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In China, Canada needs re-tweets, not merchant fleets Add to ...

Internet use in China is developing at an explosive pace, but Canada’s online presence in the language of the world’s fastest growing market is practically non-existent.

What’s one of the first things we do when we look into a new opportunity? We Google it. In China, it’s the same, except they “Baidu” it.

Type in the Mandarin words for “invest” and “Canada” into the popular search engine Baidu, and an official Canadian government website doesn’t appear until the 25th link. By comparison, a search for “invest” and “Australia” leads directly to a government website slickly tailored for exporters, buyers and investors.

Lack of easy access to information in Mandarin about investment, education and immigration in Canada is weakening our relationship with China. The result is missed jobs, missed connections and missed profits.

Consider that, in the immigration industry alone, mainland China has an estimated 400 private consultant firms with multimillion-dollar revenues. While the rise of this business is complex, it’s fed in part by the dearth of Mandarin language resources.

In the space of a decade, China’s “netizens,” as Internet users are called, have swelled to 457 million from 22 million. Put another way, the number of Chinese people online today is about equal to the population of 13 Canadas.

Yet, despite the obvious opportunity, our government, institutions and businesses have been agonizingly slow to build a strong identity online in Mandarin.

Big multinationals such as Nike and L’Oréal clued in to the potential of China’s online world years ago, and have successfully flogged their wares using the Chinese equivalents of Facebook, YouTube and Groupon ever since. On China’s version of eBay, Taobao, 48,000 products sell every minute.

With Chinese investors and officials surfing their smartphones 24/7 and broadband reaching deeper into the rice fields every day, Canada’s lacklustre Internet brand is losing us business, influence and the chance to pull ahead in what will soon be the world’s largest economy.

Given that Canada is home to 1.3 million ethnic Chinese and residents, and welcomes 24,000 new immigrants from China annually, we could easily be a leader in a smart, relevant Mandarin content online.

In Beijing, the Canadian embassy recently made the leap into the Chinese digital age when it opened an account on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. Weibo boasts 140 million users, including Tom Cruise.

Since launching its Weibo account last summer, our embassy has collected an impressive 132,000 fans and even advertises the website on a prominent billboard outside the building, on a busy central road.

The embassy’s creative use of Weibo is a promising new development for public diplomacy in China. Canada’s ambassador, David Mulroney, told The Globe and Mail that this online interaction with ordinary Chinese citizens is “the single most important tool we have in understanding what this emerging generation in China is all about.”

It’s true that China has persistent and sometimes severe restrictions on Internet freedom, with popular social media such as YouTube and Twitter permanently blocked by what has been dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.”

Yet, despite censorship, the country’s online universe has emerged as a thriving world of creativity, dialogue and expression. It may, in fact, be the one space where true international dialogue about social issues and human rights is permitted to unfold.

We’re not the only ones missing the boat – the United States, Germany and France have all been slow jumping into China’s digital age. But if we want our second-largest trading partner to remember our name, we need re-tweets, not just merchant fleets.

With a smart strategy, there’s room for a powerful Brand Canada to grow and flourish in Mandarin online. To connect more effectively with China on the Internet, we need to see government offices using popular domestic platforms, Canadian businesses building websites in Chinese, and universities recruiting students where they hang out online.

More communication means more collaboration. As Internet queries are increasingly typed in Mandarin, let’s make sure China is looking into opportunities that include us. In a Chinese future, Canada should be at the top of the search list.

Joanna Wong is a 2011/2012 Action Canada fellow, an Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada media fellow and a principal at FlowCS, an award-winning creative studio in Beijing.

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