Bob Dechert and Shi Rong: Affairs of the Heart or Affairs of the State?
“You are so beautiful. I really like that 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.”
“I will smile at you. I miss you. Love, Bob.”
“I enjoyed the drive by thinking of you.”
“I miss you. Love, Bob,”
“I love you too. See you soon.”
A few days ago, a cache of personal emails were sent to a large number of media organizations and politicians. They alleged an affair between Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Bob Dechert and Shi Rong, a reporter for China’s state news agency, Xinhua.
She says that they were sent by her husband as part of a domestic dispute. Dechert claims that the relationship was “innocent”.
Here are a few thoughts on the Bob Dechert – Shi Rong affair:
1) Love or friendship?
In his statement to the press, Bob Dechert says: “These e-mails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that – a friendship. I apologize for any harm caused to anyone by this situation.”
Despite Dechert’s protestations, the emails speak for themselves. We’re not idiots.
But even if they had an affair, who cares? Some might think that this is a personal matter between him, his wife and Shi Rong. In most cases, I’d say that an affair between consenting adults, even if there are politicians involved, is not public business. This case is an exception for several reasons.
2) Should this be treated as a private affair?
No. Dechert is the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Rong works for Xinhua, a news agency that Western counterintelligence agencies liken to an intelligence agency. In other words, there is a good chance that she is a Chinese spy.
It is not the fact that Dechert was (or is) having an affair outside of his marriage. It is who he has chosen to have this relationship with that makes this a matter of Canadian national security.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence official with CSIS, has this to say about Xinhua:
“Basically, it’s a cover,” said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, who now heads a private corporate security company.
“We’re not talking about just people collaborating with the intelligence services. We’re talking about people trained as intelligence officers to operate in foreign countries.”
Put another way by The Globe:
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.
We already know that the Chinese are spying heavily on Canada because Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the CBC last year that “several municipal politicians in British Columbia and in at least two provinces there are ministers of the Crown who we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government.”
We also know that the Chinese have mastered the art of cyber-spying, “having infected more than 1,295 computers in 103 countries.” The attacks had targets in 72 countries and includedgovernments companies, and organizations in Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Switzerland and Britain
And remember that Haiyan Zhang, a former “a rising star in Ottawa’s civil service” was fired from the Privy Council Office because she used to work for Xinhua and because she continued to maintain personal contacts with her former colleagues. Now, if she was fired for maintaining friendships, then the intimate nature of Dechert’s relationship with Rong leaves little room for anything but his resignation from cabinet.
3) What if Shi Rong isn’t a spy?
For argument’s sake, let’s just say that a full investigation by CSIS concludes that Shi Rong is not a spy and has never been a spy, and that any information gleaned from their “affair” did not get passed back to the Chinese government. The nature of a private conversation posted by Glen McGregor and translated by @I_Am_Chinadian that Shi Rong had with a reporter friend, Qu Jing suggests that this is a possibility.
This is probably the best case scenario that the Canadian public can hope for. If so, then maybe the damage to our actual security has been limited.
Yet even if this is a purely an affair of the heart and not an affair of the state, it is impossible to prove that Shi Rong is not a spy. How will we ever know that he didn’t give away state secrets, or that she didn’t read his emails over his shoulder, or that she didn’t have access to his classifed briefing notes?
Irrespective of Shi Rong’s spy status, the biggest problem here is that Dechert has shown such a lack of judgment that he now suffers from a deficit of credibility. Even if Rong didn’t pass on state secrets (assuming that these secrets that the Chinese don’t already have), the point is that she easily could have and he should have known better.
For the government and CSIS, it’s even more embarassing given that the Maxime Bernier affair from a few years back led to the institution of regular security checks that seemed to have failed to catch the Dechert-Rong relationship. This whole incident is a real shame because every indication suggests that Dechert was competent in his duties and that he took a genuine interest in improving Canada’s relationships with China.
For all we know, Dechert, in his relationship with Rong, may have done more good than bad for Canadians by learning about Chinese politics and the Chinese economy from an insider like Rong. Maybe his relationship with Rong helped him to do his job better, leading to recently improved relations between China and Canada. Maybe, just maybe, Dechert was a better “spy” than Rong was.
Who knows what the real story is? If we learn anything from this incident, it is that we need to take these types of security threats more seriously. At the same time, we shouldn’t let paranoia overshadow the great potential offered by closer relations with the world’s other great superpower.