Harnessing youth power in the quest for better Canada-China relations

In addition to the high-level dialogue that took place during Justin Trudeau’s official visit to China, informal strategies, especially those around youth engagement, are needed when it comes to building a bridge across continents.

By: /
September 9, 2016
The University of Toronto campus is seen in Toronto, October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wraps up his historical visit to China, a lot is expected of and riding on him. He has “reset the relationship,” as he set out to do, sending a strong message of Canada’s willingness to engage with China and to invest in the relationship with our second largest trading partner and a rising superpower. This message, which was largely incongruent in the last decade under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, had resulted in a suboptimal bilateral relationship that cost us in many respects, including less-than-ideal outcomes in trade relationship, business opportunities, education abroad, people-to-people and cultural exchanges.

It is not difficult to understand why Canada has been reticent on building closer relations with China. Traditionally, Canadians identify themselves as part of North America, with our future invested in the region. According to the 2016 National Opinion Poll surveyed by the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, only about half of Canadians see the rise of China as presenting more of an opportunity than a threat. Roughly half are supportive of a closer trading relationship with China. These numbers are still fairly low, even though they have risen from the last poll conducted two years ago.

On balance, Canada’s public sentiment towards China is still largely one of suspicion and distrust. China’s deteriorating human rights situation, its detention of human rights lawyers, routine round up of activists, callous demolition of churches, and lack of freedom of expression are news items that make headlines in Canada. The deficiency in public relation skills on China’s part also has not helped to soften its image abroad. Most recently, many Canadians were very upset—and rightfully so—about Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s reprimand of a Canadian journalist who raised a question about the country’s human rights record. The same poll by the Asia-Pacific Foundation found 65 percent of Canadians believe China’s growing military power is a threat to the Asia-Pacific region. Some segments of the population will criticize the prime minister for not being forceful enough on human rights no matter what he said in his trip. Such is the reality that will continue to dominate the public opinion landscape.  

Going the non-governmental route

Given this backdrop, the most effective strategies to engage China may not be at the state-to-state level. If we push for a closer economic relationship and official ties too quickly and too soon, it may backfire. The public tends to see the gain from trade as securing better access to an overseas market to sell Canadian products, rather than lowering prices of Chinese-made products that benefit local consumers. The uncertain economic outlook at home and continued loss of jobs in some sectors will not help either.

However, we can turn these into timely opportunities to build infrastructure that lays the foundation of more robust Canada-China relations in the near future. This is the time to invest in China literacy. This is the time to raise the public’s, and particularly young people’s, understanding of Chinese language, society and culture. 

There has been a demographic shift in the last two decades that has seen a tremendous increase in residents of Asian or Chinese descent, particularly in the metropolitan cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary. But Canada’s China literacy—familiarity with Mandarin Chinese and basic comprehension of its societal and cultural complexities—is low. It is lagging behind countries such as Australia, New Zealand or even parts of the U.S. It is difficult to imagine how Canada can build a “stable and robust” relationship with China, as envisaged by Trudeau, without these fundamental building blocks in place. 

Some of these foundations will be more challenging to build than others. Language immersion for students is dependent upon provincial governments’ initiatives and political momentum in the respective regions. Typically, areas of Pacific Canada, such as British Columbia, have shown greater support for teaching Asian languages in schools compared to Atlantic Canada. State investment and formal strategies require political commitment and mobilization, which could be driven more by what is popular than by what is necessarily beneficial to us in the long-term.

We can look elsewhere for low-hanging fruits, though. Now that Trudeau has paved the way for closer ties, there are plenty of opportunities for non-government sectors, such as business corporations, universities and civil society, to take the lead in fostering relationships with their Chinese counterparts. We should aim to establish regular dialogues and having frequent exchanges with the Chinese at various levels, alongside formal state visits.  

Sowing seeds of understanding early

Youth engagement is a prime example of how non-government private initiatives can bring together like-minded young people from both sides to engage in regular dialogues. Universities can create opportunities for students’ summits, youth leadership camps, semesters abroad, and other programs that allow Canadian and Chinese youths to gain an enhanced understanding of each others’ values and cultures. A push from the government will be helpful in this respect, but the bulk of the work should be left to students’ entrepreneurial spirits and education institutions.

As part of a broader study on improving Canada-China relations, my students at the University of Toronto and I have surveyed youth initiatives across several countries that are worthy of Canada’s attention. US-China Strong Foundation is a nonprofit and non-governmental organization that aims to strengthen U.S.-China bilateral relations through educational exchanges and study of Mandarin Chinese. As part of the foundation, Project Pengyou creates a network to connect Americans with experience of working or living in China and those who would like to do so. Through various programs such as mentoring, summer internships and leadership dialogues, Project Pengyou aims to “empower and mobilize a generation of U.S.-China bridge builders.”     

The Australia-China Youth Association, initiated and led by university-student leaders from the Australian National University, is premised on a similar concept of bridge building. It currently has more than 20 chapter committees throughout various campuses in Australia and China. A national secretariat coordinates these local efforts. It holds an annual conference to assemble Australian and Chinese young people and prominent leaders from both countries to engage in dialogues. 

This exciting space is missing in Canada. Informal strategies and dialogues that take place at non-government level can be just as effective in connecting minds and building connections across two countries. They not only increase the exposure of Chinese youths to Canada, but also help them appreciate why freedom of expression is so central to Canadian values. What young people pick up in their first overseas experience often stays with them for their lifetimes, and continues to shape their career and life choices. Sowing these seeds can be just as, if not more, effective as pounding hard on China to improve its human rights records.