News / Canada

Chinese billionaires' message to Trudeau: open trade and investment even further

OTTAWA — The head of a group of China's most powerful business leaders is calling on Justin Trudeau to open Canada's trade and investment doors even wider to the Asian superpower.

Several members of the exclusive China Entrepreneur Club — often referred to as the billionaires club — met with the prime minister Tuesday for the second time in less than two months.

The entrepreneurs had planned to press Trudeau to ease what they see as "excessively rigid regulations" that hold back Chinese investors, club president Ma Weihua said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"(Trudeau) himself expressed very clearly to support the business collaborations in the two countries," Ma said through an interpreter as club members attended a business luncheon hosted by Invest Ottawa.

"So, I think today we will take this chance to express to him some of our requests and also some of our concerns."

Ma underlined British Columbia's new tax targeting foreign real estate investors in the sizzling Vancouver housing market — a measure he characterized as "unfair."

On Monday, Frank Wu, one of China's top real estate moguls, said in Montreal that his customers are troubled by B.C.'s 15 per cent tax. Wu said he planned to raise the issue with Trudeau.

Entering the meeting, the club had several other items on its radar.

Ma said the group would ask Trudeau to create "more-favourable conditions" in terms of government approval procedures and to open up more sectors to investment by Chinese companies, though he did not get into specifics about the requests.

He said the group wants to create a "win-win situation" for both countries by helping combine China's vast market and capital with Canada's wealth of human talent and cutting-edge technologies.

The entrepreneurs are also looking to develop relationships across Canada.

"Our primary purpose this time is to build the bridge, build those connections," Ma said.

Club member Xu Jinghong, chairman of Tsinghua Holdings, said through an interpreter that his investment firm sees great technological opportunities in Canada, thanks in large part to the country's strong education system. 

He said his company, which has partnered with Simon Fraser University on a clean-tech innovation centre, is primarily interested in scientific innovation and research and development, including life sciences, environmental and smart technologies.

Xu now hopes the Trudeau government will support the creation of a joint fund between Canadian and Chinese firms in the Vancouver area to pursue more business opportunities.

Xia Hua, chairwoman of the Eve Group fashion company, said she hoped to ask Trudeau about developing a more convenient and streamlined process for Chinese workers hoping to acquire Canadian work visas.

Xia, whose company has more than 500 stores in China, said she also wanted to discuss female leadership with the prime minister.

The trip agenda for the China Entrepreneur Club, made up of 50 top Chinese firms that earn a combined $585 billion of annual gross income, includes many high-level meetings with Canada's business and political elite.

The tour is taking place only a few weeks after an exchange of high-level official visits — Trudeau's recent trip to China which was followed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Canada.

The travelling members were scheduled to sit down with Trudeau north of Ottawa, near Quebec's Meech Lake.

Trudeau has shown considerably more willingness to do business with the world's second-biggest economy than the previous Conservative government — he's even committed to launching exploratory free-trade talks.

Many Canadians have expressed skepticism about forging closer business and investment ties with China, a country frequently cited for its records on human rights, governance and the rule of law.

Peter Kent, the Tories' parliamentary critic for foreign affairs, said Tuesday that the Liberals should proceed with caution.

"Canada is open for business and should be open for business, but we have to be very careful about who is doing the buying, and how that purchase will look down the road, both in terms of the Canadian economy and Canadian security interests," Kent said.

Asked about public mistrust in Canada, Ma said he would tell those people that the world economy's recovery from sluggish growth needs each and every country to work together.

Observers, like former Canadian diplomat Charles Burton, have also said there are likely close ties between many of the club's entrepreneurs and the Chinese leadership.

Burton, a Brock University political science professor, has warned the club may try to build a subtle lobby in Canada that encourages Canadian business leaders to pressure their governments to focus on economics in the relationship, rather than sensitive issues like human rights and cybersecurity.

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