Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is standing behind the junior minister whose romantic e-mails to an employee of China’s state news agency were exposed last week.
Mr. Baird called the whole thing “ridiculous” on Sunday, but one of the country’s leading experts on China thinks Ontario MP Bob Dechert should give up his role as parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister.
“I think that Mr. Dechert should resign from his parliamentary secretary role because he made a serious error in judgment – whether it resulted in the exchange of bodily fluids or not,” said Charles Burton, a university professor who served as Canadian diplomat in China a decade ago.
“This sort of thing should not be allowed to go on. There’s too much of it going on. A message needs to be sent,” Mr. Burton said in an interview. “It suggests that people who have security clearances are not getting adequate briefings of what they should be looking out for.”
On Friday, it was revealed that Mr. Dechert – a man who would have some access to state secrets – was involved in a relationship with a Toronto correspondent for China’s Xinhua news agency.
The matter came to light Thursday night when a mass e-mail was sent to more than 240 media, academic, political and business contacts across Canada. The missive contained the text of intimate messages written by Mr. Dechert, including ones where he professes love for Shi Rong, a Toronto correspondent with Xinhua news agency.
One e-mail, sent to Ms. Shi on April 17, 2010, from Mr. Dechert’s parliamentary office account, says: “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.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Shi said her e-mail account had been “hacked” by her husband.
On Friday Mr. Dechert, who also is married, issued a statement acknowledging he sent the e-mails, but denying any impropriety.
“These e-mails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that – a friendship. I apologize for any harm caused to anyone by this situation.”
The next day, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office said that the Conservative government had accepted Mr. Dechert’s explanation that he engaged in no “inappropriate behaviour.”
Quizzed about the Dechert affair on Sunday, Mr. Baird replied: “Ridiculous, ridiculous,” and criticized media coverage of the story. He defended his parliamentary secretary as a “mild-mannered” man.
Mr. Burton, a Brock University professor who served as a political and economic counsellor in Beijing from 1998 to 2000, said he was astonished at Mr. Dechert’s behaviour. “It’s pretty well established that Xinhua correspondents are working for Chinese security ministries,” he said.
The notion that the state-controlled news service acts as an extension of Beijing’s security apparatus is hardly unknown in Canada. In 2003, the Canadian bureaucracy fired a senior Chinese-Canadian civil servant from the Privy Council Office and stripped her of even the most basic security clearances, partly because she had previously worked for Xinhua and had kept up social contacts with Ottawa-based correspondents.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service head Richard Fadden created a storm last year when he suggested in an interview that two provincial cabinet ministers and a number of other government officials and employees were under the influence of foreign countries.