Do we really understand China?

They are known to most Canadians as ‘the Two Michaels.’ They have been in prison in China since before the pandemic. Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, were arrested in China just days after the RCMP arrested Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, in Vancouver on a warrant from U.S. authorities. Many Canadians think we should get tougher on China but if we do, we might get both of the Michaels executed.

It all comes down to the quaint Oriental custom of saving face. During the 1970s and early 1980s an interesting aspect of my job with a computer company was hosting delegations from countries around the world. These delegations came to better understand the large-scale computers we were manufacturing in Mississauga at the time. Many of them were from the Peoples’ Republic of China.

The Chinese usually came in groups of four or five. It did not take long to figure out who was the party cadre and who were the technical experts. The party person was usually the official interpreter despite some of the technical people being quite fluent in English. When the groups were larger, we would often have an additional interpreter from the Canadian government.

And these visits produced millions of dollars in sales—mainly in support of seismic analysis for China’s oil industry. And there was never any direct selling involved. We treated these visits as information exchanges and no sales pressure was used.

As the sales indicated, the technique worked well with the Chinese. I also found that it led to invitations to functions at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa and when there was an important delegation coming to Toronto.

I remember one time I was at a function in the Royal Bank board room high up in that gold-colored building in downtown Toronto. I was standing looking out a window during a washroom break and the head of the Chinese delegation came over and joined me. He was just as bored with the proceedings as was I. He was quite intrigued as I pointed out the different parts of Toronto around the Hearn Generating Station—with its towering smokestack. He asked about the fact it was not emitting smoke and I explained that it had recently been decommissioned to improve the air quality in the city. He thought that would be a good idea for Beijing. I only mention this because he looked very much like a younger version of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

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Copyright 2021 © Peter Lowry

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