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Often, covering Canada feels like reporting on many different countries. I get off the plane, and step into a different landscape, language and culture.

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For the story of Sheng Xue, I simply drove 30 minutes west to her home in Mississauga, and stepped into the world of Chinese democracy activists, connected around the world by common cause and history.

They speak Mandarin, communicate through Listservs and Twitter, and reference events and people rarely noticed by mainstream English-language media.

I had come to learn more about the tactics the Chinese government reportedly used to silence Canadian activists deemed hostile to it. A confidential report by Amnesty International Canada had just been leaked, detailing the troubling experiences of 17 local activists. The person most cited was Sheng Xue.

[Read: Chinese Dissidents Feel Heat of Beijing’s Wrath. Even in Canada.]

When I met her, she opened files on her computer to show me online hookup ads listing her phone number and email address, blog posts with nude photos of her, pictures of a man standing out front of Parliament Hill holding a protest sign that called her a spy.

It seemed like the biggest public shaming campaign I’d never heard of.

I decided to see if I could get to the bottom of it. The investigation took me close to a year, in part because the accusations against her were tangled, and in Chinese, but also because I was reporting on a complicated subculture.

I started by hiring a Mandarin-speaking doctoral student, Emile Dirks, to help me research. Together, we dug through hundreds of blog posts, websites, essays circulated on various dissident Listservs, and books, some depicting Sheng Xue as a sexual pariah, a spy, a thief or a fraud.

Sheng Xue at a rally for political prisoners in front of the Chinese consulate in Toronto.CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

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.”


Sheng Xue with friends and supporters during her birthday party in Mississauga, Ontario.CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

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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