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Canadians wary of deeper economic ties with China: poll

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) gestures to Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau ahead of their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, on Aug. 31, 2016.

Pool/Getty Images

Almost 90 per cent of Canadians do not want the Trudeau government to grant China's state-owned enterprises unfettered access to the country's economy, and a solid majority want Ottawa to link human rights to talks on a free-trade deal with the world's second-largest economic power, a new public opinion poll suggests.

Pollster Nik Nanos said the survey, which he conducted for The Globe and Mail last week, is a "significant cautionary note for the Liberal government as to how Canadians feel about engaging China on a new free-trade agreement."

The Nanos Research survey of 1,000 Canadians, conducted April 1-4, found 88 per cent are uncomfortable or somewhat uncomfortable with the prospect of a free-trade deal that would allow Chinese state-owned corporations to buy high-tech Canadian firms and lift restrictions barring these enterprises from investing in Alberta's oil sands. The poll is accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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"There is a significant level of concern and discomfort with an enhanced free-trade arrangement with China," Mr. Nanos said. "It is going to take a lot more work for the Liberal government to explain how free trade is good for Canada and how free trade with China will create jobs in Canada. Right now, I think it's more of a blank slate."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made free trade with China a cornerstone of Liberal foreign policy. He has opened exploratory trade talks with Beijing, seeking better access for Canadian companies in sectors such as agri-food, forest products, clean and environmental technologies, advanced manufacturing and financial services.

China's new envoy to Canada has said any bilateral deal must remove restrictions on state-owned enterprises investing in the oil sands and give them open access to the Canadian economy without national-security screening.

Ambassador Lu Shaye told The Globe and Mail last month that "democracy or human rights" had no place in the trade talks.

John McCallum, Mr. Trudeau's new ambassador to Beijing, agreed with his Chinese counterpart in a separate interview with The Globe, saying trade talks can touch on environment and labour issues, but added "it's not clear to me that human rights, per se, are part of a free-trade agreement."

Mr. Nanos said the Liberals would be at odds with a clear majority of Canadians if they jettison human rights from trade talks with Beijing. He pointed to the poll's finding that 66 per cent of those surveyed believe Canada should link human rights to free-trade negotiations. Only 21 per cent said human rights should not be linked.

"The Liberals portray themselves as principled on the environment, on women's issues, on human rights issues, on the United Nations and I think it is likely a political risk for them to set aside human rights for free trade with China," Mr. Nanos said.

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Canadians are also deeply worried that any push for a bilateral trade deal will harm Canada's economy given that Chinese state-owned companies are known to act on behalf of Beijing from spying to usurping technology.

The Nanos survey also found that eight out of 10 Canadians want the federal government to conduct national security tests to determine whether to allow Chinese state-owned companies to take over Canadian firms in such fields as energy, high technology and advanced manufacturing. The poll found 81 per cent of respondents oppose or somewhat oppose allowing state-owned firms to buy Canadian companies without a review of whether this would injure national security.

"Canadians are worried about Chinese firms taking over Canadian companies without a national security test," Mr. Nanos said. "It looks like China is of exceptional concern for our country when it comes to our national security and national sovereignty."

A concern frequently voiced by Canadian national-security officials is that companies owned or partly owned by the Chinese government make decisions and investments that serve the ruling Communist Party's strategic and geopolitical aims, including passing on technology or information to Beijing.

Mr. Nanos pointed to the Liberals' decision in March to approve the takeover of a Montreal tech firm by a Chinese company partly owned by Beijing even though the former Harper government rejected the deal after the Department of Defence and CSIS warned that the transaction would harm national security. Montreal's ITF Technologies is a leader in fibre laser technology. Applications for such technology include directed-energy weapons.

The pollster said Mr. Trudeau's decision to allow the Hong Kong company O-Net Communications to buy ITF is an example where "Canadians scratched their heads." This green light amounted to a reversal of a 2015 cabinet order rejecting the deal and signals a clear shift in approach under Mr. Trudeau.

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Former Canadian diplomat and China expert Charles Burton said the poll makes it clear "most Canadians do not agree" with Mr. McCallum or Mr. Lu when they say human rights should not form part of trade talks.

Mr. Burton said it also suggests Canadians do not want Chinese state-owned companies acquiring majority control of Canadian companies in sensitive sectors such as the oil sands or technology with military applications.

The former Canadian diplomat said Canada should be on guard for language the Chinese may wish to insert in a free-trade deal that could hinder Ottawa's ability to speak out against human-rights abuses.

"I think the Chinese would attempt to do that … text that talks of mutual respect for the sovereignty of each nation and non-interference in domestic affairs – the kind of language the Chinese could use to press a government," Mr. Burton said.

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing

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Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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