Ahead of a planned trade mission to Asia this fall, B.C. Premier David Eby signalled his intent to visit China, in speaking to Chinese-language media last month.
“British Columbia is an important gateway to the Asia-Pacific market, so after the [pandemic], we will actively go to Asia, and we are arranging to lead an economic and trade delegation to Asia next year,” Eby told Chinese-language news outlet Sing Tao on Jan. 23, translated by Google from Chinese to English.
“And I am looking forward to visiting China,” added Eby.
Eby’s comments, framed as a definitive planned visit to China, were picked up favourably elsewhere in B.C.-based Chinese-language media, including prominent commentator Ding Guo for Rise Weekly, who referred to Eby as an "icebreaker" amid troubled tensions.
However, the premier’s deputy communications director Jimmy Smith dismissed the notion of a trade mission to China and confirmed the B.C. government, led by Eby, will visit Asia this year (not next year) and planned stops include Japan, Korea and Vietnam — not China.
Smith clarified, by email, that Eby’s comment is intended to mean that he may visit China “at some point in the future, when appropriate; but there are no current plans.”
Eby did not respond to an interview request to fully clarify his intentions.
Attempting to make sense of the comments, Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a Sino-Canadian affairs analyst at the University of Ottawa, said the Chinese-speaking media audience in B.C. may get the wrong impression of Eby’s actual intentions.
“It's not even planned; he could go in the future,” she said, adding a lot of factors need to be considered by Eby and the B.C. government before he were to actually go to China.
The media reports, said McCuaig-Johnston, appear to "serve the interests of the Chinese government," as they “recast Canada's relationship as an attempt to go back to the olden days of trade missions to China, you know, when we were courting that country as a one stop shop for big trade deals. That is not what China is now."
She suggested Eby conduct some "damage control" by clarifying his comments.
B.C. has a plan to diversify trade, which falls in line with Canada’s new and emerging international trade strategy re-branded as the "Indo-Pacific" strategy, from the old "Asia-Pacific" strategy.
As a total share percentage of B.C. exports, China has shown a gradual decline with B.C. China’s share shot up two percentage points in 2021, to 16.5 per cent but declined to 13.2 per cent in 2022, which is at least a 10-year low. Last year the U.S. represented 57.3 per cent as a destination of exports.
A trip to China would mean an attempt to increase trade ties with B.C., which would run contrary to these strategies, said McCuaig-Johnston.
The strategy, coupled with increasing concern for human rights violations by the authoritarian regime and decreased domestic support for trade ties with it, are key factors that should influence any such future visit, said McCuaig-Johnston.
Citing military aggression toward Taiwan and India, illegal overfishing in the Philippines, human rights atrocities against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and forced labour camps, McCuaig-Johnston said “this is not the behavior of a country that we want to do business with that we would court business with.”
If Eby were to visit China under these current conditions, he would go against the grain of federal government signals, said McCuaig-Johnston.
Asked if Eby would raise human rights in any such future visit to China, Smith said “Premier Eby has been and will continue to be a strong advocate of human rights and people’s ability to exercise those rights, at home and around the world.”
The B.C. government has stated it sides with the House of Commons majority that China is committing acts of genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. McCuaig-Johnston said provincial politicians who tout international trade ties owe it to Canadians to ensure “that the products coming into B.C. are not tainted with forced labour.”
McCuaig-Johnston said trade with China will nevertheless remain strong without any government interventions.
“People will maintain people-to-people ties and businesses will continue to do business in China, because China wants our products and not because of anything magical a premier can do,” she said.
Sino-Canadian relations were particularly damaged by the December 2019 arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wenzhou in Vancouver and subsequent detentions of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China (viewed by the Canadian government as retaliatory), said McCuaig-Johnston.
Since then, no Canadian politician has visited China and public sentiment in Canada toward China has deteriorated — a matter the B.C. government and Eby ought to be aware of, McCuaig-Johnston added.
Last December Nanos Research and Bloomberg polled Canadians on trade relations with China and found six in 10 Canadians (61 per cent) think Canada should decrease trade with China, up from 45 per cent in 2020. Only five per cent indicated support for more trade while 24 per cent favoured the status quo.
In B.C., 64 per cent called for less trade, six per cent wanted more and 20 per cent favoured the status quo. British Columbians showed the least satisfaction in how its government is handling relations with China, with just 12.5 per cent saying a good job is being done.