Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne agreed to bar the media from three events with a high-ranking Chinese official at the request of the Communist Party.
Luo Zhijun, party secretary for China's Jiangsu province, was in Toronto on Wednesday to mark the 30th anniversary of Ontario's friendship pact with Jiangsu. Ms. Wynne held a formal meeting with him, addressed a business forum alongside him in the financial district, then hosted an evening reception for him at the Royal Ontario Museum. All three were behind closed doors.
Despite the ban on media, The Globe and Mail has learned that the Ontario government quietly invited some Chinese-language reporters to the reception – but one Chinese newspaper critical of the Beijing government's human rights record said its reporter was kicked out by Ms. Wynne's staff.
The incident demonstrates the fine line Canada walks in wooing the Middle Kingdom, with which it badly wants to do more business, while remaining true to its democratic values. Ontario is particularly keen to cultivate links to China as it seeks to reduce its dependence on trade with the United States. Ms. Wynne is scheduled to lead her second mission to China next month.
When the Premier's office circulated the Wednesday itinerary, the three events with Mr. Luo were marked "closed to media." Reporters asked for an explanation at an unrelated news conference on Tuesday evening. Ms. Wynne said she was fulfilling a request from the Chinese government.
"These are people who are coming from Jiangsu province, who are coming to interact with us, and they have a series of requests that they've put in," the Premier said. "And we will be reciprocating when we go back to China."
Later that night, her office added a photo-op at the start of the meeting with Mr. Luo. The next morning, after The Canadian Press ran a story about the media exclusion, the Premier's office relented further, adding a scrum with Ms. Wynne to the schedule. The events remained closed to media.
During the scrum, Ms. Wynne told a different story than the previous night. She insisted she had always meant to have a photo-op and scrum, but that her office had forgotten to put them on her itinerary. "It was a mistake that wasn't communicated to you. That mistake has been rectified," she said.
Asked why reporters were excluded from the events, Ms. Wynne would not answer directly. "I haven't been part of those conversations," she said.
Despite the general ban on reporters, the Ontario government discreetly invited some members of Toronto's Chinese-language media to the closed-door events.
Jack Jia, publisher of Chinese News, received an invitation in the name of the Premier to the ROM reception. Mr. Jia said the government sees Chinese-language media as less critical and more likely to write favourable stories about Mr. Luo's visit. "The Premier did invite media, but it's selective … basically, our Premier plays double standards," he said. "Chinese media generally don't ask tough questions; this is just the culture."
Not all Chinese media, however, were welcome.
Cindy Gu, president and publisher of the Epoch Times in Canada, said her paper was not invited. One of her reporters tried to cover the ROM event anyway, and was kicked out by a Wynne staffer. The Epoch Times has frequently criticized the Chinese government's human rights record. The paper is linked to Falun Gong.
Mr. Luo has been accused of taking part in the crackdown on Falun Gong, which might be why he is particularly sensitive about media attention, Ms. Gu said. Falun Gong practitioners protested outside the ROM reception, further highlighting the sensitivity.
"Some of the people related to the persecution of Falun Gong … are afraid of media asking them questions," she said. "[Barring reporters] is unusual unless they have something they're very worried about."
Asked why Chinese-language media were invited and whether the Epoch Times reporter was ejected, the Premier's spokeswoman, Jennifer Beaudry, wrote in an e-mail: "The event tonight was closed to media. Any members of the media who were in attendance were there as invited guests and not in their capacities as journalists covering the event."
Ms. Wynne's office spent much of the day trying to play down the affair. In the afternoon, the Premier's speaking notes for the business event and the reception were e-mailed to reporters. Both of them read: "Check against delivery."