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World Chinese TV host accuses Canada’s tourism body of pressuring to remove program on First Nations

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire, and daughter Ella Grace wave as they board a government plane in Ottawa, Monday en route to China.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A high-profile Chinese television personality has accused Canadian tourism promoters of censoring discussion of Canada's indigenous issues days before the first official visit to China by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On Friday, online video site iQiyi was scheduled to post an episode of Xiaosong Qi Tan, a weekly Chinese talk show. The episode included an interview with a Canadian First Nations chief and touched on Canada's human rights record.

But the program was pulled after officials with Destination Canada acted in an "arrogant and powerful manner, threatening to use legal, diplomatic and political means" to halt its broadcast, according to the host, Gao Xiaosong, a well-known Chinese singer, songwriter, director and producer.

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He levelled his accusations on Weibo, the Chinese social media service where he has more than 38 million followers.

Related: What Trudeau wants and risks with visit to China

The controversy quickly leapt into China's state press on the eve of Mr. Trudeau's planned arrival in China Tuesday. The topic is a particularly sensitive one for Mr. Trudeau, who has made a new relationship with First Nations one of his cornerstone issues.

Mr. Trudeau has also been urged to speak out on his trip about China's record on human rights and freedom of expression. China has in recent years more aggressively jailed dissidents and silenced critics. Its diplomatic officials have also been accused of exerting pressure in Canada to stifle reporting critical of China in Chinese-language publications.

Canada's involvement in Mr. Gao's show came through Destination Canada, a Crown corporation formerly called the Canadian Tourism Commission. It signed on as a partner with Chinese travel agency Ctrip to sponsor four episodes on Canada for the show.

After watching several of the videos, "we've made some suggestions to the production company as to some changes we'd like to see made," said Derek Galpin, the organization's managing director for China.

"We're trying to promote tourism in Canada, so we want all of the programs to be a bit tourism focused, and that's our main concern."

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The changes "weren't that major," he said.

But Mr. Gao, who did not respond to a request for comment, said on Weibo that Destination Canada "demanded the removal of all content about First Nations human rights." Together, the requested deletions amount to nearly 20 minutes of content, he said. His shows, which touch on entertainment, current events, politics and culture, typically run about 45 minutes in length.

Another dispute erupted over content related to Quebec's sovereignty movement, Mr. Gao wrote. Destination Canada relented on that front, he said.

But the two sides have come to a deadlock on the First Nations content. Mr. Gao called deleting that content "unacceptable" for himself and "the Canadian government, which has promoted freedom."

"We insist on playing this episode's content, primarily because we were deeply touched by the words from this tribal leader," he wrote.

He called the issue "too bizarre" to understand.

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On Chinese social media, others rose to his defence. "Support Gao and iQiyi! Support them to expose the history of the West and the truth," one person wrote. "I can take it if the Chinese government deletes my show, but for Canada – who always looks like a role model – to also delete my show is more than I can bear!" wrote another.

A spokesperson for iQiyi said the site was trying to find a way to air the episode as quickly as possible.

"We do receive suggestions on modification of the content from the Canadian side, while Mr. Gao adheres to the original version," iQiyi public relations representative Liu Dan told the Global Times.

The first of the four Canadian episodes of Xiaosong Qi Tan looked at Vancouver. Mr. Gao discussed the city's film industry and its mayor, Gregor Robertson, with whom Mr. Gao spent nearly six hours. He called Mr. Robertson "one of the most reasonable and most reliable leftists. He is not very radical," and detailed some of the mayor's policy proposals, including his promotion of bicycling. In the same episode, Mr. Gao called Justin Trudeau "Little Potato," a play on the Prime Minister's surname, which sounds like the Chinese word for potato.

The episode, in which Mr. Gao spoke to the camera from a room with a view of Niagara Falls, has been played nearly 4.7 million times.

Asked whether the censorship controversy could damage Canada's image ahead of the Trudeau visit, Mr. Galpin answered with statistics.

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"The tourism figures to Canada are growing roughly 25 per cent a month, and we just see this content marketing strategy that we have in China is working extremely well."

Chinese visits to Canada were up 48.7 per cent this June over last year, according to Destinations Canada statistics.

The dispute over Xiaosong Qi Tan "looks bad, because it was first portrayed as political interference with the Canadian government censoring a Chinese TV production," said Mark Rowswell, the Canadian television personality who is popular in China. Better known as Dashan, he publicly debated Mr. Gao about what happened.

But, he said, "the more detail emerges the more it seems to be a fairly normal business dispute between multiple production partners, with Destination Canada only having an indirect relationship with Mr. Gao, and poor communication. Does it really change anyone's opinion? I think like most social media controversies it ends up being lots of noise and everyone just confirming whatever biases they previously held."

With reporting by Yu Mei

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