Blogger faces off against politically-connected businessman in Vancouver court
Defamation case involves allegations of tax evasion, buying political influence
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A defamation trial between a WeChat blogger and a politically connected Chinese-Canadian businessman will resume Friday in Vancouver.
Miaofei Pan, a businessman who has lived in Canada since 2006, has alleged that multiple articles written by Vancouver-area writer Bing Chen Gao are false and have harmed his reputation, including the loss of real estate ventures in Vancouver’s Oakridge neighbourhood and in Richmond. Pan testified he faced questions from acquaintances about Gao’s posts and became very depressed.
Gao, a blogger on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat, testified during the trial that it was important to write about what he said he had learned about Pan because, he alleged, “Chinese community leaders such as Miaofei Pan, people like that have extremely close connection with the Chinese government and the Chinese consulate…everybody is afraid to criticize them. And the overseas Chinese media (are) even more afraid to criticize them.”
Pan and Gao both live in Metro Vancouver. Despite raising $69,000 from Vancouver-area supporters last June for his legal case, Gao represented himself at the nine-day trial, saying he could not afford a lawyer because the trial was increased from three days to nine. The trial by judge occurred in December 2017 and Metro reviewed trial transcripts for this story.
In December 2016, the Tyee and the Globe and Mail reported on a controversial $1,500 a plate political fundraiser Pan held in Vancouver for the federal Liberal Party, which was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Canada’s parliamentary ethics commissioner, Mary Dawson, later investigated cash for access fundraisers the Liberals had held, included the event hosted by Pan. She closed the investigation last August with no findings of wrongdoing and no recommendations.
In his statement of claim, Pan identified several assertions Gao made in a series of WeChat posts between 2016 and 2017. According to court transcripts of the trial, Pan alleged the following claims are false.
- Gao wrote that Pan had received $2,000 a month in Canadian child tax benefits for his four daughters, which would normally only available to people making less than $30,000;
- Gao wrote that Pan had bought his way into leadership positions in two Chinese-Canadian societies with donations in the amounts of $400,000 and $50,000, implying that these positions helped Pan get access to Canadian politicians;
- Gao wrote that a company Pan owned in China had been involved with a home building project that became financially insolvent in 2015, leading to protests by home buyers in China who had lost money;
- Gao wrote that Pan and his wife, Wenhuan Yang, owe a total of $8.3 million in taxes to the Chinese government.
Pan is seeking unspecified damages for what he alleges is harm to his reputation. Gao denies the posts are false and defamatory.
During the trial, Pan’s lawyers asked Gao whether he had sought out Pan to give his side of the story or to respond to specific claims made in the posts. In his testimony, Gao said he had not attempted to contact Pan to respond to the allegations in his WeChat posts, which he portrayed as opinion pieces.
According to court documents and trial transcripts, Gao had based his posts about the child tax benefit on a story published by China Weekly, a Chinese publication. The story quoted a man named Yi An Wang, whom the China Weekly reporter interviewed in a “five diamond” hotel in the city of Zhejiang. Gao told the court he knew Yi An Wang and Miaofei Pan were the same person, because several details included in the China Weekly article matched, including that Pan’s first wife was a court prosecutor; that Pan had two sets of twin girls; and that Yi An Wang told a similar story that Pan was also fond of telling, about being helped by a police officer when he ran out of gas on the way to Whistler, B.C.
Pan denied he was the same person as Yi An Wang or that he had ever given an interview to China Weekly. His accountant, Allan Yang, testified and produced Pan’s tax returns, showing that while Pan did report a very low income — under $25,000 for both 2007 and 2010, for instance — he had never applied for or received the Canada child tax benefit.
Pan testified that he had donated $400,000 to build a facility for the Wenzhou Association and “may have spent” $50,000 on the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations, but said those donations were not connected to the leadership positions he took at both organizations.
Pan testified he had transferred all his shares of the Linyang Real Estate Company in 2006, long before the Chinese company ran into financial difficulties that Pan acknowledged had “hurt the interest” of Chinese homebuyers.
But during his cross-examination of Pan, Gao referred to a record from the Chinese government’s Industrial and Commercial registration that showed Pan still owed 77 per cent of shares in the company, while his wife owned 23 per cent. Pan said the shares had not been officially transferred because the new owner of the company did not want to pay a share transfer tax.
During his testimony to the court, Pan said a former business associate, Qi Bo Wang, threatened to spread Gao’s articles further if Pan did not pay him $100,000; Pan said he paid Wang the money. But Wang testified the money was paid “to repay money he owned me earlier.” On his part, Gao denied he had ever attempted to blackmail Pan with a promise to stop writing if Pan would pay, as Pan alleged.
To justify his allegation about Pan and Yang being in debt to the Chinese government, Gao produced records he said were from the website of China’s Supreme Court. But Pan’s lawyer questioned whether the documents from that online source were genuine and should be admitted as evidence. Metro has not been able to determine whether this issue was resolved before the trial adjourned.