As the Prime Minister meets with top Chinese officials and business leaders to smooth rocky relations and pursue trade deals, it helps to have friendly faces in his entourage – Canadian leaders who may be able to speak Mandarin, know what (or what not) to say, and perhaps navigate the vagaries of guanxi, China's unique business culture of personalized networks.
One member of the delegation is arguably overqualified. He is a leader of a pro-Beijing Canadian group frequently criticized for its close ties to the Toronto consulate. He is also travelling on taxpayer dollars.
Simon Zhong, executive director of the Toronto Community and Culture Centre, is also the provincial co-chair of the controversial National Congress of Chinese-Canadians (NCCC). In Toronto's reformist Chinese circles, the NCCC has long been depicted as an errand-runner for the Toronto consulate. As recently as the past few weeks, it has supported China's stand on the Hong Kong protests and criticized the Toronto District School Board's reconsideration of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese-sponsored cultural and linguistic program that critics warn is a stalking horse for Beijing's political agenda and an assault on academic freedom.
Mr. Zhong has acted as a commentator on those issues in the Chinese-Canadian media. "He's almost a de facto spokesperson for the Chinese consulate," said Cheuk Kwan, a long-time rights activist who recently had a heated debate with Mr. Zhong on Fairchild TV over the Confucius Institute. "He just parrots the Beijing line."
While the federal government mocked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for expressing "admiration" for the Chinese government last year, bringing admirers on the trip can help when engaging Canada's second-largest trade partner. "It's to show the Chinese government that they're very connected to their community and to say, 'It's your people we're bringing,'" said Mr. Kwan, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.
When asked about the NCCC's relationship with the consulate, Mr. Zhong said the group "doesn't get any money" from Beijing. He added that his organization supports Beijing only when it is good for Canada.
Despite the congress's pro-Liberal reputation, he said the group is neutral. "Some people support the Liberals and some support the Conservatives."
He expressed a wish for improved relations with China. "I hope through this visit we can get more exchanges between our two cultures."
In recent months, the bilateral relationship has been fraught with discomfort. Prime Minister Stephen Harper no doubt hopes for the release of a Canadian couple detained on charges of espionage not long after Ottawa accused Beijing of cyberhacking. While hoping to assuage concerns about China's influence in its resource sector, Canada has set up what China sees as a protective, if not confusing, set of investment restrictions.
The Prime Minister's Office said Mr. Zhong's deep connection to and long-time support of the Mandarin-speaking community of immigrants led to the invitation. Spokesman Jason MacDonald stressed that Mr. Zhong is not necessarily representative of the group with Mr. Harper. "If you look at the full list of delegates, you'll see that a wide range of business and cultural interests are represented on the trip," he said.
Almost 20 years old, the Toronto Community and Culture Centre delivers services such as job placement and settlement assistance to people from mainland China, an increasingly influential group of Chinese-Canadians who tend to have more sympathetic views toward their motherland than the previous wave of immigrants, which was from Hong Kong. The centre's headquarters are in the corner of a mall in the heart of Toronto's old Chinatown. Connected to its office is a small party room with a red banner that reads, "National Congress of Chinese Canadians."
During a 2007 visit to Canada, a Chinese diplomatic defector intimated that the NCCC is a front for Beijing. "Organizations like the National Congress were founded … on issues that Chinese-Canadians care about, and using the name of unity," said Chen Yonglin, the Sydney consulate's first secretary until his 2005 defection. "But the real purpose was to further the interests of the Chinese regime in Canada and to lobby the Canadian government."
Mr. Chen said NCCC is at the top of a pyramid of groups set up by the Chinese embassy and consulates in Canada. The NCCC denied the claim.
The NCCC is not the only controversial group associated with the visit. The president of the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations, Wei Chen Yi, is also part of the delegation, but is paying his own way. The president of FoodyMart, a chain of GTA grocery stores, Mr. Weng also heads an organization that is known for its close consular ties.
The PMO says Mr. Wei is actively engaged in encouraging the mainlander community to learn English and to assist with their integration and help them start businesses.