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the dechert affair

In his short political career, Bob Dechert has risen through the ranks of the Harper government to assume a role in brokering Canada's relationship with the rest of the world, including China.

That's why it was all the more embarrassing when it was revealed last Friday that Mr. Dechert, who is privy to state confidences, had sent amorous e-mails to an employee of Xinhua, China's state-controlled news agency. Western counterintelligence organizations have likened Xinhua to an intelligence agency.

The Mississauga-Erindale MP, first elected in 2008, is today one of two parliamentary secretaries to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and a vice-president of the Canada-China Legislative Association, which brings together lawmakers from both countries. A member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, he accompanied Prime Minister Stephen Harper to China in 2009.

Senator Jim Munson, a former journalist who worked in China for five years and sits on the executive of the Canada-China Legislative Association with Mr. Dechert, said elected officials must approach Xinhua with caution.

"Any politician in Canada who has any relations with Xinhua should be aware that Xinhua is the voice of the government of China and that one should be very, very careful in his or her dealings," said Mr. Munson, a Liberal.

"You have to recognize that Xinhua is the communications arm, the propaganda arm, the voice of the government of China."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar went further, calling on Mr. Dechert to step down from his parliamentary secretary post after he admitted to sending "flirtatious" e-mails to Xinhua's Toronto correspondent, Shi Rong.

"He holds an important portfolio which requires professionalism and discretion. Unfortunately, this has devolved into a distraction. The right thing to do is for him to step aside from his portfolio until this incident can be properly investigated," Mr. Dewar said.

The matter came to light last week when a mass e-mail sent to more than 240 media, academic, political and business contacts revealed texts of intimate messages written by Mr. Dechert.

In one, the MP professes his love for Ms. Shi, Another e-mail fawns over a picture she sent him.

"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," Mr. Dechert said in an April 17, 2010, e-mail.

Mr. Dechert attributed the surprise release of the e-mails to "an ongoing domestic dispute" and Ms. Shi singled out her husband, saying he hacked her inbox.

Mr. Munson said Mr. Dechert should reflect on what he's done. "He should take a serious look at the embarrassment this relationship has caused his government."

The Harper government is standing by its MP and is refusing to cut him loose. The Prime Minister's Office said it is taking Mr. Dechert at his word when he said, as he did publicly Friday, that this was merely an "innocent" friendship. "We have no information to suggest otherwise."

Mr. Dechert has deep roots in the Harper Conservative Party and is trusted by the Prime Minister.

A former Progressive Conservative Party member, he was active in the "unite-the-right" movement that ultimately led to the Canadian Alliance and PC parties merging in 2003. As far back as 1994, he formed the "Blue Committee" that brought together more right-leaning PC party members who wanted to work with the Reform Party.

More recently, he was selected to form part of a five-MP panel that will help find replacements for departing Supreme Court justices Ian Binnie and Louise Charron.

While the PMO trusts his judgment in picking members of the highest court in the land, Mr. Dechert is finding few defenders of his relationship with the Xinhua reporter.

Xinhua, experts say, exists somewhere on a continuum between a legitimate Chinese journalistic organization and an arms-length extension of Beijing's security apparatus. There is no doubt that the agency provides valuable insights into the world as China sees it. There is also no doubt that Beijing closely picks the brains of Xinhua reporters who've been sent abroad to find out what they know.

"The function of the Xinhua news agency is not to provide reporting that will provide information to the Chinese newspaper readership, but to gather information, some of which is used for internal purposes," said Charles Burton, a Brock University professor and former diplomat to China.

"It should be made clear to Canadians with security clearances that contacts with the Xinhua news agency amount to contacts with agents of a foreign power and therefore one should be very prudent."

Westerners frequently turn to Xinhua to find out whose star is rising in China and also how the nominally Communist regime sees the world.

For example, hundreds of the agency's reports are contained within the 250,000 State Department cables obtained and released by WikiLeaks.

Yet in some of the cables, U.S. diplomats voice certain suspicions – remarking, for example, on how the news agency toes the party line and underplays accounts of ethnic revolts in China. "In an apparent effort to gloss over the ethnic tensions, Xinhua's initial story about the … assaults emphasized that members of several different ethnic groups were among the victims," reads an account of a 2009 revolt by the Uyghur ethnic minority in western China.

Another cable complained of undercover work. "Two Xinhua journalists who did not declare themselves also attended the meeting," reads a 2009 cable from Tibet concerning a high-tech venture there.

Not every Xinhua reporter is drawn into spy games – indeed, that may be more the exception than the rule – but a question mark hangs over the entire agency. This can make life extraordinarily difficult for the reporters: The same correspondents that are frequently viewed as potential foreign spies by Western intelligence agencies can also be seen as potential double agents when they go back to China.

Life in Xinhua bureaus can be enormously stifling. So wrote Haiyan Zhang, one of Xinhua's first female correspondents, after she was posted to Egypt in the early 1990s. Her personal narrative appears in Canadian court filings.

Ms. Zhang wrote that most senior Xinhua correspondents tend to be male Chinese Communist Party members, who "fear the younger and non-Party members might defect." Young, single women workers like herself were considered "gullible" and "easy targets of corruption by Western ideas and Western men." Government minders shadowed such correspondents back and forth from China to the field.