China and the World

Hot potato

Canadian leader tries a softer approach

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou

Nicknamed after a spud in China

The category of “old friend to the Chinese people” is a wide one, that has been bestowed on teachers, doctors, royalty and more than a few dictators. Canadian leader Justin Trudeau has a strong claim himself, at least by birth. He is the son of Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister who granted diplomatic recognition to the Chinese in 1970, one of the first Western leaders do so.

Old friend or not, the personal connection didn’t do the younger Trudeau many favours on his eight-day trip to China this month.

First he had to fend off unexpected debate about Canadian human rights abuses, after a Chinese TV host accused Trudeau’s government of censoring a show the host had made about aboriginals and their treatment by white settlers.

Then he failed to talk Beijing out of dropping tighter rules on canola imports (China buys 87% of its canola from the Canadians).

Why? Beijing says it wants to prevent the spread of a disease called blackleg, so has demanded that the amount of stems, pods and weeds that ends up in canola shipments is more than halved to 1%.

The Canadians have protested, and they managed to persuade Chinese negotiators to delay the September 1 deadline for implementing the new requirement.

Trudeau – nicknamed “little potato” by the Chinese because his surname sounds similar to the vegetable’s – had already decided to break ranks with his traditional US allies during the trip by announcing that Canada will become a member of China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That left him open to criticism in his own media that he wasn’t negotiating hard enough with his hosts. “In applying to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example, Canada provided China a valuable vote of confidence and international prestige. In return, it secured a Band Aid solution to a dispute over canola exports and seven new visa processing centres in China, but made no visible progress on the release of detained missionary Kevin Garratt,” complained the Globe and Mail, referencing a man arrested on spying charges in the northern city of Dandong two years ago.

The visits to Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou (for the G20) and Hong Kong were about building bridges, Trudeau said. His predecessor Stephen Harper was outspoken in some of his criticism of the Chinese government (he failed to attend the Olympics in Beijing in 2008). Later he relented a little and travelled to China to sign trade deals.

Trudeau’s approach on his trip has been much softer. He conceded that former administrations had “blown hot and cold” on China and he said he was keen to show that “Canada was open for business”. He also talked about his familiarity with the country, discussing his backpacking experiences in the country two decades ago.

“This whole trip has been about relaunching a strong, stable relationship with an extremely important country in the world,” he told reporters.

The positive message was amplified by some social media wins over the summer – including a photo posted of a tanned, shirtless Trudeau out hiking. Indeed, Chinese netizens didn’t hold back in their appreciation of Trudeau’s looks. “He could be a model but he uses his brain to make a living. So impressive,” wrote one admirer last week.  “I thought for a second Tom Cruise became president,” gushed another.

But the visit was slightly overshadowed by the row with a talk show host called Gao Xiaosong, who claimed that the Canadian Tourism Board had pressured his employer to pull an interview with a First Nation leader about the wrongs suffered by Canada’s indigenous peoples.

Taking to weibo, Gao said the deleting of content from his four-part series ahead of Trudeau’s visit was “unacceptable” and that “the Canadian government, which has promoted freedom” should have known better.

Destination Canada responded that it had commissioned Gao’s shows to promote tourism and that the programme in question didn’t fit that brief, being more political in nature.

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