09/16/2011 02:11 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

Bob Dechert Emails: Love Notes To Chinese reporter Shi Rong Not Government Business, Says Stephen Harper

OTTAWA - Beleaguered Tory MP Bob Dechert apparently did not spill any state secrets during his dalliance with a reporter from a foreign news agency linked to Chinese intelligence.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday he is not aware any of the flirtations between the parliamentary secretary and a Xinhua news agency journalist broached official government business.

"As you know, Mr. Dechert has put out a statement," Harper said during an unrelated announcement in Saskatchewan.

"I have no information that links this in any way to any government business."

The prime minister has stood behind Dechert since it was revealed the parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister sent love notes to Shi Rong, Xinhua's chief Toronto correspondent.

Dechert admits he sent the messages, but he insists his relationship with Shi was an innocent friendship.

The Prime Minister's Office says it accepts Dechert's explanation he did nothing wrong, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he still trusts his parliamentary secretary.

The object of Dechert's affection has apparently returned to China.

The Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily cites Shi's friends in Toronto as saying she has returned to China on vacation.

The newspaper said Shi planned the trip before someone hacked her email last week and distributed her love notes from Dechert to almost 250 recipients in media, government and diplomacy.

Sing Tao reported that her travel plans were not affected by the email incident, and she has already gone back to China.

Shi's supervisor in New York could not be reached for comment.

The Sing Tao story also notes that the widely-publicized photo of Shi and Dechert is actually cropped out from an original with three people in it — Shi, Dechert and another, unidentified, woman.

Shi's friends say the photo was taken in May 2010 at an event marking the establishment of the Canadian Confederation of Fujian Associations. Shi was there to cover news, and the photo was taken with Dechert, who spoke at the ceremony.

Photos from the event show New Democrat MP Olivia Chow and former Ontario Liberal MPP and one-time Toronto mayoral hopeful George Smitherman also attended.

Neither Chow nor Smitherman have returned requests for comment.

The Globe and Mail reported that Shi said her husband had hacked her email account, which Dechert appeared to reiterate. "My understanding is that her emails were hacked as part of an ongoing domestic dispute," he said in a statement posted on his website.

He insisted they were just friends.

"The person is a journalist whom I have come to know as a friend. I met her while doing Chinese-language media communications," Dechert's statement says.

"These emails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that — a friendship."

But whoever distributed the amorous emails said the Chinese journalist coldly asked her husband for a divorce so she could pursue the "love affair" with the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs.

A translated email from the hacker ended with a warning that more embarrassing correspondence might be coming.

Dechert is married to Hill and Knowlton executive Ruth Clark. They are longtime residents of Mississauga, Ont.

Clark did not reply to an email this week.

Neither the Mounties nor Canada's spy service will talk about the Dechert affair.

But at least one Tory has warned his colleagues about the tactics China uses to gain influence over foreign politicians.

Conservative MP Rob Anders is quoted in a story published last year by the Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper The Epoch Times as saying the Chinese employ young women who are "far, far too attractive for a 50-year-old balding politician."

Xinhua, created by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s to handle revolutionary propaganda, has grown into a multimedia empire with offices across the world and throughout China. It is run by the Chinese government in Beijing.

It is also widely known by western intelligence agencies to have links to China's intelligence services.

Two retired cabinet ministers told The Canadian Press this week that Conservative MPs are told to watch what they write, lest they want their private messages out there for the world to see.

"The admonition that you get from the party, our party anyway, was: 'When you write an email, will you be happy if that appears on the front page tomorrow?'" Chuck Strahl said.

Stockwell Day echoed that message.

"Even before the years of email, when I was in provincial politics, it was just a common dictum: never put anything in any kind of print that you don't want to see on a front page," said Day, the former head of the Treasury Board.

"That's always the guiding principle there."