Despite concerns about China’s human rights record, military modernization and the impact on domestic Canadian values, Canadians are keen to see the federal government support expanded economic connections and increased partnerships with the Asian economic powerhouse.
That’s one of the key findings of a new survey— designed by UBC professors Paul Evans and Xiaojun Li— that asked 1,519 Canadians about their views on trade and investment issues, policy priorities, human rights in China, and factors that shape views of China, among other topics.
In this Q&A, Evans discusses the significance of the survey’s findings and how it can help better inform government policy.
Why was it important to conduct this survey?
This is a pivotal moment in global affairs and Canadian policy toward China.
The 19th Party Congress— a key meeting of China’s leaders held every five years— is signalling China’s growing global presence and influence at the same time that the United States is stepping back from many of the international roles and rules it has championed for seventy years. Ottawa is also facing important decisions on whether to proceed with negotiations with China on a free trade agreement, an extradition treaty, and approval of some large Chinese investments and other steps in deepening engagement.
Justin Trudeau will visit China again in a few months at a time when mainstream media coverage of the country has been largely negative, largely focused on matters of human rights and China’s increasing assertiveness in Asia. Public attitudes have been seen as constraining a more ambitious expansion of bilateral relations.
There have been several recent surveys of Canadian attitudes. But we felt it important to do something deeper, broader and more comprehensive that went beyond policy preferences to look at images of China, information sources, concerns and priorities. We also wanted to do an experiment that tested knowledge levels and the degree to which opinions shifted based on accurate information.
Were you surprised by any of the survey findings?
The first big surprise was the level of support for a free trade agreement with China, now at about 70 per cent. This was considerably higher than in other surveys and was reinforced by other indicators of openness to deeper economic, commercial and human interactions with China. The Trump factor is unmistakable with Canadians having almost as favourable a feeling for China as the U.S. and seeing China as the more responsible actor on international issues such as climate change and the environment, predictability stability and maintaining peace.
The second surprise was that respondents saw promoting human rights and democracy in China as only the fourth priority for the government, far behind expanding economic connections, partnering on global issues including climate change, and protecting Canadian values, institutions and way of life at home. Those protection-at-home concerns range across issues from housing affordability to cyber threats. It’s new, rising and needs to be better understood.
The third surprise was that the old view that we either trade with China or promote human rights in China is fading. A majority now believe Canadians can help in strengthening the rule of law in China, and that increasing bilateral linkages is the best way to promote human rights, not public condemnations or sanctions.
Overall, even in a context in which feelings about China are not warm and there are significant anxieties about elements of China’s international behaviour and presence in Canada, the stronger impulse is to deepen connections, partner on global issues of common interest, and widen human links. This seems to reflect a pragmatism and realism about living and partnering with a global China rather than changing China.
What can governments learn from these findings in their approach to trade relations and partnerships on global issues?
Many factors including the fate of the NAFTA re-negotiation, Trump’s influence on American politics and policy, and developments inside China and on its periphery (including Hong Kong) can shift public opinion quickly. And there are new risks that the Canadian government must address and manage at home as connections with China deepen. But for the moment, the engagement narrative preferred by the Trudeau government rests on a comparatively strong foundation of public support.