When the torch is lit in Beijing National Stadium February 4, marking the start of the 24th Olympic Winter Games, the host nation’s motto “Together for a shared future” may be sorely tested.
We share many things with China, in particular, a booming trade in goods and services, as well as deep cultural links with the large ethnic Chinese population that calls Canada home. The list of products imported to B.C. from China is long, and includes industrial machinery, electrical and computer systems, cell phones, toys, and games. But despite all the things we share, political values are definitely not on that list.
Given the politically motivated detention of Canadian diplomats by the Chinese government, the repression of the Uyghur minority in western China, plus ongoing accusations of heavy-handed surveillance and intimidation of democracy activists, feelings of togetherness and visions for a shared future between China and Canada are at a historic low. Case in point is the fact that Canada will have no political representatives at the Beijing Games, one of nine countries to impose a diplomatic boycott.
As Canada’s Pacific province, British Columbia has always had an important but conflicted relationship with China. Roughly one quarter of all exports from B.C. go to China, second only to the United States.
British Columbia is also home to a large, influential Chinese-Canadian community, some of whom emigrated from Hong Kong when China assumed sovereignty over the former British colony in the late 1990s. The 2016 census data indicates that while one in 20 Canadians identify as Chinese (five per cent), that proportion rises to about one in seven in B.C. (12 per cent of the province’s population).
Trade between B.C. and China is crucial to the provincial economy. Total exports to China from B.C. reached almost six billion dollars in 2020, higher than any other province. About half of that value was in wood, pulp or paper products ($2.7 billion), while $1.2 billion was minerals (mainly copper ore). Most alarmingly, B.C. exports $705 million of coal to China to help power their energy grid.
Our conflicted relationship with China is evident in Premier Horgan’s statement to ‘Business in Vancouver’ on January 10, 2022, underscoring the importance, and the inconsistencies, in our relationship with China. “B.C. is positioned geographically and economically to serve growing markets in Asia and around the world.
“We are developing clean energy resources under the CleanBC Roadmap to 2030, reducing harmful emissions while generating a stronger economy. Global demand for low-carbon goods and services will only continue to grow, and B.C. will be there, ready to lead the way.”
It is hard to reconcile how almost a billion dollars of coal exports to China factors into that roadmap.
Clearly B.C. has the most to gain or lose from any disruption of trade links with China. Yet British Columbians are the keenest among Canadian citizens when it comes to restricting trade with China to send a message to its government. According to a January 2022 poll by the Angus Reid Institute, two thirds of British Columbians (68 per cent) are willing to sacrifice some of the economic benefits of trade with China to protest its repressive policies.
Getting tough with China could result in considerable economic pain, nevertheless four out of five British Columbians (80 per cent) would choose to prioritize human rights and the rule of law over potential trade and investment opportunities.
The Olympics are supposed to be a time of friendly global competition. But when the Olympic flame is extinguished at the closing of the Beijing 2022 games later in February, it will mark the beginning of a darker period of relations with China, led by British Columbia.
Bruce Cameron has been a pollster and strategist for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own consultancy, Return On Insight.