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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China’s state-run news agency being used to monitor critics in Canada

August 27, 2012

Reporter:  Kathryn Blaze Carlson

August 22, 2012 - Ottawa freelancer Mark Bourrie says he cut ties with Xinhua when he discovered an assignment would be filed to the government, not the news service.

Mark Bourrie had just finished listening to the Dalai Lama speak at the Ottawa Civic Centre with his wife and daughter when he says his cellphone rang: It was his boss — the Ottawa bureau chief for the Chinese state-run news agency, Xinhua — asking Mr. Bourrie to take notes at the spiritual leader’s press conference and pin down what happened at the Dalai Lama’s private meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper earlier that April day.

On its face, the request was not an odd one. Mr. Bourrie, an award-winning Canadian journalist and author, had for two years worked as a full-time freelancer for the news agency and had covered the Dalai Lama’s speech at a convention the day before.

But by this point a series of what he called “odd” requests by bureau chief Dacheng Zhang had Mr. Bourrie concerned the news agency was gathering intelligence on Chinese dissidents and sending information back to Beijing. He said he asked Mr. Zhang if his reporting on the Dalai Lama’s visit would be published as a news story; Mr. Zhang, he said, told him the news agency does not typically publish anything related to the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader who has long campaigned for the separation of Tibet from China.

What then, did Xinhua want with Mr. Bourrie’s coverage?

“They tried to get me … to write a report for the Chinese government on the Dalai Lama using my press credentials as a way of getting access I wouldn’t otherwise have,” Mr. Bourrie, a long-time freelancer who has written for several major Canadian newspapers, said in an interview with the National Post. He alleges there are individuals within Xinhua who are acting as spies, seeking to “monitor [practitioners of the spiritual movement] Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama and any other critics of the Chinese government in Canada. That, I know for sure.”

An email to Mr. Zhang was not acknowledged by deadline on Tuesday. The National Post also tried to reach him at Xinhua’s Ottawa bureau — which Mr. Bourrie said is the modest home of Mr. Zhang and his wife, Li Shi, who also works for Xinhua — but Ms. Shi answered the phone and said Mr. Zhang was on a media tour with Mr. Harper in the Arctic. She directed any questions about Xinhua to Mr. Zhang.

Mr. Bourrie recounts his two years working for Xinhua in the upcoming issue of Ottawa Magazine, which comes out Thursday, where he offers the first real glimpse into an organization that has long raised eyebrows in the intelligence community for its close ties to the governing Chinese Communist Party.

Last fall, the state-run agency came under intense scrutiny when news broke that Conservative MP and parliamentary secretary Bob Dechert had exchanged flirtatious emails with Xinhua’s Toronto bureau chief. One year before that, CSIS director Richard Fadden publicly warned that some politicians were falling under the influence of foreign governments through personal relationships. He hinted China was among those governments.

Charles Burton, a Brock University professor of Chinese politics and a former diplomat in Beijing, said Mr. Bourrie’s account “confirms everything we know about Xinhua.”

“The function of the Xinhua news agency is to gather information for the regime,” he said. “I think some of them are spies under the cover of being reporters for the Xinhua news agency.”

Julie Carmichael, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said in an email she “cannot comment on matters related to national security” and that “all credible threats are investigated by the appropriate authorities.”

Xinhua’s Chinese presence in Canada is small — Mr. Bourrie said he knows of only four or five correspondents, two of whom are in Ottawa, one or two in Toronto, and one in Vancouver. According to a May 2011 Xinhua press release, the agency employs 16,000 people and runs three bureaus in Canada and seven in the United States.

Mr. Bourrie said “90%” of his assignments were “normal” and that all of his own work was “legit,” but he also said there were warning bells along the way. The first sounded in June 2010, when he was asked to determine not only the identities of those who protested Chinese president Hu Jintao’s arrival at the G20 Summit in Toronto, but also where those protesters were staying.

“‘Canadian reporters don’t do that,’ I explained,” Mr. Bourrie writes in his upcoming Ottawa Magazine exposé. “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 later he said he started receiving “weird” requests, including an assignment to determine how Canada deals with what Mr. Zhang apparently called “evil cults” — more specifically, Mr. Bourrie said, he was interested in Falun Gong.

Mr. Bourrie noticed that while he had covered Falun Gong press conferences and events on Parliament Hill, those stories, as far as he could tell, were not published online. He said he is now under the impression the information was sent to Beijing.

Mr. Bourrie cut all ties with Xinhua on April 28, 2012, the day of the Dalai Lama’s press conference, and immediately notified the parliamentary Press Gallery of his concerns.

“At today’s news conference, you informed me the material that I was to send you would be forwarded to the Chinese government,” Mr. Bourrie wrote in an email to Mr. Zhang, which was also copied to the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery chief, Terry Guillon.

Mr. Zhang, who along with Ms. Shi is listed as a press gallery member, responded saying “any message released at news conference is news, and news is open to every one, including the government.”

Mr. Bourrie says in his magazine article that Xinhua swiftly replaced him with another accredited freelancer in Ottawa.

The president of the press gallery, which grants the accreditation that gives journalists access to government buildings, politicians and press conferences, said the executive is “aware of the disagreement” between Mr. Bourrie and Xinhua.

“The Executive has asked both sides to come and explain their views,” president Chris Rands said in an email. “We are in a process at the moment and I cannot pre-judge any decision the Executive may, or may not make” concerning Xinhua’s media accreditation.

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