The mayor’s move is a response to China recently announcing sanctions on individuals in the United States and Canada, including friend and Conservative MP Michael Chong.
“It’s threatening and intimidating and I know that he’s taking it in stride, but that’s reaching a new level of hostility — that’s not diplomacy, that’s bullying,” said Stewart, a former NDP MP who released a book with Chong and Liberal MP Scott Simms in 2017 about reforming democracy in Canada.
Stewart emphasized his reason for taking a stand against the Chinese government is not solely personal, but aimed at denouncing human rights violations in China and the continued detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
The mayor said he received a request about four weeks ago from Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador to Canada, to meet but he turned him down.
Stewart said he didn’t ask the topic or topics of the meeting but decided against any contact with Chinese government officials until Canada and China resolve outstanding issues, including the situation in Xinjiang province involving Muslim minority Uyghurs.
“I really do think relations between Canada and China have taken a turn for the worst,” said the mayor, who took to Twitter last week to announce he suspended meetings with Chinese government officials. “Until I get advice differently or requests from the federal government to take those meetings, I’m just not taking those anymore.”
Canada-China Business Forum
Stewart’s move is rare for a Vancouver mayor leading a city rich in Chinese culture and may even be unprecedented, with his predecessors leading trade missions to China and securing a sister city relationship with Guangzhou.
As recently as 2018, the Vancouver Economic Commission hosted the Canada-China Business Forum, where the commission’s then-CEO, Catherine Warren, remarked “we are the most Asian city outside of Asia.”
In response to the mayor's position on China, the economic commission's acting-CEO Eleena Marley said Thursday in an emailed statement to Glacier Media that economic development is a long-term activity.
"While we respect today's complex political context, there are strong familial, cultural and historical ties between the people of Vancouver and their relatives, friends, business partners and networks in China," Marley said.
"As such, we do not anticipate a large effect on investment or business relationships in the long term. We continue to work alongside our peers in the City of Vancouver and the economic development ecosystem to continue building an inclusive, equitable and zero-carbon economy in Vancouver.”
The mayor acknowledged “the fine line” of denouncing human rights violations in China while attracting investment to Vancouver and continuing to condemn anti-Asian hate crimes in the city, which police say soared by 717 per cent from 12 in 2019 to 98 last year.
Since he became mayor, Stewart met once via Zoom with Peiwu last June, where topics discussed included accessing personal protective equipment from China and Chinese business interests in Metro Vancouver.
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa released a statement after that June 29 meeting.
It said, in full:
"Ambassador Cong briefed Stewart on his views on current China-Canada relations and anti-pandemic cooperation between both countries. Highly commending the fine tradition of China and Canada supporting each other in difficult times, Ambassador Cong expressed China's readiness to enhance exchanges and cooperation with Vancouver in economy, trade and people-to-people engagement in a bid to better benefit people of both sides.
Stewart expressed gratitude to China for its support and assistance for Canada, especially the city of Vancouver, in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that Vancouver attaches importance to developing its relationship with China and is committed to stepping up cooperation across the board with China."
Stewart has met more than once with China’s consul general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, where topics included the city’s commitment to fight anti-Asian racism.
Asked whether he mentioned the detainment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in discussions, the mayor said:
“I will bring up topics like that — I will bring them up and say really nothing is going to get back on track until those issues are solved. That’s why I think those meetings are important because I know from my time in Ottawa that if you’re meeting with a regime like China that everything is documented and sent back to the mother ship. So I think that could be helpful.”
The mayor said he has also met with foreign investors from China, including a group that wanted to build a private university on city land.
Since Stewart was elected mayor in October 2018, he said, he estimated he’s had at least 12 meetings with various Chinese officials and business people, most of which involved Xiaoling.
Sanctions against Chong and two Americans were imposed last week after Chong and parliament’s subcommittee on international human rights called attention to what MPs and the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report concluded as a “genocide” of Muslim minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.
China also sanctioned the eight-member subcommittee.
China’s sanctions were triggered by Global Affairs Canada announcing last month that Canada joined the United States, the United Kingdom and European Union in placing sanctions against four Chinese officials suspected of persecution against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
'Get their fingers burnt'
China’s foreign ministry released a statement March 27 saying conclusions reached by Chong, other MPs and the chairperson and vice-chairperson of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom were “based on rumours and disinformation;” the Chinese government’s previous statements described the situation in Xinjiang as “combatting violent terrorism and secession.”
The sanctions prohibit Chong, who is his party’s foreign affairs critic, and the others from visiting China, Hong Kong and Macau, or to do business with Chinese citizens and institutions.
“They must stop political manipulation of Xinjiang-related issues, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs in any form and refrain from going further down the wrong path,” the statement said. “Otherwise, they will get their fingers burnt.”
Stewart’s stand comes as Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou’s extradition hearing continues in Vancouver while Spavor, a businessman, and Kovrig, a former diplomat, remain in a Chinese prison for allegedly working as spies.
Both men were arrested soon after Canadian police acted on behalf of U.S. law enforcement to detain Wanzhou in December 2018 at the Vancouver International Airport.
She is charged with fraud and conspiracy in New York related to allegations that concern Huawei’s connection to business with Iran.
Glacier Media emailed a request Wednesday to the Chinese consulate in Vancouver for an interview to discuss the mayor’s stand against government officials but had not heard back prior to this story being posted.