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Conversations at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing

Canadian Scholars, Max Seunik, Chardaye Bueckert and Hayden Rodenkirchen share their thoughts on spending time at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, and the relationship between Canada and China.

One of the best parts of this year for the inaugural class’ three Canadian scholars – Max, Chardaye, and Hayden – has been interacting with the Canadian Embassy and the wider community of young Canadians here in Beijing. Early in the program, we learned that the Canadian mission had been monitoring the development of the Schwarzman Scholars program since it was first announced some years ago. Arriving in Beijing, we connected almost immediately – receiving a big, Canadian welcome and invitations to several exciting policy conversations around our country’s bilateral relationship with the East Asian giant.

Indeed, we have landed in Beijing at a particularly electric moment for Canada’s relationship with its second largest trading partner – especially following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to China during this past summer's G20 in Hangzhou and Premier Li Keqiang's subsequent visit to Ottawa in the months that followed.

Our engagement with the Embassy began early into the program when Cindy Termorshuizen, the Embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires, invited us to attend the Mission’s Remembrance Day Ceremony with a host of other Canadian expatriates living in and around Beijing. We commemorated our fallen soldiers alongside fellow Canadians, and we were able to meet Canadians working on a variety of portfolios within the Embassy -- from clean tech to political affairs to human rights.

Last month, we had the honor of returning to the Embassy – this time to participate in the “Canada in Conversation” policy conversation series. The event featured the Hon. Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. This was Minister McKenna’s first official visit to China following close on the heels of Prime Minister Trudeau. She brought with her a delegation of Canadian businesses and clean technology entrepreneurs, specializing in everything from zero emissions public transportation to electricity management for power grids. Over a lively and personable conversation, she discussed the founding of the new Canada-China Technology Transfer Institute in Guangdong Province for global collaboration on clean-technology research and development, the increasing partnership between Canada and China around following up on commitments to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement, and the importance of clean-technology in improving air and soil health. China’s increasing process on environmental policy was also lauded, particularly the country’s plans for a national carbon cap and trade system to be implemented in 2017.

We were invited for a more intimate reception following the event at the Official Residence located – conveniently – only steps from the Embassy. Here, over hors d’oeuvres and Canadian wine, we mingled with fellow Beijing-based Canucks, including British Columbia’s Special Trade Representative to Asia, a Vancouver-born news anchor now working at CCTV, and Minister McKenna herself. Embassy officials, Chinese entrepreneurs, and government officials of all stripes working in clean tech. promotion were also present. While the professional affiliations of the people present were diverse, there was a keenly felt common thread to many of our conversations: China is becoming a leading and increasingly lucrative market for Canadian clean technology.

On this front, the facts are clear. Canadian companies, galvanized by government and private sector funding, the realities of the Canadian climate, and an increasing emphasis on environmental technology, have developed technology well-suited to China’s needs. As China looks to play an increased leadership role globally, it is more efficient for the country’s well-capitalized ministries and state planning authorities to adapt technology from abroad, rather than spend the research and development dollars (or renminbi) on reinventing the solar panel, as it were. It follows that Canadian companies in search of a larger market have a natural fit in China, should they be able to navigate the country’s notorious regulations.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for us as three Canadian Scholars is the speed at which the Canadian government has moved to prioritize China – the rapidity of which we have been able to directly observe over less than a year’s time. Minister McKenna’s visit is only one star in the broader constellation of a new emphasis on relations with Beijing. To illustrate, earlier this month Justin Trudeau shuffled the cabinet for the first time since his election in 2015. Notably, two veteran ministers were removed from cabinet. Perhaps even more notably, one of those ministers – John McCallum – will in March be taking up a new role as Canadian Ambassador to China. This political appointment to an ambassadorial post elevates China to a unique position in Canada’s diplomatic matrix only previously occupied, arguably, by the United Kingdom and United States. Political observers have noted that the appointment may signal a noteworthy shift in tone towards China, particularly after Trudeau expressed interest in exploratory talks with Beijing on a free trade agreement and increased Chinese interest in infrastructure projects in the Great White North.

With these dynamics in mind, the Minister’s visit and the conversations that followed take on a new light. Canadian leadership on clean technology is a competitive advantage that should be leveraged to improving business ties overall between Canada and China. The Canada-China Technology Transfer Institute in Foshan City built jointly by Ontario-based Canada CleanTech Capital Inc. and Foshan University must lay the groundwork for future public private partnerships aimed, triply, at improving ties, expanding the reach of Canadian business, and addressing climate change. The Canadian government should establish similar centers in other Chinese cities – particularly those often overlooked in traditional global capital flows (read: second- or third-tier cities).

However, these centers should not be limited to Canadian businesses. Canadian universities, particularly those engaged in research on environmental and clean technology, should be fully integrated – allowing Canadian researchers to spend time in China, work with Chinese researchers, and work towards building the people-to-people relationships that underpin successful diplomacy and that will be crucial in developing global strategies to address climate change. Canada’s approach could also be more comprehensive by integrating non-conventional technologies into the product mix. One example could include the food-waste weighing and monitoring technology employed in South Korea that has helped reduce the environmental footprint of food waste within restaurants and households.
More than anything else, Minister McKenna’s visit underscored that this is an incredible time to be in China, and that Beijing is an incredible vantage point from which to observe Canada’s foreign affairs strategy in action -- especially as it relates to leadership on the environmental front, following up on the Paris Agreement, and engaging China. These dynamics have enormous repercussions not only on Canada’s economy, but also domestic policy. Being in China and seeing events play out from the other side of the Pacific have driven home how absolutely unique the Schwarzman Scholars program is, particularly in allowing us to engage the future-forward and important factors likely to affect the course and prosperity of our country for generations to come.