A former Chinese spy is warning that Ottawa should be very concerned about relationships between senior politicians and journalists from China, saying Beijing is targeting lawmakers everywhere.
Li Fengzhi was discussing the case of senior Conservative MP Bob Dechert, who was enveloped by controversy in September over amorous e-mails he sent to a Chinese government journalist based in Toronto.
After the Dechert controversy broke, Chinese journalist Shi Rong was recalled to Beijing to meet with her superiors and has not returned to her Canadian posting.
Mr. Li, a former intelligence officer for China's Ministry of State Security, said he thinks what transpired suggests Ms. Shi had ties to China's spy network.
"If the lady was called back to China very soon, I think it's possible she has some relationship with the security services – even if she's not an official agent of the Chinese security services," Mr. Li told an Ottawa-area conference on espionage Wednesday.
The defector, who left China's employ in 2004, spoke via a video link from an undisclosed location in the United States after his lawyers advised against travel.
He cautioned Ottawa to focus on episodes such as the Dechert affair.
"Canada should pay attention to this," Mr. Li told the spy conference, which brought together government and industry security professionals to swap ideas and sample gadgetry.
"The Canadian government, the intelligence agencies, should have been aware of this problem and should pay attention to these kinds of issues."
Mr. Dechert, who's also the junior foreign affairs minister, admitted in September to sending "flirtatious" e-mails to Ms. Shi, Toronto bureau chief for Xinhua News Agency, a media organization controlled by the Chinese government.
The Mississauga MP denied compromising Canadian secrets and said his messages – which included professing love for the younger woman – were part of an "innocent friendship."
The Prime Minister's Office stood by Mr. Dechert at the time. It said that it had no information to contradict his assertion he did not engage in "inappropriate behaviour."
Speaking Wednesday, Mr. Li said not all Chinese journalists are spies, but Beijing has agents in Chinese news agencies, and for these operatives, "senior politicians are always the No. 1 targets."
He said Ms. Shi would have been a highly sought source for Chinese intelligence agents as a Toronto correspondent even if she wasn't directly in their employ.
"Other agents would try to get close to her, even if she is not [a spy]and use her as a bridge to get some intelligence from … politicians or to influence the politicians."
Canada's top spy warned last year 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.
China's embassy in Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday but has previously framed the Dechert controversy as a "private matter" and said it's "irresponsible" for the press to imply that Beijing had any hand in it.