Stephen Harper is playing down the Bob Dechert affair in his first comments on amorous emails that one of his senior MPs sent to a Chinese government journalist.
The prime minister kept his remarks short, apparently not wanting to add fuel to the fire surrounding Mr. Dechert and the Xinhua News Agency, considered a tool of Beijing by western counterintelligence organizations.
Mr. Harper said he has no reason to believe what transpired with Mr. Dechert in any way compromised Canadian government interests.
“As you know, Mr. Dechert has put out a statement,” the prime minister said during a visit to Saskatoon Friday.
“I have no information that links this in any way to any government business.”
The Chinese journalist at the centre of the political scandal has returned home to China, sources say.
Until the Dechert affair broke, Shi Rong had been serving as the Toronto correspondent for Xinhua, an organization controlled by the Chinese government.
Ms. Shi was already due to head to Beijing for a previously scheduled vacation beginning in late September – but has now left Canada early. She is believed to have flown home earlier this week, possibly on Tuesday night.
Before the Dechert affair unfolded, Ms. Shi had arranged to spend a significant portion of October in China to get her Canadian work visa renewed and report back to headquarters at Xinhua.
Friends and acquaintances say the Chinese reporter faces an uncertain career future: It’s unclear whether Xinhua will return her to her job in Toronto or reassign her.
On Sept. 9, Mr. Dechert, a Conservative MP with special foreign affairs duties, admitted to sending “flirtatious” e-mails to Ms. Shi. He denied betraying Canadian secrets and said his messages – which include professing love for the younger woman – were part of an “innocent friendship.”
Canada’s top spy last year warned that the Chinese were trying to infiltrate Canadian politics. Western intelligence agencies consider Xinhua a tool of the Chinese state that collects information for Beijing.
The Dechert affair has drawn special attention to Beijing’s activities in Canada just as China is preparing to build up its public-relations outreach to Canadians.
China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper, is planning an expansion into Canada – part of a ramped-up soft power campaign by Beijing to shape world opinion. The paper is preparing to publish an edition for distribution in Canada starting in December, a staffer in its New York office said Thursday.