British Columbia

Canada-China diplomatic relations at 45, from one Trudeau to another

UBC is marking the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and China, and looking ahead to the approach Justin Trudeau will take.

Justin Trudeau's father was the first Canadian prime minister to visit the People's Republic of China, in 1973

Canada's then prime minister Pierre E. Trudeau, right, shakes hands with Mao Tse-tung, party chief of the People's Republic of China on Oct.13, 1973. The two met at Chungnanhai while Trudeau was on an official visit to China. (Canadian Press)

The University of British Columbia is marking the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and China with a series of events on Thursday.

Academics, diplomats, and business people, will be holding a number of panel discussions on diplomacy, history, and investment on campus throughout the day.

"[Pierre] Trudeau believed... it was a strategic move," said Yves Tiberghien, director of Institute of Asian Research at UBC and one of the speakers participating.

Tiberghien says Trudeau's visit in 1973 helped give credit to the diplomatic relations between the two nations.

"[It was] the fact that China was too big, too important, to be left out of the international system... It's still important, the fact that Canada was so early in opening the relations."

'Is it perfect? Absolutely not'

According to Stewart Beck, President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation, Canada's positive image during the Cultural Revolution in China persists in his work with senior officials in the Chinese government today.

He says this image was established by Canada's aid policy, and the image of people like Norman Bethune — a Canadian physician revered in China, who helped treat wounded soldiers during the country's war with Japan.

Dr. Bethume organized medical services for Chinese communist forces fighting the Japanese in the 1930s. He is shown eating a meal behind the Red lines in Shensi-Chakar Provinces in 1938, one year before he died of an infection, contracted while working on Chinese wounded. (The Canadian Press)

"In the sixties, when China was going through a difficult time, we provided wheat," said Beck. "We've always [been] seen as being a country that's supportive and helpful."

This translated into real experiences for Beck, former consul general in Shanghai, who says he often had better access to senior officials in the Shanghai municipal government than his American colleagues. 

Beck also said China's records on governance and corruption are still issues that need to be addressed, but that the way they are often discussed is changing.

"Is it perfect? Absolutely not." he said. "But there are conversations happening today, that weren't happening in China 10 or 15 years ago."

The new Trudeau

With Justin Trudeau's new Liberal government, both Tiberghien and Beck believe there is potential for new developments in Canada-China relations today.

"The Chinese always have a long historical memory," said Tiberghien.

Beck says Chinese officials are looking for a consistent approach to diplomacy.

"I think this new government has a history, and will take that history forward."

Justin Trudeau hands out lucky red envelopes to celebrate the Lunar New Year during a meet and greet with the Chinese Freemasons at the Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday January 31, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

To hear the full interview, listen to the audio labelled 45 years of Canada-China relations with the CBC's The Early Edition.


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