China and Canada: where do we stand?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to China has put the spotlight on trade and foreign affairs. Here’s an explainer on where we stand with the powerful Asian nation.

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The Prime Minister also reportedly raised concerns about a Canadian citizen currently serving a life sentence in China for speaking out on behalf of the Muslim Uyghur minority. Huseyin Celil, accused of terrorism and sentenced in 2007, has been denied access to Canadian officials or a lawyer, and no details have been released about where he’s being held.

Celil’s case is one of many from China that raise alarm bells in the international community. In the past, Canada has taken a harder line on these human rights issues, pushing Chinese officials to provide information or address concerns—particularly involving Canadian citizens.

In 2007, Harper was adamant in pursuing Celil’s case despite warnings from Chinese officials that Canada’s complaints could hurt future trade relations.

"There are those in the Opposition who will say, 'You know, China is an important country, so we shouldn't really protest these things . . . so maybe someday we'll be able to sell more goods there. I think that's irresponsible.

"I think the government of Canada, when a Canadian citizen is ill-treated and when the rights of a Canadian citizen need to be defended, I think it's always the obligation of the government of Canada to vocally and publicly stand up for that Canadian citizen.”

- Prime Minister Harper, CTV News, February 2007

During this week’s trip, the Prime Minister maintained that it was possible to both facilitate trade agreements and address human rights issues without damaging the countries’ seemingly fragile relationship. While he appears to have managed to secure the former and at least make mention of human rights, few details have emerged about any real progress on the topic.

Education and tourism

Recruiting both students and tourists from China is one of Harper’s other priorities during his visit. Since 2009, when the Chinese government gave Canada “Approved Destination Status”, tourism to Canada has increased by almost 25 per cent to over 200,000 visitors per year.

With this approval, Chinese government agencies are now able to market Canada as an official tourist destination. The Canadian government is trying to cash in with a new campaign launched this week at the China Youth Services Travel bureau.

Of course, Harper’s campaign highlighted Canada’s “Wild West” and urged Chinese tourists to come check out the legendary Calgary Stampede (celebrating it’s 100th year in 2012). The Stampede’s mascot, Harry the Horse, made an appearance in Beijing alongside the Prime Minister.

But the Calgary Stampede isn’t the only thing bringing Chinese citizens to Canada—education is another major draw. Since 2005, the number of Chinese students coming to school here has jumped from about 7,400 to over 17,000.

That makes China the number one source for international students in Canada, and those numbers don’t even include people who come for courses lasting less than six weeks.

Despite these increases, a 2007 report by World Education Services showed Canada lagging behind a number of other countries in terms of attracting international students. The United States, Britain and Australia have consistently been the major frontrunners, swallowing up about 45 per cent of all students seeking education abroad.

With international students currently contributing up to $6.5 billion to the Canadian economy each year, increasing enrollment is a constant priority. In 2006, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) created the "Edu-Canada" unit to promote Canada as a top educational destination.

Now, the federal government has committed $10 million to developing an international education strategy to help attract even more students from overseas. The head of the advisory panel, Western University president Amit Chakma, is the sole delegate on Harper’s China visit representing the education sector.

Canada’s goal is to “internationalize” the post-secondary education system, both increasing enrollment with foreign students and sending more and more students to schools overseas. After further consultation and trips to China and India, Chakma and his panel will submit a report to the government in June, to help solidify the strategy.

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