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BLOG: Strengthening the Historic Friendship and Ties Between the People of China and the People of Canada

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July 21, 2010

by Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean

The province of Guangdong (Canton)—where the majority of our fellow Canadians of Chinese origin emigrated from—is twinned with British Columbia. Like Shanghai, Guangzhou—the Cantonese capital—is going through rapid development and is seeing exponential growth. The city’s architecture and infrastructures are evidence of this: the daring, contemporary lines reflect an incontestable architectural genius. The Chinese are indisputably great builders. Consider today’s infrastructures: this undeniable know-how continues a tradition of great works completed over thousands of years before our time. From Chengdu’s vast irrigation system, to the Forbidden City, to the Great Wall of China, and so on. Always higher, always bigger, always more ingenious. In every big city in modern China, the sky is the limit. Skyscrapers compete with one another, grab our attention, try to stand out, and force people to look at them. In China, the ultimate goal is to continually push the limits of what is possible. It is most certainly a civilization characteristic that is a recurring theme in this country’s history. The “Chinese miracle” originates in this drive to excel.

Guangdong, considered the biggest manufacturing region in the world, is seeing a flood of capital, investments and production lines. A number of large, medium and small Canadian companies have transferred their activities there. Labour is affordable and qualified. Moreover, with the increased purchasing power in China, the emergence of a new, colossal market is becoming a real possibility. China’s willingness to assuredly accept business opportunities, its appetite to work, that is what the very ambitious—in terms of strength and creativity—and young Canadian entrepreneurs we met here told us that they appreciate the most. However, they said that you must be on the ground regularly, cultivate a relationship of trust with Chinese partners slowly, and ensure you have a real understanding with your interpreter, or, better yet, learn Mandarin. These young people have energy to spare, an insatiable appetite for risk, and an ability to leave their comfort zone: “We, Canadians, are not as aggressive as our international peers, we are too cautious, and too easily obliging, too limited in the way we do things . . .”, “We need to create professional internship programs here to gain a better understanding of the business culture and machinery in China . . .”.

The increased number of factories and manufacturers is not without its risks. Migrant workers looking for better living conditions are prey to those looking for captive labour. Young girls and women are the first to fall victim to these traffickers. Through a $4-million Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) program, and in partnership with Chinese civil society organizations, including the Women’s Federation, Canada is supporting an awareness-raising campaign to help with prevention, and to assist, protect and train female migrant workers. The results are promising: thousands of young girls and women have been made aware of their rights and are now more likely to assert them. At a clothing manufacturer in Foshan, we were able to speak with a number of these workers and to observe the power of this mobilization, which is focused on new awareness and is starting to make all the difference in the fight against exploitation in sweatshops, production spaces, factories, manufacturers, and the entire Chinese labour sector. We must also promote greater social responsibility among businesses. We experienced some very touching moments with these workers, who shared their stories and their aspirations.

Another productive partnership between Canada and China is in the health sector: 26 years of co-operation between the Guangzhou Women and Children’s Hospital and the BC Children’s Hospital, in Vancouver. Two generations of Chinese doctors and specialists have been trained in Canada and have become leaders in China’s health care sector.

There has been incredible reconstruction since the earthquake that devastated several locations in the Chengdu region in the Sichuan province. Expected to take three years, the remarkable reconstruction was completed in only two, and involved the local communities and population. A number of municipal administrations in China, led by Shanghai, were also challenged to help with the reconstruction, and this worked. I made note of this for Haiti.

Canadian partnerships were also important, for example in the reconstruction of a school using wood from British Columbia and an earthquake-resistant architecture. 

The Aboriginal people of British Columbia gave the community of Betshun a magnificent totem pole in a moving traditional spiritual ceremony. The photographs show this very clearly! It was a magnificent people-to-people meeting!

President Hu Jintao gave us a fantastic welcome in Beijing. We picked up our discussion where we had left it in Ottawa, where I had welcomed him just two weeks ago, bringing our visit to an end.