Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Government of Canada


  1. Home

The China Opportunity: Thoughts From a Newly Minted Ambassador

John McCallum
May 2017

  • Spent a fantastic first six weeks serving Canada as our ambassador to China
  • For my wife Nancy and me, great time exploring Beijing and visiting other cities, getting to know our wonderful colleagues at the embassy, welcoming Canadian political leaders, and, for me, spending six hours of classes per week to improve my Mandarin
  • Much more important, it’s a fantastic time for Canada to strengthen ties with China
  • As I’ll explain, Canada has much to gain through building stronger ties with China, and the Prime Minister, the cabinet and stakeholders across the country are keen to do just that.
  • It takes two to tango, and I have a strong sense that the Chinese are also keen to work with us
  • Since the stars will not always be aligned so positively, now is the time to seize the moment and be ambitious.  Now is the time to act.  And that, with the support of the government, is exactly what I am planning to do. 

Message to the President

  • Let me start at the beginning.  Within 24 hours of arriving in China, I was able to present credentials to President Xi Jinping.  My main message to him from the PM was very simple: more, more, more.  In both directions, Canada wants more trade, more investment, more tourists, more students, and more exchanges in every area from health to defence to culture to sports.
  • “More, more, more” translates into more, more, more jobs for Canadians, whether because of more Chinese tourists, more Canadian exports or more Chinese investment in Canada.
  • I also explained to the President, in my very poor Mandarin, that my affinity to China could be explained by the three numbers 100, 50 and 40
  • My wife is 100% Chinese, our three sons are 50% Chinese, and the good people of Markham who elected me for 16 years are 40% Chinese.
  • Because the President responded by saying “no need for translation”, I like to think he understood what I said. 

Areas where we disagree

  • Before elaborating on why “more, more, more” is good for Canadians, let me acknowledge up front that dealing with China is a two way street. 
  • That’s because there are many issues on which China and Canada disagree.  We disagree on the death penalty, some aspects of the rule of law, and, privately and publicly, on how the Chinese government treats human rights advocates.  We have a continuing keen interest in the integrity of Hong Kong’s autonomous institutions under the One Country, Two Systems formula.
  • That’s why the consular side of my job is critical, and also why in my first six weeks on the job I spent time meeting and supporting an LGBTQ group in Shanghai, female entrepreneurs and a group working to counter domestic violence in Beijing, and Ching Tien, whose organization Educating Girls of Rural China has done fantastic work educating low income girls over many years.
  • Let me take this opportunity to address head on an issue which has generated some controversy among Canadians, namely Canada’s decision to discuss extradition issues with China.  While we are a long, long way from negotiating an extradition treaty with China, we have agreed to talk about the issues that need to be addressed for China (or any other country) to meet our high standards.  This includes things like the death penalty and the importance of high standards of evidence in court proceedings. 
  • We lose nothing by explaining our system and talking about the values we hold dear. You don’t not talk just because you think the other party might not agree.  In fact, more conversation is often needed in those areas where our differences are greatest. 

Why China is important

  • China is important for several reasons.
  • China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2, but it’s also the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, investing $US 103 billion in 2015.  That’s more than 2½ times the amount spent by the United States.  So if Canada is serious about climate change, which we are, and if we want to sell our clean tech innovations to the world, which we do, then it would make no sense to do all that without engaging China.  I remember former Prime Minister Stephen Harper used to make a similar argument, and on this point I certainly agree with him.
  • China has 20% of the world’s women and girls, and China is increasingly a key player in places like Africa which face real challenges to women’s health and education.  So if we want to improve the plight of women and girls around the world, then China is a key partner.  The same can be said on working with China in the area of peacekeeping.
  • If we want to engage positively on North Korea and other regional and security issues, we need to work with China.
  • Fentanyl is the cause of a major public health crisis in Canada with over 1000 deaths, and China is a major source of that drug.  If we want to address this crisis, we must work with China.  And, I might say, the Chinese government has been working very effectively with us in this area.
  • And last but not least, if we want jobs and prosperity for Canadians, then once again China is an essential partner.
  • So whether we’re talking about climate change, the plight of women and girls, the fentanyl crisis, key security issues or the prosperity of Canadians, in all of these cases, China is a key partner for Canada.
  • I turn now to some of the key economic issues.  


  • I still have trouble wrapping my head around Chinese numbers.  I recently visited Zhengzhou, a so-called Tier 2 or even Tier 3 city with a population of 10 million.  President Xi Jinping has said that he wants 300 million Chinese people to get involved in winter sports in the run up to the 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing, and also that 700 million Chinese people will make overseas visits in the next 5 years.  Imagine if just one percent of those 700 million people were to visit Canada – or 2% or 3%.  The impact on jobs and economic activity in Canada would be very substantial - which brings me to tourism.
  • The two governments have agreed to double tourism in ten years, and 2018 has been named the year of Canada-China Tourism.  Over 600,000 Chinese tourists visited Canada in 2016, representing a 24 percent increase over 2015.  If we work hard to sustain that growth rate, we could achieve a doubling of tourism in a much shorter period than ten years.  This will require hard work to make sure our advertising persuades Chinese people to visit Canada rather than some other country.  Government must also work with industry so that visitors have the right services and amenities to ensure they have a memorable trip and come back again.  We must open our seven new visa application centres and see to it that visas are processed quickly, and, most important, we must make sure there are enough Canada-China flights.  After all, people don’t travel on boats between Canada and China. They need planes.  

Other Economic Sectors

  • Chinese appetite for Canadian wood products is very strong, as it increasingly adopts wood products in construction to meet its own climate change and energy efficiency goals.  Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne had a very successful trip to China last week.  He, along with accompanying forest industry representatives, successfully engaged key Chinese contacts in both government and the private sector.
  • As recently highlighted by the report by Dominic Barton, agrifood exports to China represent a huge opportunity for Canada, as China seeks to feed its 1.4 billion people with healthy, high quality food.  If we work hard, we could become one of China’s top three suppliers.  We are currently number 5.
  • China is also a huge opportunity for Canada’s cleantech and environment sectors.  There is already a range of Canadian success stories, and Ministers McKenna and Carr are working hard to achieve much more.
  • Education has always been a pillar of the China-Canada relationship, with one third of all international students in Canada coming from China.  Institutional, research and academic linkages between Canadian and Chinese universities are blossoming but could blossom even more.
  • Ministers Joly, Qualtrough, Philpott, and Sajjan are working to enhance China-Canada ties in the areas of culture, sports, health, and defence.
  •  Finally, ecommerce is key to expanding Canadian exports to China, especially by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).  Traditionally, SMEs have not been big exporters, not even to the United States, let alone China.  Ecommerce platforms run by Alibaba,, and others are of central importance in linking SMEs to the Chinese market.  Beginning with the Prime Minister, Canada has had major interactions with Jack Ma of Alibaba and also with  Actions to promote ecommerce to China by a rising number of Canadian SMEs are certainly a top priority for me.
  • All of the activities I’ve just described are proceeding independently of the exploratory talks on a Free Trade Agreement that are currently under way.  No decision on next steps has yet been made, but we are working hard to ensure that any possible free trade agreement would be a win-win proposition for both China and the average Canadian worker. 

Returning to Canada

  • I think you will agree that we have a full agenda on the China-Canada relationship.  The Prime Minister has not consigned me to a comfortable retirement from active life.
  • To carry out this agenda is as much a matter of sorting things out in Canada as it is a question of sorting things out in China.  That’s why you may be seeing me again in the not too distant future, as I plan to return to Canada every six to eight weeks.
  • It’s partly a matter of talking to government people in Ottawa, but equally important, it’s a matter of checking in with stakeholders across the country and explaining to Canadians through the media why China-Canada relations are so important for our future as a country.
  • That is why I’m talking to you today, and I look forward to your questions and comments



Date Modified: