How I Reported on the Smear Campaign That Followed a Chinese Activist to Canada

How I Reported on the Smear Campaign That Followed a Chinese Activist to Canada

My reporting went in many directions: One essay claimed a man had seen Sheng Xue meeting with a People’s Daily reporter late at night, casting suspicion on her as a spy. But when I tracked down the stated witness, he said it wasn’t true.

I interviewed a Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia, other dissidents across Canada and the United States, a radio host in Taiwan, a book publisher in Hong Kong.

We assembled a spreadsheet that stretched to 25 pages.

As often happens in this job, many leads went nowhere. Although we dug up the registrations of most websites hosting lewd photos of Sheng Xue, we couldn’t track down the anonymous creators. Many of my emails, calls and letters went unanswered.

But others led to interviews. I met three of her main adversaries in person, and talked to a fourth over Skype, phone and email. (In all cases, I had a translator with me.) These adversaries see themselves as whistle-blowers, not attackers.

“All of her behavior has been exposed,” said Chen Yiran, a former close friend who accused Sheng Xue of pocketing a $100 donation and profiting from aiding “fake refugees” for kickbacks like a television.

“People like her use the banner of opposing the Communist Party, but there is no real difference between them and the Communists,” she said over tea. “Sometimes, they are even worse.”

One pattern that emerged was identity theft. Many of Sheng Xue’s adversaries told a strange story of someone posing as them online to spread more accusations against her.

Many experts, from academics to former intelligence officers and human rights campaigners, said it all reflected a Chinese Communist Party strategy of seeding and stirring division among the dissidents so they were in no position to present a real challenge to the party.

Predictably, the response to my story has been fierce and loud on Twitter, reflecting how fractious the overseas dissident community is. Many replies attacked Sheng Xue and the story, while some defended her.

It’s a debate transpiring almost entirely within the world of Chinese dissidents — a world most Canadians never enter, and one that the past year of reporting helped me begin to understand.

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