Don’t expect a quick fix for China’s ban on Canadian canola

China expert says Beijing’s retaliation against Canada has ‘the personal imprint of the Chinese president’

An easy or fast solution to the Chinese defacto ban on canola is unlikely, says a China expert.

Gordon Houlden.
photo: Supplied

“China doesn’t yield to simple analysis,” Gordon Houlden, a political science professor and director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, told FarmTech attendees.

The detention of Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou on an extradition warrant to the U.S. was bound to have major repercussions, he said.

“We had, in effect, kicked over a hornet’s nest,” he said. “Whatever the case, we should not be surprised by the vehemence of the Chinese reaction,” said Houlden, who spent more than three decades working for the Canadian Foreign Service, mostly on Chinese affairs.

The retaliation against Canada almost certainly has the blessing of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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“He’s easily the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping and that’s saying a lot,” said Houlden.

“The decisions that come in China-Canada relations have the personal imprint of the Chinese president. I can’t prove that, but I’m highly confident of that fact.”

The Canadian ag industry has spent decades cultivating relations with Chinese buyers of canola, grain, meat and other ag goods. But in a dispute like this one, that doesn’t count for much, Houlden suggested.

“Politics has shot through the Chinese economy,” he said. “Every economy is a political economy to some extent, but that’s especially true with China.”

And political power is centralized, he added.

“All key positions are in Beijing. The equivalent would be if all the premiers of the provinces and all of the (cabinet) ministers were appointed by Ottawa.”

Chinese people generally have a positive concept of Canada and associate it with “blue skies, greenery, clean water, farms, forests and industry.”

“The image was highly positive,” he said.

That may explain why four of the Top 10 Canadian products imported by China were agricultural goods. Overall, Canadian exports to China grew 35 per cent yearly from 2013 to 2018.

“This growth stopped in 2019,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this isn’t the slowing of the Chinese economy. It was the detention of Madame Meng, but China has yet to make any public declarations about these two events.”

The fact there’s also been a halt in high-level visits between the two countries doesn’t bode well.

“That relationship, both political and trade, needs to be fed by high-level dialogue to address access problems, particularly to address trade access problems,” said Houlden.

“You don’t need high-level visits to trade, but you do need high-level visits, in my opinion, on an occasional basis to address the problems going forward. It’s no accident that there has been a complete dearth of high-level visits. That’s one of the challenges that we face.”

In September, Canada requested World Trade Organization dispute consultations for the Chinese canola ban. Houlden said he has witnessed WTO remedies for decades, and he thinks this is the best route for Canada.

However, he said, these remedies can take years because the WTO does not work fast.

Despite the political strife, the average Chinese person still thinks of Canada as a friendly place with high-quality goods and good prices, said Houlden.

“That’s been the image since 1970 and we need to get back to that,” he said. “There’s no quick fix to relations between Ottawa and Beijing, but I don’t think that has really shifted their views towards Canada. It has shifted the views of Canadians towards China.”

Houlden said once Meng Wangzhou and the two Canadians (Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor) imprisoned shortly after Meng’s detention are released, the two countries can start to make a transition back to a normal relationship.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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