Blogs & Comment

China: New Brunswick “punched above its weight”—Premier Shawn Graham

Shanghai, 12:30 p.m.

I got a chance to sit down briefly with New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham this morning, just before he and his entourage jetted off to Beijing en route to Hebei province to visit a school using the New Brunswick education curriculum.

I wanted to talk to him in particular, moreso than Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, PEIs Robert Ghiz, or Quebecs former premier Pierre Marc Johnson (who stood in for the campaigning Jean Charest) for a couple reasons. One reason was New Brunswick approached this trade mission with distinct aggressiveness, but another was that he came to China with fresh eyes, on his first international trade mission. Although this mission was first championed by Charest, and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuintywho was not available for comment outside of one press conferencelead the premiers until the final day in Shanghai, Graham and New Brunswick businesses played an outsized role here.

The New Brunswick business delegation signed contracts worth $85 million. Only 13 companies were selected for its provincial delegation, but they had been carefully chosen, and Business New Brunswick did a lot of advanced reconnaissance to find good potential matches. And word from the companies was that they were very pleased with the potential fit of the Chinese counterparts.

(That experience was not commonly shared by other business delegates. Executives exchanged a lot of business cards exchanged, and held plenty of quick, polite conversations, but it was a lucky break when they made an even modestly fruitful connection. In one bizarre moment in Chongqing, a business delegate from Ontario had five youthful female Chinese interpreters helping him talk with a representative of a Chinese waste management company, which was in no way related to his own industry. Why so much help? Many of the business delegates chose to not attend the session as scheduled, and there were many interpreters with little to interpret.)

As Graham put it, we punched above our weight.

This was clearly an eye-opening experience for Graham himself, just being on an international stage and meeting with moderately high-ranking Chinese government officials. He says he mostly stuck to waving the New Brunswick flag, to promote the litany of energy-related initiatives proposed or now underway in the provinceeverything from a new $7 billion oil refinery to a liguid natural gas plant, and from refurbishing the nuclear generating station to developing new expertise in green energy technologies like tidal and wind power. New Brunswick is transforming itself from a traditional resource-based economy into an energy player for the northeastern seaboard, and Chinese companies can benefit from that growth, either by partnering with New Brunswick-based companies or using that cheap energy source to develop businesses abroad, and that was the message that I was bringing to these players. And his message certainly seemed more targeted than the other premiers. He said he is going to follow-up on invitations he’s made for Chinese officials to visit New Brunswick. Should be interesting to see where that leads, if anywhere.

One moment that struck home for Graham was in Chongqing, at the Wednesday night gala. Bo Xilai, the Communist Party chief for the 31-million-strong municipality and a rising political star who is now a member of the CPCs politburo, spoke by most accounts warmly and freely (in fluent English) about building stronger ties between China and Canada. As Graham tells the story: He stood up, and pointed directly at me and said, Youre the next generation of leader in Canada. Youre a young leader, and its so important now, with the foundation thats created today, that we build on that for the future. Because you will have a long history in politics in New Brunswick and we want to build on that success. That for me, was an important reminder to never take these relationships for granted, and that its a long-term relationship.

As for his impressions of what he saw in China, he said he was amazed at the growth of the middle class.Typically when you think of the Chinese you think of very hard working people, but living in poverty-like conditions. Thats simply not the case,” he said. “This is a middle-class thats growing very rapidly, and the face of China is changing. Thats why its so important that Canadian-based or New Brunswick-based companies be here at the start of this market development. Because it used to be that China needed Canada. Well, thats no longer the case. Its Canada needing China. That is something Ive heard a lot from other delegates, too.

It should be noted, however, that the delegation visited three prosperous cities that are the largest in the country, stayed in fancy hotels, and saw places that were being targeted for economic development. Hundreds of millions of Chinese continue to live day-to-day, as the trade mission heardfrom p rofessor Fan Gang, director of the National Economic Research Institute in China.

But what surprised Graham most? How much English was spoken here, he said. When you have key political leaders giving a speech in English, it just goes to show how much they want to participate in our market by making these efforts to speak the English language. And it reinforces for me the importance of now starting to learn Mandarin.

Coming from the premier of a bilingual province who does not have a very strong ear for even the French language, thats a little funny. Its probably not a disingenuous sentiment, thoughand one that many Canadians visiting China share.