics of China? Though any news released by Falun Gong in a press conference would hardly contain secret information, we felt compromised knowing that, even though we were at the press conference, nothing we recorded or wrote would appear on Xinhua’s website. In the spring of 2011, I met with local Falun Gong leaders and explained our situation. The move was more to assuage my conscience than anything else. We decided that as Xinhua staff, we were comfortable reporting anything that was said in a meeting that was accessible to the mainstream media — and no more. And we agreed that it would be inappropriate to ask questions at news conferences.
IT WAS THE DALAI LAMA who tossed over the apple cart for me. He came to Ottawa this past April 27, the featured speaker at the Sixth World Parliamentarians’ Convention on Tibet. Xinhua asked me to cover the session. When I asked if the material was being used for a news article, Zhang said yes.
The next day the Dalai Lama spoke to a packed hall at the Civic Centre. I bought a ticket and sat in the crowd. As I left, my cellphone rang. Zhang, who had been with the press contingent on the floor of the hall, wanted me to “cover” the Dalai Lama’s press conference, held a few minutes after the public event.
I used my Press Gallery pass to get into the room where the press conference was being held. Zhang was already there with a video camera, but he wanted me to provide a written transcript of the press conference. He also wanted me to use whatever sources I had in the government to find out what had happened in the Dalai Lama’s private meeting with Harper earlier in the day. I asked if this material would be used in any kind of news story. Zhang said no — Xinhua does not report on Tibetan “separatists,” he said. To do so would cause the government to lose face. (Over the past year, Xinhua’s English-language news site has carried a few stories mentioning the Dalai Lama. These mainly outline diplomatic objections filed with the leaders of countries who met with the spiritual leader.)
I reminded Zhang that the press conference was open only to accredited media. Xinhua was therefore using our parliamentary press gallery ID to gather information on critics of China. If Xinhua would not carry any journalism on the Dalai Lama’s visit, we were there under false pretences, pretending to be journalists but acting as government agents. “We were allowed to be there as journalists,” I wrote to Zhang in an email that I sent later that morning. “We were not working as journalists. We were, by your description, gathering intelligence for China.”
That day I felt that we were spies. It was time to draw the line. I put down my pen and notepad, listened to the Dalai Lama, shook his hand when he left, went home, and sent Xinhua an email telling them I quit. (I was replaced by another Press Gallery freelancer within a few hours.)
In many ways, Xinhua is like the rest of modern China: most of the time, it can function with the veneer of professionalism and honesty. But when it comes to matters of dissent or any real or suspected threat to the Communist regime, the mask falls away. The needs of China’s rulers will always trump relationships abroad. Canadian journalism, especially political reporting, is already on the ropes. The last thing it needs is “reporters” who freelance as intelligence agents for Beijing.
This story appears in the September edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.