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The Canada-China Connection


The sale of oil from the oil sands to China, for which the Northern Gateway pipeline and a tidewater loading terminal are controversially proposed, is the latest chapter in Canada's oldest Pacific rim relationship.
The story of the Sino-Canadian linkage began 1,500 years ago, when a Chinese Buddhist missionary first reached out for this continent.
The relationship has been marked by tears, blood, anguish, racism and a complex matrix of trade, immigration, investment and cultural, social, political and personal interests.
In its best moments Canadian and Chinese interests have come together to make life better for the people of each nation.
In Canada successful recent Chinese relations have been bipartisan, far-sighted, marked by tolerance and good will, and measured by mutual interests.
Although the political delay of cross-border construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline has lent some urgency to the Northern Gateway project, Canada has not been driven into China's arms by President Barrack Obama, as is spuriously alleged recently by campaigning Republicans.
Canada's harmonious trading relationship with China was launched by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker a half century ago.
After the Korean War, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent refused to consider wheat sales to China.
C.D. Howe, Liberal minister of trade and commerce, was reluctantly willing to sell wheat the Soviet Union, even though it was our Cold War communist adversary.
However, between 1950 and 1953, some 29,800 Canadian soldiers had seen action against the Chinese in Korea, 516 were killed in combat and 1042 wounded, so Howe considered China an unacceptable customer.
After they formed the government in 1957, Diefenbaker, Minister of Agriculture Alvin Hamilton and Minister of Trade Gordon Churchill, saw things differently.
They gave the green light to negotiations between the Canadian Wheat Board and the Chinese.
China was in the midst of a famine which lasted from 1958 to 1962; as many as 33 million Chinese may have died from starvation and related illnesses.
In 1960, the Canadians signed a three-year, $400-million contract for 200 million bushels of wheat.
The agreement was followed by a deal for 178 million bushels followed by one for 280 million bushels.
The wheat sales to China defied U.S. policy and angered Washington whose enmity with Communist China ran deep.
Russian novelist Boris Pasternak wrote, "scratch a Russian and you'll find a peasant".
Whether it is Canadian wheat, beef, softwood lumber or oil, scratch an American and you'll find a protectionist.
But Canada had felt the lash of unfair U.S. competition in wheat sales, including free give-aways of American wheat to paying Canadian customer nation
The Americans bristled at Chinese-Canadian commercial relations but Diefenbaker didn't care a fig for their opinion.
An American company refused to provide vital dock loading equipment in British Columbia to speed the delivery of wheat to starving Chinese.
(In the face of American recalcitrance, Canada not only did deals with China but with Cuba as well.)
What is now described as globalism began with that historic wheat agreement with China.
It represented a breakthrough of scale in international economic relations after millennia of world trade on a comparatively smaller scale.
The 20th century was familiar with massive nation-to-nation strategic trade in arms, war material and oil.
However the sale of hundreds of millions of tons of Canadian wheat to China in the largest commercial transaction in history up to that time, was a peace time, post-colonial, friendly deal.
Canada and China, after the 1949 Maoist revolution, enjoyed a relationship unencumbered by the history of colonial exploitation of China by Europe and the U.S.
The opium trade, imposed upon the Chinese by the British, is symbolic of that terrible legacy.
Nonetheless, after Confederation the Canadian treatment of Chinese was besmirched by racism.
Like immigrants from many nations, the Chinese looked to Canada with hope, and called it the Golden Mountain.
Some panned for gold on the Fraser River, some travelled to the Klondike to search for the precious metal.
And in their thousands, Chinese men came to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railway through the Rocky Mountains, and died in accidents at the rate of one fatality for each mile of track laid.
At the conclusion of the project, the labour contractor who hired them reneged on his commitment to provide return passage to China for the Chinese construction navvies.
They were stranded and immigration policy did not allow their wives or families to join them.
Most of them lived out their lives as lonely bachelors.
In the 20th century, the imposition of a costly head tax on Chinese immigrants meant a life of bachelorhood, relieved only by inter-racial marriages.
In 1911, the Calgary Chinese United Church started a language school in which new immigrants learned to speak English for half day and spent the other half learning to cook for restaurants.
Across rural western Canada, the proliferation of Chinese cuisine in coffee shops in small towns was introduced by the graduates of that program.
I have vivid memories of being a guest, as a newspaper reporter, in the rooming houses of east Calgary populated by elderly single Chinese men who came to Canada to humble jobs with no hope of starting a family here.
Their hospitality to me was heart-rending.
I have life-long memories of eating bowls of oranges with them in their meagre rooms while they regaled me with their life stories.
One story they told was of boyhood memories of Chiang Kai Shek visiting Calgary to raise funds from the "overseas Chinese" for the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the Qing dynasty.
The accounts of early Chinese exploration of North America's west coast are most-thoroughly documented by mainstream forgotten 19th century historians and 20th century authors Charles Boland and Gavin Menzies.
Both writers are self-taught archaeologists and historians and work has been ignored or dismissed by mainstream academics.
But the legends captured in the work of Borland and Menzies are worth knowing because they were commonly known in China and had influenced the emigration to Canada, as it slowly opened the doors to immigrants of colour.
Borland wrote that, at the threshold of the 6th century when China was in one of its outgoing periods in international relations, a Buddhist missionary named Hoei Shin determined to "extend the joyful mission of salvation to all the people of the earth".
The Chinese were able mariners and map makers, and they had perfected huge sea-going junks.
Hoei Shin set sail across the Pacific for "Tahan" or "Great China" a little-known land said to be inhabited by a barbaric painted people, so named for their love of tattoos.
It is now known that he sought the Aleuts of the Bering Strait and Western Alaska, but prevailing currents and winds carried his expedition further south to the Pacific coast of North America.
Like a modern snowbird, Hoei Shin travelled southward down the coast until he found the congenital climate of present-day Mexico.
He documented the culture and history of the Mayans, centuries before the Aztecs.
He called the new land "Fusang" the name of a Chinese tree similar to the aloe he found there.
There were at least two subsequent explorations of west coast North America by the Chinese prior to Christopher Columbus, written about by Menzies.
The most significant for Canada was the voyage of Zhou Man in the15th century. He is believed to have explored the west coast from Vancouver Island to Ecuador.
In the early 21st century, Canada is China's closest friendly Western neighbour.
The wheat deals led directly to the 1970 diplomatic recognition of China by Canada, before the Americans.
Formal diplomatic ties lead within two years to collaboration on energy.
The Soviet Union, which had assist the People's Republic with oil development in the 1950s and1960s, abandoned the Chinese when they decided to make the Chinese an enemy and the Sino-Soviet border became a world hot spot.
So the Chinese turned to Canada in 1972 for help, first coming to this country to consult with Canadian petroleum geologists and engineers on several fields here similar to those in China.
This was followed up in the spring of 1973 by a Canadian mission to Chinese oil fields, including five exploration and production geologists and engineers, 13 equipment and field services executives and 15 Department of Energy and Geological Survey of Canada officials.
The Chinese did not meet Canadian hopes of sales of equipment and technology, or oil and gas concessions to explore and drill but, as participants in the mission later recounted, they picked the Canadians' brains and extended a warm hospitality which included meeting Chairman Mao's wife Jiang Qing, then the most powerful woman in the world and the second-ranked person in China.
Now China is banker to the world, experimenting with a mixed economy of state enterprises and private enterprise.
Chinese companies have invested broadly in Canadian oil and gas ventures -- sometimes buying Canadian-owned foreign assets such as Encana's petroleum and pipeline holdings in Ecuador and sometimes taking an interest in Canadian domestic production such as oil sands operations.
It is difficult to determine what international friendships mean in Chinese terms and whether the Chinese have a hidden agenda in relations with countries like Canada.
China is emerging as the next world power, with its strength measured in mercantile and financial terms and its iron military power gloved in the velvet cloth of commerce.
And access to oil sands production is just a small part of the relationship that China and Canada will have in the years ahead.

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