• By: Dan Donovan

Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu says China did not Interfere and Encourages Canadians to Visit China

Political strain has limited impact on the resilient business and people-to-people relations.

The diplomatic dance between Canada and China has been a study in contrasts, characterized by alternating moments of cooperation and conflict. The Meng Wanzhou detention by Canada in 2018 and the subsequent detainment of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor by Chinese authorities set off a chain reaction that strained bilateral relations that underscored the differences in political values, legal systems, and international priorities that have challenged the very foundations of the relationship. Remarkably, even as political friction persists, the economic ties binding Canada and China have exhibited remarkable resilience. The two nations boast a thriving business-to-business relationship that spans industries such as agriculture, technology, and natural resources. Despite the turbulence at the governmental level, the social fabric that binds Canadian and Chinese citizens together remains strong. Canadian universities continue to welcome thousands of Chinese students each year, fostering academic collaboration and cross-cultural understanding. Similarly, thousands of Canadian students study annually in China. These interactions reaffirm the notion that beneath the surface of political disagreements, the Canada-China relationship remains resilient.

Ottawa Life Magazine Managing Editor Dan Donovan met with the Chinese Ambassador to Canada, H. E. CONG Peiwu, at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa recently to discuss his perceptions on the Canada-China relationship.

Dan Donovan: Despite the political tension in the Canada-China relationship, the Canada-China business-to-business relationship remains strong. For the first time, trade between our countries was over $100 billion last year.

Ambassador Cong: Yes, on the business relationship, we have another historical high. For this year, growth in China is forecasted at around 5 percent, and for the first half, we have 5.5 percent growth. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast growth of 5.2 percent for China, which is higher than our own projection. This demonstrates China is a very strong engine for growth in the world.

In China, there is growth in foreign investment. Many foreign companies come for investment. In the first six months, there have been over 24,000 companies that have invested in China or been established in China, which shows that the Chinese economy is stable. Of course, it has issues it is dealing with, but I think there is great potential for long-term robust growth. All the key elements are there.

With regards to Canada-China trade, it’s apparent that Canada has very strong exports to China. In fact, in the first half of the year, exports to China from Canada are up 24 percent. And direct investment to China in the first quarter is up by over 180 percent. So, this means that business people in Canada, generally speaking, have a very good comfort level with China.

If you look at it from another perspective, there is no such thing as China’s punishing Canada using trade. There remain some technical issues, like pork from Canada, but since the beginning of the year, pork exports to China are up 50 percent. Canola exports to China are up by over 300 percent since the beginning of the year. There are lots of other products as well.

Dan Donovan: There remains some tension in the political relationship between Canada and China. Allegations were made in our parliament by the official opposition of Chinese interference in the Canadian federal election 2021. Can you comment on those allegations, and as a follow-up, can you please identify what you think are the priorities to get the Canada-China relationship back on the right track?

Ambassador Cong: I would like to suggest that our relationships are difficult, but that is not what we would like to see, and the responsibility does not lie with us. We would like to see a healthy and stable growth of relations as this is in our mutual interest. Unfortunately, there is a lot of hyping up of the China threat by some people in Canada who suggest China is a disruptive global power. This is not true whether it’s in trade or Chinese contributions to peace and security in the world. For example, in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia, with our help, were able to reestablish their diplomatic relations, which was an important step forward. Even here, I’ve spoken to some people who were very impressed with the Chinese efforts. At the United Nations, Canada was the first to propose peacekeeping, but what a lot of people don’t know is that China, for the past 31 years, has contributed over 50,000 soldiers under the UN banner overseas as part of China’s commitment to the UN and multilateralism.

Here, there are some people who concocted this lie that China is interfering. This is concocted by a small number of politicians and Canadian media outlets, and they could not produce any concrete evidence for that. China does not have any intention to interfere in any other country’s internal affairs. It is not our policy to do so. China has the best record of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. If you look at it from another angle, China is a victim of foreign interference in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Western countries, on a lot of occasions, are pointing fingers and making comments and being engaged in anti-China rhetoric and separatist forces.

Although Canada and China have different systems, there is no such thing that we want to do something to influence the system here. We would like to see our two countries develop relations of mutual respect, equality, and seeking common ground while reserving differences.

Relations could be very simple if we stick to the principle of mutual respect and equality and, at the same time, follow the principle of seeking common ground because for the past five decades and in fact, since we established diplomatic relations in 1970, there have been lots of things we can learn from the past when we had common ground. We have different cultural backgrounds, different histories and different systems, but in the past 50 years, we have managed to cooperate on a lot of important issues and deliver a lot of tangible benefits for our people.

Dan Donovan: You have talked about the people-to-people relationship.

Ambassador Cong: Education is one area. The school year is coming up, and there will be close to 200,000 Chinese students studying in Canada this year, which is almost back to the pre-COVID numbers. In addition to that, we can cooperate on a lot of issues that confront humanity, like climate change, energy security and public health. We would like to focus our energies on areas of cooperation and, minimize the areas of differences, and at least manage that in a constructive way. I think there are some people who would like to expand the areas of differences with their anti-Chinese rhetoric and, at the same time, to distract our efforts from focusing on areas of cooperation. I think we should do a lot more to be focused on areas of cooperation.

Dan Donovan: In recent months, the Biden administration and numerous European governments have embarked on a strategic endeavour to reengage with China in a constructive and cooperative manner. This shift in approach comes after a period of increased tension and adversarial rhetoric between these Western powers and China. The re-engagement efforts are driven by several key factors, including economic interdependence, global challenges such as climate change, and the desire for a stable geopolitical environment. The Canadian government at this moment, doesn’t appear to be in sync with that thinking.

Ambassador Cong: Governments will decide what their policies are. I believe they should be in line with the interests of their people. I would suggest that people should think about whether the current Canadian policy towards China is in line with the interests of the Canadian people. China would like to approach this relationship from a strategic and long-term perspective. What has happened so far is there is this perception of China as a threat and that China is a disruptive power, and this is not true. Where does this come from? It’s not from China; It’s from somewhere close to Canada.

For example, the United States Department of Commerce has imposed an anti-dumping tax against some countries related to the price of steel. Unfortunately, Canada and China are in the same group on this matter, and of course, there are others like soft lumber, pipelines and other controversial issues between Canada and the US. China is a country that wants to cooperate and develop friendly cooperation with all other countries, and that also applies to Canada.

Dan Donovan: Given the tension and the mood of Canadians today towards China, what would your message be to everyday Canadians regarding the relationship between our two countries?

Ambassador Cong: I would like to share my recent experience in Gravenhurst, Ontario, where I was very much touched by what I saw there. My message is to have more people-to-people visits between our countries. Dr. Norman Bethune was a person who inspired the Chinese people. And I can think of Isabel Crook, another famous Canadian who just passed away recently in Beijing at the age of 108. She contributed a lot to Canada-China relations and education in China. There were so many touching stories between Canada and China. I have visited a lot of places in Canada, and I talk to a lot of Canadians. I’m impressed by their friendship with China and their desire to have a healthy relationship, but they are not so vocal and speak up about this in public because they are afraid of being labelled pro-China, so the atmosphere is not so conducive right now.

The news here about China, I believe, can be misleading, and I would like to encourage more Canadians to visit China to see for themselves what China looks like. The only problem right now is flights instead of safety or security – China is very safe, but it’s all about the lack of flights to get there. Hopefully, this will improve.

Editor’s notes:

Norman Bethune, originally from Gravenhurst, Ontario, holds a revered place in Chinese history and culture due to his selfless and unwavering commitment to providing medical aid during the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. His pioneering efforts in battlefield surgery and his establishment of mobile medical units revolutionized medical practices in wartime, saving countless lives. Bethune’s dedication to treating wounded soldiers and civilians endeared him to the Chinese people, symbolizing international solidarity and humanitarianism. His legacy in China is immortalized through various memorials, including a museum and statue in Beijing, highlighting the profound impact of his compassion and medical expertise on the nation’s history and modern healthcare system.

Isabel Crook, a Canadian, commands deep respect in China for her lifelong commitment to bridging cultures and fostering understanding between the West and China. As an anthropologist and educator, she dedicated over seven decades to studying, living, and engaging with Chinese communities. Crook’s genuine appreciation for Chinese culture, her fluent Mandarin, and her tireless efforts in documenting and preserving local traditions endeared her to the Chinese people. Her collaborative work, including research on rural development and contributions to education, left an indelible mark on Sino-Canadian relations. Regrettably, Isabel Crook passed away this year, leaving behind a legacy of cross-cultural appreciation and friendship that continues to inspire and uplift both nations.

Flights from Canada to China:

Due to ongoing Canada-China political tensions, Canada was excluded from China’s “Approved Destination Status” (ADS) in 2023. This has significant negative implications for Canadian tourism. According to Statistics Canada, about 750,000 Chinese tourists came to Canada in 2018, spending an estimated $2 billion. ADS is a bilateral agreement that facilitates group travel from China to certain countries. When a country is granted ADS, it becomes an officially approved destination for Chinese tour groups, allowing for streamlined visa processes and marketing efforts in China. The exclusion of Canada from this list limits its visibility and accessibility as a tourist destination for Chinese travellers. Chinese tourists are known for their significant spending power, and their preferences often align with Canada’s attractions, such as natural landscapes, urban experiences, and educational opportunities.

Without ADS, the cumbersome visa procedures and lack of official promotion hinder the influx of Chinese visitors, leading to decreased tourist arrivals and a subsequent economic impact on various sectors, including hospitality, transportation, and retail. Being left off China’s Approved Destination Status in 2023 diminishes Canada’s appeal as a travel destination for Chinese tourists, resulting in lost economic opportunities and a setback for the Canadian tourism industry.