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Forum on Trade With China, or Propaganda Campaign?

Think tank’s ‘consultative forum’ stacked with pro-trade advocates.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 29 Jun 2017 |

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

A think tank claiming to take a “balanced approach” to Canada-China relations stacked its first closed-door forum with trade and investment enthusiasts, some with links to the Chinese government.

The Public Policy Forum launched a two-year consultative forum on Canada’s relationship with China last week in Ottawa, promising “a valuable injection of fresh ideas and understanding.”

But the initial meeting was weighted with pro-trade advocates and lacked representatives from unions concerned about job losses in Canada and organizations focused on human rights abuses in China.

The first forum included 35 participants. Almost half of them were connected to the Canada-China Business Council and one of its offshoots, the China Research Partnership.

The Canada-China Business Council is dedicated to facilitating trade and investment with China. Its founding members include the China International Trust and Investment Corporation, an arm of the Chinese government.

BMO Financial Group was also a founding member, and its vice-chair Kevin Lynch is also co-chair of the Public Policy Forum consultation. As well, Lynch is a director of China National Offshore Oil Corporation, the Chinese state-owned enterprise that bought Canadian energy company Nexen in 2012.

The China Research Partnership is a consortium of academics and experts assembled through a number of business groups and universities, including the CCBC, and labels itself “the go-to resource” for China. When it launched in March the Chinese embassy in Ottawa tweeted out congratulations on the initiative.

Partnership member and Canadian Senator Yuen Pau Woo attended the Ottawa forum. Woo, the former head of the pro-trade Asia Pacific Foundation, used his first speech as a senator last year to argue Canada shouldn’t pressure Beijing to abide by international treaties it signed to deal with territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Teck Resources had two representatives at the forum. Last year Teck was under scrutiny after The Tyee reported it had appointed a member of the National People’s Congress of China, part of the Chinese government, to its board of directors. The state-owned China Investment Corp. owns 17.5 per cent of Teck Resources.

Most of the forum members not associated with the two organizations were government staffers, with the PPF or managers of companies with an interest in increased trade with China. Some represented businesses with direct ties to the Chinese government.

Public Policy Forum CEO Edward Greenspon said just because the forum was weighted with pro-commerce advocates doesn’t mean issues like human rights were pushed to the side.

“I think it’s a room that I sat in that had a broad discussion about a lot of issues,” Greenspon said in a phone interview. “I think we had a very good conversation in the room.”

Greenspon said he couldn’t say for sure “how many minutes of discussion were spent on any one subject” but future meetings of the forum would include a human rights component.

The forum is part of a two-year initiative, with more conferences to be held. Its aim is to strike a “balanced approach” on engagement with China, weighing Canadians’ concerns along with those of the business community.

Critics have said the PPF’s corporate-funded consultation on China is intended to sell skeptical Canadians on a trade deal.

But Greenspon said the aim is to create a forum to make sure public policy is made with a lot of input, and to be one of the sources of input.

“The conversation has often been about either human rights or free trade alone and that’s not the full spectrum of the relations that countries have with one another,” Greenspon said.

A PPF backgrounder on the consultation notes Canadians have become more hesitant about deepened relations with China, blaming “Conservative ambivalence and absence of proactive public messaging” as part of the problem.

It cites a poll showing 90 per cent of Canadians are “somewhat uncomfortable” with Chinese state-owned enterprises having access to the Canadian economy.

Greenspon rejected the suggestion the forum’s discussion wasn’t balanced, saying there were skeptics in attendance, including a former trade advisor to the Harper government.

But he was vague about who else at the event was skeptical of deepening ties with China.

“There’s people who are skeptical and not skeptical in a way,” he said. “There’s people who are kind of looking for what is the formula? Is there a formula? How do we serve Canada’s interests here?”

Jan Wong, the journalism professor who wrote Red China Blues, a book about her experiences as a student and reporter in China, called the forum “propaganda” from companies doing business with China who want to make more money off the relationship.

She’s seen this before, Wong said.

“In fact it’s sort of like the way the Chinese government likes to push its agenda,” Wong said. “They organize a little group and they pretend the group is independent and they have all these interesting ideas, then they go and make themselves available to all these gullible reporters.”

She said Canada should be trading with China, but Public Policy Forum should also lay out its position publicly.

“They’re entitled to an opinion, but the axe they are grinding should be visible and what this does is it pretends there’s no axe here,” she said.

Wong said she’s been concerned about Canada’s response to China under the Liberal government, which sent two deputy ministers and an assistant deputy minister to the forum.

She said Trudeau, whose father opened diplomatic relations with China, has a lot of “goodwill capital” in the country but has failed to use it to advance human rights.

The number of Canadian organizations and politicians putting commerce before human rights in China is a “disgrace,” Wong said.

Conservative deputy foreign affairs critic Peter Kent said free trade is good, but expressed concern with the Liberal government’s approach to China and its free trade ambitions.

Ottawa must stand up for Canada’s interests in any kind of relationship with China, and currently is allowing itself to be “bullied,” he said.

“The Chinese ambassador to Ottawa personifies the Chinese position in his arrogant warning a few weeks ago that Canada should beware introducing human rights concerns into trade negotiations,” Kent wrote in an email.

This week the Global Times newspaper, generally pro Chinese government, attacked Conservative leader Andrew Scheer for saying he wouldn’t hold free trade talks with China if he becomes prime minister.

Scheer said human rights concerns were part of the reason Canada shouldn’t sign a free trade deal in an interview with Global News.

Luc Portelance, former president of the Canada Border Service Agency and CSIS agent, attended the forum as a security expert.

Portelance told The Tyee human rights were mentioned during the meeting, but added the first conference was more of a “scene setter” for the initiative.  [Tyee]

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