News / Canada

A Chinese bonanza for Canadian lobster producers?

HANGZHOU, China - Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba hopes to sell 200,000 Canadian lobsters next week, its founder declared Friday — one dividend of Stephen Harper's ongoing effort to cultivate "pretty important" economic ties between the two countries.

Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of the world's largest mobile commerce company, stood alongside the prime minister as he declared Alibaba's goal to sell legions of the tasty crustaceans on Nov. 11, its annual deep-discount day.

The purpose, Ma said, is to assist Canada's small- and medium-sized companies — from cherry farmers to lobster producers — sell their products to China's rapidly expanding middle class.

Some 120 million people shop online on Alibaba every day, he noted.

"We want to help the small guys sell to China because the big guys, they don't need us," said Ma, a Hangzhou native who started up the company from his apartment 15 years ago.

Alibaba now employs 30,000 people. The company's public stock offering in September raised $25 billion.

Canadian producers sold 20,000 lobsters on Alibaba last year, said Ma, who is aiming to move 10 times as many in a single day on Tuesday. Alibaba might ultimately even set up a Canadian operation, he added.

Ma's enthusiasm for stronger Canada-China economic ties, however, didn't seem to be fully reciprocated by Harper, who confessed one of the reasons he'd travelled to China was simply because Chinese officials "really wanted me to be here" for the APEC summit kicking off Monday.

"We have a pretty important relationship here and pretty important opportunities," he said.

Nonetheless, the prime minister is slated to announce commercial agreements in Beijing on Saturday that could be worth in excess of $1 billion and create hundreds of Canadian jobs.

He made note of the importance of Canada's No. 2 trading partner to the country's economy in earlier remarks in Hangzhou.

"We already have half a million Canadian jobs ... that depend directly on our trade with China," Harper told a China-Canada business conference.

To chuckles from the crowd, he added that while the number might not seem significant to the most populous country on the planet, it's a substantial amount of jobs to Canada.

With China's middle class on the brink of explosion, Harper added, Canada "sees tremendous opportunity."

To that end, the Conservative government also announced Friday that Canada will open new trade offices in Hangzhou, Xi'an, Xiamen and Tianjin, cities in some of China's fastest growing regions.

The Prime Minister's Office said the locations were selected because their needs match Canadian strengths, particularly in the areas of information technology, electronics, automotive, aerospace, medicine, energy and finance sectors.

Currently, Canada has a trade deficit with China of approximately $31 billion. The Conservative government is aiming to increase exports to China to help balance trade.

Following his brief remarks at the business conference, Harper and his wife, Laureen, took a morning stroll through the bustling downtown shopping district, making their way to a museum of traditional Chinese medicine.

Curious onlookers gathered on the sidelines, waving at the Harpers and snapping photos on their smartphones.

Inside the museum, the prime minister held up some Canadian ginseng, declaring it "the most expensive here, the best ... That is why we're here."

He also travelled to the stately lakeside Zheijian state guest house, where he was greeted by Chinese officials, including the Communist party secretary of the Zheijiang province, Xia Baolong.

Xia, a top party official, is accused of ordering the demolition of hundreds of Christian churches in the province in an attempt to rein in the rise of Christianity in China.

The prime minister has been urged by human rights activists to raise China's human rights record while in the country. The PMO says human rights will indeed be on Harper's agenda when he meets Sunday with President Xi Jinping.

Harper raised religious freedom on Friday when he met with Xia, a spokesman added.

The prime minister's latest visit to China was almost scrubbed entirely due to tense relations between the two countries in recent months. In August, Harper accused Chinese hackers of breaking into Canadian computer networks. Less than a week later, China arrested Kevin and Julia Dawn Garratt, an openly Christian couple from Canada who operated a coffee shop in Beijing, on allegations of spying.

Some Conservative cabinet ministers, including Jason Kenney, are uneasy about forging closer ties to China, in part due to human rights concerns.

But with China's middle class ballooning, business groups have urged the government to strengthen the relationship.

Harper is leading a delegation of Canadian business representatives during his China trip. Industry Minister James Moore and International Trade Minister Ed Fast are also along for the visit.

Perrin Beatty, head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, moderated the question-and-answer session between Harper and Ma at Alibaba.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25

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