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Canadian mayors may have unwittingly been targets of Chinese influence campaign

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When a group of seven Vancouver-area mayors landed in Beijing in April 2007, they believed they were in China to study eco-friendly development and build trade ties for British Columbia.  

But an investigation by Global News raises questions about whether the Canadian mayors were unwittingly drawn into an influence campaign aimed at improving perceptions of China and reducing criticism of human rights abuses.

Billionaire real estate developer and former People’s Liberation Army officer Li Zhe organized the trip and approached then-Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini and invited him on the all-expenses paid trip to Beijing. Trasolini then forwarded invitations to the other mayors, former North Vancouver mayor Darrell Mussatto told Global News.

The weeklong trip was a whirlwind for the B.C. mayors, Trasolini said. Li Zhe arranged many meetings with mayors from towns and cities surrounding Beijing, and they mingled with their counterparts and enjoyed the best of Chinese cuisine.

Mussatto said a highlight of the trip was the B.C. delegation’s introduction to Beijing vice-mayor Chen Gang — a senior Chinese Communist Party official — who made a convincing case to the B.C. mayors that China was taking climate change seriously and doing sustainable real estate development.

The delegation also visited a number of Li Zhe’s buildings in Beijing, Trasolini and Mussatto told Global News, including ‘Riverside’ — a mostly unoccupied luxury condo project.

“There was never any suggestion of anything but good relations between the two countries (China and Canada),” Trasolini said.

But members of the religious group Falun Gong — which is persecuted in Mainland China — say they believe Trasolini’s participation in the junket may have influenced his position on the persecuted group. 

Falun Gong member Sue Zhang told Global News that Trasolini had been very supportive of her group from 2002 until 2007.

Zhang claimed Trasolini had also informed her once, that a visitor from the Chinese consulate in Vancouver had asked him not to support Falun Gong, but that Trasolini told Zhang he would not be pressured.

Trasolini acknowledged that Sue Zhang is correct; as Port Moody mayor he started supporting Falun Gong starting in 2002, and the Chinese consulate wasn’t pleased. 

“There was a call, we are talking about 2003, or 2004, from the office of the consulate, inquiring about, that I have seen Falun Gong,” Trasolini said. “I remember, definitely they were not in favour. But I wasn’t the sort of person that would be intimidated by a phone call.”

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