A wealthy Vancouver businessman who once held a fundraiser at his home attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has won a defamation suit against a Chinese-language journalist – but the judge awarded Miaofei Pan just $1 in damages Tuesday, noting concerns about his credibility.
The dinner hosted by Mr. Pan, a developer, included Mr. Trudeau and about 80 other guests. The Globe and Mail first wrote about the $1,500-per-ticket event, prompting later articles by journalist and blogger Bingchen Gao, who often writes under the pseudonym Hebian Huang.
Mr. Pan sued Mr. Gao for defamation after he posted 10 articles about him on the social-media platform Wechat between December, 2016, and February, 2017.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Pan argued the articles damaged his reputation and caused him “significant harm,” despair and depression. He was seeking between $360,000 and $450,000 in damages and a permanent injunction restraining Mr. Gao from publishing the defamatory material again or anything similar to it.
Justice Neena Sharma ruled that Mr. Gao must remove two articles containing defamatory statements, including allegations that Mr. Pan paid to obtain leadership positions in certain charitable organizations; that he was involved in a real estate project that financially harmed several families; and that he and his wife owed a substantial amount in debt and taxes in China.
But she declined to issue Mr. Gao an injunction.
Justice Sharma said in the judgment that she wasn’t convinced Mr. Pan’s reputation had been damaged in the Chinese-Canadian community because some of the charitable organizations wanted him to remain as an “honorary” president after those articles were published.
Mr. Gao said in an interview that the lawsuit was triggered by the first article he posted, on Dec. 12, 2016. In it, he alleged that Mr. Pan partly concealed his income and received the Canada Child Tax Benefit.
Justice Sharma noted that when she ordered Mr. Pan to submit his income tax returns, he changed his testimony. He initially said his reported annual income was more than the $30,000 ceiling for claiming the benefit, but later said that for some years he was eligible to collect the benefit but did not because he had enough in savings. He also failed to provide true, unredacted copies of his income tax returns for the years 2007 to 2010.
Justice Sharma noted his inconsistent evidence affected his credibility and the strength of his case.
She wrote that, as a result of his unwillingness to provide proof of his income, she concluded he did claim the benefit.
Mr. Gao told the court that he did not contact Mr. Pan to verify the information in his articles, relying instead on Chinese government websites and news agencies, which he believed were authentic and reliable sources.
The judge said she found the documents admissible for the purpose of demonstrating Mr. Gao’s “genuine and reasonable” belief that the information was true.
But she added: "The documents’ appearance was consistent with them being official Chinese government publications. However, that was insufficient for me to accept them as authentic.”
Mr. Gao said in the interview that the decision is “good news” for him and other journalists who work for overseas Chinese-language media. He said it sets a clear standard for the use of official Chinese documents.
But he also said he should have been more cautious.
He said he had deleted all 10 articles and represented himself because he could not afford a lawyer.
Mr. Pan’s lawyer, Lisa Ridgedale, did not respond to an interview request.