A court ruling in Canada could put the brakes on WeChat’s freewheeling political discourse in the country, with a Toronto construction worker ordered to pay more than C$50,000 (US$38,000) after spreading what a judge called malicious falsehoods about a local community leader on the Chinese social media platform.
The recent ruling showed that Canada’s courts would punish WeChat users for defamatory posts, even if their readership was unknown, said a business and technology lawyer who has previously warned that the platform had become “littered with users who hide behind their aliases and post rumours, false stories”.
WeChat has been a hotbed of Canadian political activism that sometimes strays from local norms.
Last January, federal Liberal candidate Karen Wang used WeChat to urge supporters in Burnaby, British Columbia, to vote for her because her opponent, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, was “of Indian origin”. She was swiftly dumped by the party.
In October 2018, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began an investigation into WeChat messages that were offering C$20 (US$15) “transportation fees” to municipal voters in Richmond, BC, by a group that supported a slate of conservative-leaning candidates. They later disavowed the messages and no charges resulted.
But the scathing summary ruling issued by Ontario Supreme Court Justice Penny J. Jones on December 9 is putting WeChat’s Canadian political arena under new scrutiny.
Jones ordered self-employed contractor Wu Jian to pay Simon Zhong Xinsheng C$35,000 (US$26,400) in damages and full costs of C$15,414.90 (US$11,600) for a series of comments in a WeChat political discussion group.
Zhong, co-chair of the National Congress of Chinese Canadians and CEO of the Toronto Community and Culture Centre, is regarded as a pro-Beijing figure who has helped organise protests against the Dalai Lama.
Jones said Wu had attacked Zhong from February to May 2019, with claims that had been proved false, were defamatory and were posted with malice. They include the falsehoods that Zhong was an embezzler, an undercover agent for Falun Gong and that he cheated on his wife, she said.
After Zhong sued Wu for defamation and demanded the posts be deleted, Wu instead “posted several additional statements, telling members of his WeChat group that Mr Zhong had threatened and blackmailed him”, Jones wrote in her judgment.
“The evidence before the court is that none of the defamatory statements made about Mr Zhong in the WeChat posts are true,” she wrote, with Zhong and his wife denying them under oath. Wu meanwhile, “claimed that he had witnesses but admitted that no one was prepared to testify”.
Jones said there was essentially no evidence of how many readers saw Wu’s defamatory posts, nor was there any evidence that any of Zhong’s friends had seen them.
But the damages of C$35,000 (US$26,400) were necessary as deterrence and recognition of the court’s disapproval of Wu’s conduct, she said. Zhong had sought C$350,000 (US$264,000) in general and punitive damages.
Jones also ordered Wu to be “permanently prohibited from publishing defamatory statements regarding Mr Zhong, on the internet or by any other means.”
Toronto-based business and technology lawyer Allan Oziel said the ruling was significant.
“It provides clear guidance that even with a lack of evidence of any actual or reputational harm, and where readership of the defamatory posts is unknown, Canadian courts are willing to levy significant awards against WeChat users who make defamatory comments in groups,” he said.
Oziel said he knew of one other “defamation by WeChat” ruling in Canada, in 2018, in which property developer and political donor Pan Miaofei won a BC case against blogger and columnist Gao Bingshen. But Pan was only awarded C$1 (US$0.75) by the judge, who rebuked Pan for his “lack of candour” and found it likely Pan had indeed evaded taxes as Gao claimed.
Zhong has also reportedly begun legal action against a Chinese-language political commentator. Asked about the reports in Chinese-language media, Zhong’s lawyer, Pandora Heng Du, said she “cannot release my client’s statement of claim without his permission”.
The commentator in question did not respond to a request for comment.
Wu, who did not retain a lawyer in the hearing that led to Jones’ summary judgment, could not be reached for comment. He held a press conference in Toronto last year to raise money to support his defence.
Tencent, WeChat’s owner, had not responded to questions about the ruling at the time of publication, although a spokeswoman acknowledged receiving the South China Morning Post’s questions.