Hard currency, soft power: Poly Culture rolls into B.C.

Multi-pronged Chinese state-owned corporation opens art gallery in Vancouver

Tour guide Liqun Wan (left) points out the mix of European and Chinese motifs in a gold animatronic clock during the opening of Poly Culture Gallery in downtown Vancouver | Photo: Chung Chow

A division of one of China’s biggest state-owned corporations, which has links to the military, opened a downtown Vancouver art gallery gallery November 30, and its CEO said corporate siblings may follow.

“Coming to Vancouver is connected with Poly Culture Group’s strategy decided by its directors; whether Poly Real Estate and Poly Technologies will come to Canada will be decided by themselves,” Poly Culture CEO Jiang Yingchun told Business in Vancouver through an interpreter. “But according to all my knowledge, they are also very interested in the Vancouver market. For example, Poly Real Estate has sent people to come to visit Vancouver twice to know the environment here.”

Parent China Poly Group Corp. was founded in 1984 as a subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and claims to be valued at $120 billion. Honorary chairman He Ping is the son-in-law of the late Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader from 1978 to 1992.

Poly Culture holdings include art auctions, cinemas and theatres. Its choice of Vancouver for its North American headquarters was announced during a 2015 trade mission to Beijing by Premier Christy Clark and International Trade Minister Teresa Wat. Jiang said it chose Vancouver for its multicultural environment, favourable tax policies and proximity to China compared with other North American markets. It opened an office last year in a building near Richmond city hall on the same floor as BC Liberal Wat’s Richmond Centre constituency office. The 4,000-square-foot gallery at 905 West Pender Street opened the same day as the Poly-sponsored, Chan Centre launch of the China Philharmonic Orchestra’s North American tour.

“We will hold exhibitions free of charge to the local communities every year,” Jiang said. “Those exhibitions include some of those from China. We will also hold exhibitions for the local artists and aboriginal people, so we hope it will be a cultural exchange platform to boost the cultural exchange from both sides.”

Hong Kong stock exchange-listed Poly Culture (HKG:3636) said it has spent $10 million so far and hired a dozen staff under Poly Culture North America CEO Yi Chen, with plans to expand to 100 employees.

Through the end of February, the gallery features the famed bronze-cast tiger, monkey, pig and ox heads from the Chinese zodiac that were designed by European Jesuits and looted in 1860 from the Old Summer Palace by British and French soldiers. Poly bought them at auction in 2000.

Jiang said that the head of Poly’s Vancouver gallery would decide what is programmed. He was noncommittal when asked whether it would ever exhibit works by dissident artist Ai Weiwei, whose politically flavoured portfolio includes a 2010 parody of the Old Summer Palace artifacts called the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads.

Carleton University political science professor Jeremy Paltiel, who specializes in China issues, said there are several reasons for Poly to choose Vancouver.

“There is no doubt that as a major cultural operator in China, the government and the Communist Party are pushing for increasing China’s soft power, then clearly this is an opportunity for them,” Paltiel said. “There is a push factor, but I think we might also want to look at the pull factors. They already have a customer base here.”

Given the company’s history – Poly Technologies is an international arms dealer – Canada would be a less-sensitive place to locate than the U.S., Paltiel said.

“I would have no doubt Canada would be seen as a more friendly venue, given that China Poly might ring a few bells,” he said. “Its background is arms. It’s been around in the arms business since the 1980s, but in China it became a widely spread conglomerate by the end of the 1980s.”

A 1997 joint RCMP-CSIS report on Chinese espionage, also known as Project Sidewinder, expressed general concern about China using its business clout to gain access to Western power and open channels to traffic in illegal weapons and technology. It described Poly Group as “part of the entrepreneurial drive of the People’s Liberation Army.”

The report said the U.S.-based representative of Poly Technologies was arrested after a May 1996 seizure of 2,000 AK-47 assault rifles at a California warehouse.

“Although the final destination of the arms has not been determined, the Amerindians ‘Warriors’ and American militia trails are strongly suspected by U.S. authorities,” the report said.

In 1999, PLA transferred China Poly Group to the central government.