A B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that a Chinese-Canadian real estate investor was defamed on the WeChat social media platform, but she awarded him only $1 in damages.
In her written judgment, Justice Neena Sharma slammed Miaofei Pan for paucity of evidence and his lack of candour with the court. Pan had claimed $360,000 to $450,000 in damages because he said his reputation had been harmed and the stories caused him depression and anxiety.
“From my purview as the trial judge, and exclusive fact-finder, the plaintiff demonstrated on a number of occasions throughout his testimony an attitude that he should not have to answer to the defendant, and indirectly to this court, about his business affairs,” Sharma wrote in the Nov. 30 verdict. “That combined with his decision to rely purely on deemed falsity of the defamatory statements rather than backing up his testimony with documents, strongly confirmed my disinclination to find the plaintiff credible or reliable.”
Pan sued journalist Bing Chen Gao, who wrote 10 articles in December 2016 and January 2017 about Pan under the pen name Hebian Huang. Gao, who works at Canadian City Press, used the pseudonym because he believed the Chinese government was behind the cancellation of WeChat accounts in his own name.
Gao’s reporting had accused Pan of buying seats on the boards of Chinese expat societies, owing millions of dollars worth of taxes in China and stiffing hundreds of families in a failed real estate development in China. Sharma found two of the 10 articles were defamatory and ordered them removed from Gao’s website, but she rejected Pan’s application for a permanent injunction against Gao.
During the 11-day trial, Gao represented himself in court, while Pan retained three lawyers from the same firm.
Gao, she wrote, was reporting on matters of public interest and importance, without malice, but in a genuine search for truth. He could not, however, rely on the responsible communication defence because he never tried to contact Pan for his side of the story.
Sharma had grave concerns about Pan’s credibility and approached his testimony with great caution. She pinpointed his unproven allegation that Gao was motivated by blackmail.
“The plaintiff made an assertion without any corroboration and, although in contact with and originally intending to call as a witness someone who apparently could corroborate his testimony, that witness was not called. In my view, it is appropriate to draw an adverse inference that had that witness been called, he would not have supported the plaintiff’s testimony.”
She accepted Gao’s testimony that he never tried to blackmail anyone.
“I accept his testimony that he believes himself to be an honest journalist trying to expose wrongdoing in the Chinese-Canadian community. In other words, I do not accept that he had any kind of animus towards the plaintiff personally.”
Pan moved to Canada 11 years ago and is a past president of the Wenzhou Friendship Society and Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations, both organizations allied to the Chinese government. He is married and has two sets of twin daughters.
At one of his Vancouver mansions in November 2016, Pan hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and 80 guests for a $1,500-per-person, Liberal Party cash-for-access fundraiser. Pan’s Shaughnessy heritage mansion was severely damaged in an October 2017 arson fire. Nobody has been charged.
Sharma was not satisfied that Pan suffered any harm to his reputation. “Even after he chose to resign as president of the Wenzhou Society, many people wanted him to remain as the ‘honourary’ president. This was in February 2017 after publication of all 10 articles.”
The verdict said that Pan denied he under-reported his income as $30,000 in order to be eligible for the Canada Child Tax Benefit. Pan, however, acknowledged in court that “for some years his household income would have made him eligible for the CTB, but he testified that he did not collect it because he had ample savings. That change in testimony only came about because mid-trial I ordered the plaintiff to produce his income tax returns, which, remarkably, he had failed to do throughout the litigation.”
Pan testified that he sold 100% of the shares of Wenzhou City Linyang Estate Company to Zufan Zheng and had no involvement in the Huachen Yipin real estate development in China after 2006. The project eventually ran out of capital and Zheng was detained by local police. Pan’s name continued to be listed on the share register after 2006 by the Industrial and Commercial Administration Bureau in China.
“I understood the plaintiff to mean that somehow the tax authority understood and accepted that the share registry was not accurate. He maintained that he had no involvement with the Linyang Company or the Project since 2006,” Sharma wrote.
“None of that evidence was given during his direct-examination. During cross-examination the plaintiff explained that he did not think it was ‘necessary’ to mention why his name might still appear on the share registry as a shareholder in the Linyang Company during his direct testimony.”
Sharma’s judgment said Pan denied Gao’s report that he and wife Winhuan Yuang owed the equivalent of $8.3 million in taxes in China. Pan testified it was possible one of the companies he used to own did not pay all of its taxes.
Pan was executive chairman of CACA from 2012 until 2014 and served two terms as president of the Wenzhou Society from 2011 to 2017. The court heard he loaned $400,000 to the society in 2011 and donated $400,000 in 2012 for its Richmond clubhouse. He also testified that he spent more than $50,000 of his own money on CACA.
The Wenzhou Society was accused before the Oct. 20 municipal elections of using WeChat to offer a “transportation subsidy” to vote for society-endorsed candidates in Richmond, Burnaby and Vancouver. Richmond RCMP said it found no evidence of vote buying, but it would continue to investigate.
Sharma wrote that neither Pan nor Gao speak speak English, so their testimony was translated from Mandarin by the same interpreter that had been hired by the plaintiff.
Gao was fired from writing a column in the Global Chinese Press newspaper in 2016 after Gao criticized China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, for lashing out at reporters asking about human rights during an Ottawa news conference.
Pan called three witnesses: former Zhejiang United Friendship Society president Daoling Liang; Wenzhou Friendship Society vice-president Suping Chen; and Pan’s chartered accountant Allan Zhang. Gao called two witnesses: colleague and friend Ning Yu (Louis) Huang and former business associate Qi Bo Wang.
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