The ouster of a high-ranking Chinese official has cost Canada a major link with China's leadership just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper works to deepen relations between the two countries.
For more than 15 years, Bo Xilai was the Communist Party figure Canadians went out of their way to see, who offered a friendly ear to Montreal's powerful Desmarais clan and a man who Jean Chrétien recently called an “old friend.”
Mr. Harper went to Chongqing to visit Mr. Bo in February because the populist politician was to become one of the nine members in China's innermost inner circle. But a sudden fall from grace, in a scandal centred on his police chief, has cost Mr. Bo his post as Communist Party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing – and his climb to the top. And Canada has lost a Canadaphile in the upper reaches of Chinese leadership.
“He was one of our key bridges,” said Sergio Marchi, the Liberal former trade minister and a past president of the Canada China Business Council, who first met Mr. Bo on a trade mission in 1997 and kept in touch. “So we lose a good ally today.”
The path to Mr. Bo's door was followed by Canadian officials, business leaders and politicians, for years afterwards.
Lucien Bouchard, as Quebec premier, dropped in on the northeastern city of Dalian when Mr. Bo was mayor in 1997. Mr. Chrétien met him when he was China's commerce minister a few years later, as did many Canadian business leaders.
When Canada-China relations were at a low ebb in Mr. Harper's first years in office, Mr. Bo made a late change on his way to the United States in 2007 to have lunch in Ottawa with then-trade minister David Emerson. Four Canadian premiers dropped in to meet him in Chongqing in 2008.
Mr. Bo had critics in China and outside. He was accused of harsh crackdowns on Falun Gong members and, in Chongqing, he revived the practice of teaching children to sing “red” songs of Maoist vintage. His Communist Party colleagues, it is said, resented his publicity-loving populism.
Among Mr. Bo’s critics is Jiang Weiping, a journalist who has written extensively about Mr. Bo and now lives in Toronto.
Mr. Jiang was imprisoned for five years and placed under house arrest for three years after writing articles that were critical of Mr. Bo and his allies.
“This means a lot to Chinese political reform,” he said of Mr. Bo’s demotion. “It means all the leaders are realizing that if you continue to do all the things like [embracing]the Cultural Revolution, it’s only going to bring the whole country backward and the people will be more and more resentful … and they will stand up to you.”
But over the years, Canadian business and government leaders found an open door in Mr. Bo, a personal style they could relate to and an interest in Canada. “His English is very colloquial, he had a degree of spontaneity that is not always found in Chinese leaders and [he]had an ongoing interest in things Canadian,” said Peter Harder, the former deputy minister of foreign affairs and current president of the CCBC. “He made himself accessible.”
It was the Canada China Business Council, founded by Power Corp. patriarch Paul Desmarais Sr., that tended the ties to Mr. Bo for many years. When Mr. Marchi led a trade mission to Beijing in 1997, the CCBC urged him to meet a player to watch in Dalian, an out-of-the-way showcase city of five million in the country’s northeast.
“They said, ‘Would you mind making a side trip to visit this mayor of Dalian?’ And I said, ‘Why am I going to meet this mayor of Dalian when I’ve got a full program for the next four or five days?’ And the word from the CCBC was, ‘You’ve got to meet this guy. He’s a rising star, he’s dynamic and he could be very helpful to Canadian interests.’ ”
Mr. Bo had already forged some ties to Canadians. André Desmarais, the son who had taken over as president of Power Corp., went with Mr. Marchi on that trip to Dalian in 1997 – but he already knew Mr. Bo.
His father-in-law, Jean Chrétien, formed his own friendship with Mr. Bo when, as China’s commerce minister, he sat in alongside then-president Jiang Zemin and premier Zhu Rongji. It was, according to several people who saw them together, a warm business friendship that remained a notable tie. Mr. Chrétien and André Desmarais, as well as former Conservative trade minister Stockwell Day, were among the business and political figures who toasted Mr. Bo at a CCBC conference in Chongqing last November.
The tie was an important one for Canadians doing business in China, where networks are important and doing business often involves a triangle – a Canadian company, a Chinese one and the Chinese government – said one Canadian who met Mr. Bo doing business in China. You don’t ask someone like Mr. Bo, who headed Chongqing, a city with a population the size of Canada, for favours, but it was a good relationship to have, he said. And then he was expected to go far, right into the top-level Politburo Standing Committee: “We all thought he was going to be one of the nine.”
Now, just inches from seeing a Canada-phile enter China’s inner circle, Canada’s Sinophiles see it as a loss. Mr. Harper, who has worked to repair ties and seemed to seal a warming in February, met other members of China’s next leadership – and the relationship with China goes beyond one man. But the most-thumbed page of Canada’s China Rolodex is now gone.
With a report from Kim Mackrael
Editor's note: Sergio Marchi is a former president of the Canada China Business Council, not its chair, as stated on Friday. Peter Harder is the current president of the CCBC.