Diplomat bullish on B.C. trade with China under NDP

Liu Fei, consul general of China in Vancouver, leaving post as John Horgan takes reins

Liu Fei, China’s consul general in Vancouver, is slated to return to China after six years on the job | Albert Van Santvoort

Six years can be an eternity for a diplomat, whose term at a posting can be as short as a year and usually lasts no more than three or four. That makes Liu Fei – China’s consul general and top official representative in Vancouver since 2011 – a rarity among diplomatic circles.

But the long term also means that she has been witness to (and, at times, at the helm of) some important moments during the evolution of B.C.’s trade relationship with China under ChristyClark’s Liberal government, which also started in 2011. Now, just as a new BC NDP-BC Green Party minority government led by John Horgan is set to take the reins in B.C., Liu is ending her time in Vancouver and returning to Beijing at the end of August.

During her term, B.C.’s commodity exports to China grew to $6.2 billion – 18.4% of the provincial total.

Before her departure, Liu sat down with Business in Vancouver to discuss the future of B.C.-China trade, as well as some controversial topics such as human-rights concerns and China’s acquisition of defence-industry companies (such as Vancouver’s Norsat International Inc.) overseas.

Q: The provincial government was headed by Christy Clark’s Liberals during almost your entire tenure here. Now, it’s an NDP minority government. How does that change the outlook for future relations with China?

A: In 2016 B.C.’s GDP grew by 3.7%, and I really believe China played a key role in that figure. Many countries around the world have suffered economic stagnation during the past five years so, if B.C. was able to gain some economic momentum, it would make sense that China would be a big factor.

We’ve had a good relationship with the Liberal government. Now, with the NDP in charge, Premier John Horgan has also said the relationship with China is an important one for him. We met on the day he became premier and he told me that he would like to talk to me before I leave to discuss ways that he can further widen and deepen B.C.’s trade relations with us. He was very clear about that, so I believe the new government will continue to work with us.

Q: There has been a lot of attention focused on controversial issues with China, such as the country’s human-rights situation and the acquisition of defence-related technology firms in countries like Canada. How do you deal with those criticisms?

A: I think it stems from a lack of understanding of China. In the case of acquisition of companies in certain sectors, why is it that it’s OK for an American company to buy, but it’s not OK for a Chinese company to do the same? There’s no real difference; the rules of global commerce are the same.

So I really think we need to boost the level of mutual trust between our people. It’s about understanding each other; that’s of paramount importance.

Q: What’s your take on this new level of attention?

A: Thirty years ago, China had not yet truly reached out beyond its own borders. Our understanding of the outside world was limited, and when you have one westerner come to China, we would all be staring at him or her, because we haven’t seen things like that before.

The same applies in the reverse. Canadians traditionally are more used to dealing with people of European descent than they are with people from Asia, so the understanding of Asian culture here in Canada is more limited. So it’s normal they would have different perspectives and opinions in the Canada-China relationship.

I will give you an example. People here love the new-car smell when they buy a car, but Chinese people in general don’t like the heavy smell of leather in a new vehicle. It doesn’t mean a car is good or bad based on the smell, and you can’t say either side is wrong. It means that we have different customs and perspectives. … It shows a difference of interpretation, not who’s right or wrong.

So I think the key is more people-to-people interaction, so that Canadians would understand Asian culture better, especially with things like Chinese medicine. That’s a practice that’s very popular here, but it’s having a hard time making it into the official health-care system. … On these fronts, I hope that Canadians can use the same affinity they have with those with European roots toward people from Asia.

Q: What’s the impact of the large Chinese-Canadian community here? Is it a challenge or a boon?

A: It’s been a big help. This year is Canada’s 150th anniversary but, even before 1867, many Chinese people came during the Gold Rush. Chinese people have been here every step of the way in the growth and development of Canada, so having such a large group of them here is so important. I consider every one of them as ambassadors to Canada-China relations, and they support our work here.

It’s also great because we can easily reach every industry here in B.C. through Chinese-Canadians, because the Chinese community is so large and so widespread. To be able to have them work with us to promote business on both sides, it’s an immense asset for B.C. and China. We are proud of them, and we are truly grateful for their support over the years