A posh Canada-branded wellness clinic has opened on the outskirts of Beijing, ushering wealthy clients into a space modelled after a pioneering Winnipeg facility – one of the more striking signs that China remains open to business for those aligned with Chinese priorities.
Canada Wellness Institute (CWI) opened its first medical fitness facility in China in 2015 with Chinese partners. Last week, it inaugurated its second inside a luxury hotel, another step in an ambitious plan to open 100 locations across the country in the next three years, each fitted with AI-powered analytical equipment, hospital-grade treadmills and attentive medical staff ready to cater to local elites.
CWI is based on a similar facility built by a Winnipeg hospital and has become an unlikely flag-bearer in China – unlikely because the flag it bears has provoked rage in China since the arrest in Vancouver last December of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
But the appetite in China for Canadian expertise, at a moment when Beijing is newly preoccupied with improving health care, underscores the opportunity some firms have continued to find there. While government-imposed measures have blocked imports of Canadian canola and pork, local purchasers have brought in twice the volume of Canadian lobster this year and significant new volumes of Canadian wheat. Over all, China’s imports of Canadian goods are up 5 per cent this year, according to the latest Statistics Canada figures, which cover the first seven months of the year. Beijing’s trade war with the United States has driven some buyers to Canadian products in their hunt for goods with lower tariffs.
“In areas where Canadian companies, including small and medium enterprises and educational institutions and health-care providers, line up with Chinese priorities, there still are tremendous opportunities,” said Graham Shantz, president of the Canada China Business Council.
The appeal of Canada’s brand provides other opportunities as well – Canada Goose and Tim Hortons have expanded in China amid the current dispute.
And CWI chief executive Carrie Solmundson has discovered the enduring value, too, of trading on past ties, including the image of Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor to Chinese Communist forces who was famously eulogized by Mao Zedong.
Both Canada and China have publicly funded health-care systems. In addition, “we bring that history of the relationship in health, going back to the days of Norman Bethune,” Ms. Solmundson said.
Indeed, at the grand opening ceremony for her clinic’s Beijing location, she was twice likened to the revolutionary hero.
“Carrie is our modern-day Bethune. The more the public gets to know people like her, the greater the possibility there will be to improve relations between China and Canada,” said Zhou Shenglai, chairman of the Disease and Health Management Committee at the Chinese Hospital Association.
Dr. Zhou has been among China’s leading advocates for co-operating with the Canada Wellness Institute, or CWI, a not-for-profit company formed by Seven Oaks Hospital, Winnipeg’s largest community medical centre. In 1996, Seven Oaks built a wellness institute that offers massage, nutritional coaching, personal training, sports rehabilitation, weight-loss services and programs for chronic disease management.
That institute caught the attention of Chinese hospital administrators seeking to build similar services, particularly under the Healthy China 2030 plan, announced by President Xi Jinping in 2016, that has made the enhancement of ”national well-being” one of Beijing’s core goals. That political imperative has provided opportunities for private interests, who hope to spread the wellness institute model across China – and perhaps other countries as well.
“We had the opportunity in Winnipeg to, over 20 years ago, develop and trial and refine a model that we had no idea at the time would have application internationally,” said Ms. Solmundson, who was previously the chief executive of Seven Oaks.
The Healthy China 2030 plan includes a number of targets, including a reduction in premature mortality from major chronic diseases – to 12 per cent in 2030 from 19.1 per cent in 2015 – as well as an almost 50-per-cent increase in the number of people who exercise regularly. Both fit the wellness institute model and Ms. Solmundson envisions Canadian studies playing a role in improving Chinese lives.
“We have a chronic disease research and innovation centre in Canada, working together with hospital partners” in China, she said. One of their objectives: “How do we move the needle on hypertension. That’s the biggest health risk here right now facing China.”
Disease prevention, not just treatment, is particularly appealing to Chinese medical leaders.
“Our hospital has long been interested in preventative medical measures,” said Yin Zhichen, general manager of Xuanwu Hospital, which has built a heart and brain condition micro-clinic at the CWI site in Beijing. He envisions saving on treatment costs by pursuing a more holistic view of health – precisely the language Ms. Solmundson uses.
”Of all the companies in all the countries, we have seen the biggest potential and the most similarities with this Canadian company,” Mr. Yin said.
For the Canada Wellness Institute, that has provided access to some of China’s wealthiest people. At the Beijing site, yearly memberships sell for $5,500, half the average annual disposable income in the city. Clients come from the top 1 per cent or 2 per cent in the city. The site itself is located at the Jinmao Eastern Garden Hotel, in a remote part of Beijing populated by expensive villas and an Olympic rowing and paddling centre. Depending on their size and location, such institutes cost between $2-million and $20-million to build, said Kong Fei, chief executive of More Health, China’s largest digital health-services company. (More Health is a majority owner in the joint venture working to build 100 such locations; Canada Wellness Institute has a 25-per-cent stake, while technology startup Getwell owns 10 per cent.)
There are obstacles. Preventative care – in the form of a facility that looks like a high-end gym – is a “revolutionary concept for traditional Chinese people, who are used to only going to the hospital when they are seriously ill,” Mr. Yin said.
Frictions between Canada and China, too, “are the biggest risk” to building out new CWI locations, Dr. Zhou said. “A deterioration in relations hurts civil co-operation very badly.”
Still, the grand opening for a Canadian-backed facility in Beijing offered a sign that behind the headline-grabbing political dispute, business continues.
With reporting by Alexandra Li