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British Columbians want less trade with China, but at what cost?

While just over six in 10 Canadians want the country to trade less with China, nearly just as many are concerned about the economic fallout
China’s consul general in Vancouver Tong Xiaoling giving Premier John Horgan a red scarf during Chinese New Year celebration in Richmond in 2019 | Photo: B.C. Government / Flickr

When it comes to trading with China, “we hold the cards” and Canada should direct its exports away from the authoritarian regime, Vancouver human rights and democracy activist Fenella Sung says.

Now, new polling from Angus Reid released Monday suggests most Canadians (61%), and especially British Columbians, are on board with Sung.

Nearly seven in 10 British Columbians want to see Canada trade less with China while a growing number of Canadians wish human rights are prioritized over economic factors with the global superpower, Angus Reid found.

Nevertheless, most people (54%) are worried about the economic consequences of getting out of business with China, the polling shows.

Sung acknowledges it may come at a cost but one that can be mitigated by efforts to diversify trading partners. Any short-term losses exporters feel could be subsidized by the tax system, Sung says — a cost Sung says is worth it to rid Canada of China’s increasing retaliatory and volatile behaviour as well as to not support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The imprisonment of former diplomat and policy analyst Michael Kovrig and tourism entrepreneur Michael Spavor, which Canadian officials deemed wrong and arbitrary, following the December 2018 arrest in Vancouver of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is often seen as a benchmark for views on China. Angus Reid polling suggests more Canadians (77%) are prioritizing human rights with China now than in January 2019 (62%). And more people in B.C. (80%) than any other province want Canada’s overall relationship with China defined by human rights.

In 2020, China represented 4.9% of Canada’s export sales ($25 billion) whereas most of our goods (73%) are sold to the United States. Fourteen per cent of all imports ($77 billion) into Canada come from China.

Sung asserts it is Canada that holds many essential natural resources (grains, natural gas, oil, lumber) that the Chinese depend on, whereas Canadians generally depend mostly on discretionary import items. In other words, China is in a more desperate position, suggests Sung, a core member of Vancouver-based advocacy group Canadian Friends for Hong Kong.

Still, in recent years, Canada has faced out-of-the-blue trade sanctions and pressures from China, such as on agriculture products. And Australia’s wine industry has been targeted by the CCP with tariffs in response to diplomatic tensions.

And so, there is worry among Canadians about the consequences of standing up to China. Nearly six in 10 Canadians strongly or somewhat agree there would be economic consequences. Those who strongly or somewhat disagree, such as Sung, only amount to 37% of those polled by Angus Reid. It’s unclear how long such consequences could last and how they’d be remedied.

Those who place more importance on human rights are less likely to be worried about economic consequences than those who place more importance on trade.

Among those who wish Canada would trade less with China, a majority (60%) believe less trade can be accomplished without affecting the economy. Another 28% think Canada can cut ties and make up for all losses. But 12% say it is not possible and despite their views, trade with China will have to continue to maintain the Canadian economy.

And most Canadians (73%) think Canada can have no impact on China’s “behaviour” whereas 22% think there may be some impact on the country’s authoritarian rulers, the poll states.

The polls parsed through provincial and political affiliations. It found more Liberals (25%) think Canada can sway China’s behaviour than Conservatives (18%). And NDP supporters were least confident that Canada could make up for economic losses as 16% said we need to keep trading with China (as opposed to 12% each for Conservatives and Liberals). Although, New Democrats showed the most support for prioritizing human rights (86% compared to 72% among Conservatives).

China found its most support in Quebec with 30% of Quebecois stating China is as good a trade partner as any, whereas in B.C. that portion declined to 21%.

Finally, the poll showed women (81%) are more likely than men (73%) to want human rights prioritized.

The poll comes a month ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games that has four in 10 Canadians calling for a full athlete boycott.

Canadian exports to China rose in 2020 to $24.5 billion — up from $22.4 billion in 2019; those 2020 exports to China far exceeded all previous years on record other than 2018 ($26.8 billion). B.C. accounted for $5.7 billion of the 2020 exports, which was the lowest total for the province since 2016, when the B.C. Liberal government signed the province up to China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative.

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