Deep divide in attitudes toward China: poll

With a recent research poll from the University of British Columbia (UBC) showing less than one-third of Canadians have a favourable view of China, observers say that chill in public opinion is now spilling over into academia in the form of increasingly polarized debates on what Canada should do next.

The conflict over China at Canadian universities, which one observer says is charged with an emotional intensity not seen since the Cold War in the 20th century, reflects how divisive the issue has become for Canadians, many of whom want to keep the economic opportunity of selling to the world’s most populous country while others find China’s response to Canada since the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. CFO Meng Wanzhou unreasonable and belligerent.

Paul Evans, a professor at UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and the lead researcher on the UBC national opinion survey, said he has been “nervous” about some of the public responses he and other researchers have received about the poll, with many respondents accusing the report of carrying a pro-Beijing bias.

Evans said he was aware the public discourse on China has grown much more intense in recent months, and that was the reason the report took the unusual step of specifically outlining its funding source – a 2009 gift from the Power Corp. of Canada (TSX:POW) and an award from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of China.

“We are in a time where there are intense feelings around China,” Evans said. “More directly, knowledge about China is being politicized.… It’s a mood in which the views of people are being criticized for their intellectual content, and that’s fine. But it’s also linking into criticism about integrity and, in some cases, about loyalty. So it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Cold War period where it is not just a normal policy debate, but there’s another level of emotional criticism involved.”

Evans added the scrutiny has been especially harsh toward those who take the position that Canada should continue to engage Beijing on multiple fronts, including economically.

“It’s essential that we make clear this is a serious academic research program,” he continued. “And the fact that we felt we had to do that reflects these angry times where there are great suspicions about those who want to take what I would call a more balanced view of China.”

Evans noted that his position appears to be backed by the opinions of the Canadians surveyed in the UBC poll, as 62% still support the negotiation of a bilateral free-trade deal with China – even if it is currently not possible politically given Article 32.10 in the new Canada-United States-Mexico free-trade pact.

That is despite China now being viewed favourably by just 29% of the Canadians surveyed. Since Meng’s arrest on a U.S. extradition request, at least 13 Canadian citizens have been detained in China, including former diplomat Michael Kovrig and consultant Michael Spavor. (At least eight of those have been released as of January, Global Affairs Canada said.)

In addition, China has effectively banned Canadian exports of canola and red meat.

The increasing violence in Hong Kong, where as many as 300,000 Canadians live, further hurts China’s image in Canada’s public sphere, while China remains Canada’s second-largest trade partner in a world where the United States is growing increasingly protectionist under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Poll numbers also reflect that sense of unease of being caught between two superpowers. In questions about which side to take in the event of a deepening of the China-U.S. conflict, staying neutral (37.4%) was the runaway winner in the poll, and 17.9% said the response should depend on the circumstances of the hypothetical conflict.

“Dislike of China has not translated into trust in the United States,” Evans said of the poll results. “One of the things that runs through many of the answers is that Canadians fear getting caught in the midst of a U.S.-China conflict…. There’s a clear feeling that Canadians don’t want to get pulled into this.”

Not all academics believe that Canadian anger towards China should be reined in, however.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a University of Ottawa Institute for Science, Society and Policy senior fellow, has in the past year penned a number of editorials calling for Canada to limit tech-industry collaborations with China in light of accusations that Chinese business practices are unfair to western companies.

Such accusations in the United States last year triggered the first round of Trump tariffs against China in the ongoing trade war between the world’s two largest economies. In addition, the detention of Canadians by Beijing makes further economic and technological links even more unpalatable, McCuaig-Johnston said.

“I think we should protect as much as we can the business that we now do in China,” said McCuaig-Johnston, who has 40 years of experience on technology trade issues with China, starting with her first visit in 1971. “But I have a real problem with the idea of, in the face of China kidnapping our fellow Canadians, turning around and doing a lot of new business deals with them and increasing our research co-operation with them so they can benefit from improved trade and technology capacity by using Canadian R&D – while at the same time turning the screw on us in other areas.”

McCuaig-Johnston said while it good that Canadians want to continue pursuing an economic relationship with China, her experience with several Canadian tech companies forced to set up joint ventures in order to enter the Chinese market revealed real concerns.

Though Canadian technology and know-how are ending up in China, so are the jobs and sales – and, ultimately, the economic benefits stemming from that Canadian technology, she said.

“We don’t want to go back to pushing commodity trade. We want a technology trade that should be from Canada to China. A joint venture model, which China made clear is its preference, is not trade.… I don’t think it’s a good practice for us to compartmentalize different aspects of the relationship; there has to be some consequence for China.”