Bob Dechert calls "flirtatious" messages he sent to a journalist with China's state media part of an innocent friendship but among the cache of leaked e-mails that brought this to light is an especially personal letter about an entanglement gone sour – one that raises more questions.
The Harper government treated this missive, written in Chinese, seriously enough that it went to the trouble of translating it while investigating what transpired between Mr. Dechert, 53, and Xinhua News Agency correspondent Shi Rong.
Mr. Dechert is a Conservative MP with special duties to assist the Minister of Foreign Affairs, while Ms. Shi is the Toronto correspondent for Xinhua, an organization that Western counter-intelligence agencies consider a tool of the Chinese state. Both are married.
The e-mail, titled "Old Fox," was part of the same bundle of e-mails hacked from Ms. Shi's inbox last week and sent without her consent to more than 240 business, academic and political contacts. She blames her husband for the leak.
Mr. Dechert is never mentioned by name in this note, a fact Tory government officials cite when defending their decision to stand by the MP.
This e-mail, however, appears to be counselling Ms. Shi on a relationship she's having with an older man – something that was more than a friendship and is now on the rocks.
Dated June 26, 2010, it was purportedly sent to Ms. Shi by fellow Xinhua correspondent Qu Jing.
"About the old man, tune him out," reads the e-mail from Ms. Qu, which then goes into a lengthy diatribe about how men treat their girlfriends as "clothes" that they can wear or discard as they see fit.
"About the sad tales you told me about him keeping you waiting for a long time, put it out of your mind. I have experienced the same," Ms. Qu writes to Ms. Shi. "Sweep him into dust bin, he is not good enough for you."
Members of the Harper government, which has refused to fire Mr. Dechert from his parliamentary secretary post, keep repeating that the MP has denied any "inappropriate behaviour" and that it has "no information to suggest otherwise."
In e-mails that that Mr. Dechert has already admitted writing – and are widely circulated in the media – he professes his love for Ms. Shi and fawns over a picture of her.
The Mississauga Erindale MP did not respond to a request for an interview Tuesday and Ms. Shi has avoided answering media calls since the story broke.
University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman, who has been interviewed by Ms. Shi in the past, said he is surprised Mr. Dechert hasn't been removed from his duties.
"It's really bad judgment," he said of Mr. Dechert's conduct. "There's no doubt Xinhua is strictly under the thumb of the Chinese authorities."
Little is known about Ms. Shi. Mr. Wiseman said she told him she'd previously studied in England and was especially interested in the works of Oscar Wilde.
He said during past interviews he pressed Ms. Shi on how Xinhua works.
It is taken as a given by those who study China and its security apparatuses that correspondents sent abroad by the Xinhua newswire are agents of the state, and journalists only on the side.
"I explicitly asked her whether she belongs to the Communist Party," Mr. Wiseman said.
"And she danced around it and said no."
And I said 'Well, hold it, how can you work for them without being a member?' So she said she was just very good [at her job] as if her other qualities had made up for that."
He said he didn't give this much credence.
Xinhua colleagues of Ms. Shi described her as a "naive" rookie foreign correspondent and denied that the newswire's reporters engage in espionage.
A long-time Xinhua correspondent, retired after 40 years with the newswire and two postings abroad, said he and his colleagues were too busy trying to appease editors in Beijing to do espionage on the side. He said demands on correspondents are even higher since Xinhua – like media companies worldwide – expanded operations in recent years to include broadcast and online media..