Canada is making efforts to massively increase numbers of Chinese tourists and students as the federal government presses forward its rapprochement with the world's second-largest economy.
"Canada can easily double or triple or quadruple the numbers" of Chinese visitors, Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said in an interview in Beijing Thursday.
And "we'll do whatever we can" to increase the ranks of Chinese students, who already make up 32 per cent of the international cohort in Canadian schools, Mr. Hussen said.
By August of this year, more than 478,000 Chinese overnight arrivals had already come to Canada, up 11.5 per cent over the previous year, according to numbers released by Destination Canada. Roughly 186,000 Chinese students are now in Canada, according to recent statistics provided by the consulate in Toronto.
But Canada's enthusiasm for welcoming more Chinese comes amid pointed new debate in other Western countries, in particular Australia, over the influence being exerted by nationalist Chinese forces as schools grow increasingly reliant on tuition dollars from China, and incidents accumulate of students criticizing instructors who do not adhere to Beijing's views
"We need to be very conscious of the possibilities of foreign interference in our universities," said Duncan Lewis, who heads the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
Australia has about 164,000 Chinese students. (For reasons that are not clear, Canadian government figures are dramatically lower than those tabulated by Chinese authorities: Ottawa places the number of Chinese students at 132,000 in 2016.)
But Mr. Hussen dismissed concerns about the potential for similar issues in Canada.
"I have great confidence in our social-political environment in Canada," he said, and Canadian universities "are resilient" in upholding their values. "The people running those institutions have demonstrated a commitment to academic freedom and independence, and I don't see how that will change."
Educating foreign students has become a major business in Canada, worth $11.6-billion per year, Mr. Hussen said. The number of international students in Canada rose by a quarter last year.
"It's good for our economy," he said, adding "Cultural exchange, when international students sit in a classroom with Canadian students – that interaction is good," he added. "The introduction of new perspectives from other parts of the world, I think, is a good thing. And the more of that I think we can have, the better."
The Canadian government has sought ways to ease entry into the country for both students and tourists, streamlining visa applications for those who have held a recent visa to Canada or the U.S.
It is also testing ways to speed visa approvals for older Chinese people and students who can prove they have university admission and sufficient funds to come to Canada.
In China, Canada opened seven new visa application centres in September to improve service for in the country. Mr. Hussen will attend the grand opening ceremony Friday for one in Nanjing.
Still, there is one area where the Justin Trudeau government intends to keep the door shut to China. Mr. Hussen said there are no plans to revive an immigrant investor program that amassed a queue with tens of thousands of Chinese applicants before it was shut down in 2014. "I have other priorities," Mr. Hussen said – and he has yet to see a compelling case for bringing back such a program at the national level.
Studies have shown that people who immigrated through the previous program brought limited economic gains to Canada.
"I haven't seen any proposal from anybody, from any quarter, demonstrating that that program, if it were brought back to Canada, would create economic activity," he said.