China's massive state-owned enterprises have flocked to Vancouver for its beautiful natural environment and proximity to Asia, but a new survey shows they have also experienced numerous frustrations – including British Columbia's "laid-back lifestyle."
In interviews with a researcher at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, senior executives detailed their experiences setting up local offices in Vancouver. The interviews were conducted with people working at Chinese SOEs, as well as with the Canada China Chamber of Commerce, which represents both state-owned firms and non-state-owned Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies. The interviews offer an intriguing glimpse at the often-unvoiced views of Chinese executives working in Vancouver, who represent some of China's largest companies but have very little public profile in Canada, where the scale of investments from Chinese companies has attracted some controversy in recent years.
These executives said the city's busy Pacific coast port made it an ideal location for shipping companies such as Sinotrans and China Ocean Shipping. Vancouver's large local Chinese population, and numerous Chinese businesspeople pursuing opportunities in the resource sector, have also provided a bustling market for banking and financing services from Chinese banks such as the Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China.
But the companies' representatives, dispatched from bustling metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, have also encountered numerous difficulties along the way – one of which has been the slower pace of living on North America's West Coast.
"Local people have such a laid-back lifestyle," one Chinese executive said. "They never work in a hurry, nor work overtime. They leave the office as soon as it hits five o'clock."
Although the executives praised the "China-friendly" support they have received from the B.C. government, they also complained that they faced various operational and regulatory difficulties. They said labour costs here were too high, sometimes sucking up 35 per cent of their operational expenses, and expressed frustration that there was not an easier way to bring over Chinese workers.
"While Canada is open to business, it should also be open to workers needed by the business," one international trading executive told researcher Kenny Zhang. "Sometimes a job requires special skills that are only immediately available from China. There should be a visa program that allows a company to bring in these urgently needed workers on a temporary basis."
A mining company executive echoed those concerns, saying that mining workers are extremely hard to find. This person argued that if a Chinese firm goes bankrupt because it can't easily and more cheaply employ workers from China, that Canada – and Canadian workers – would lose out. His comments come in the wake of a controversy last year, when a Chinese firm in B.C, HD Mining, tried to employ 201 Chinese workers for its proposed underground coal mine, saying there were no properly trained underground miners in Canada, where surface mining is much more common.
"How to cut the costs in Canada?" this mining executive asked. "To find the solution, we must look to China. China's lower cost production factors, including key employees from China, can help our Canadian business develop. This is a win-win situation for both Chinese-financed companies and for local Canadian workers. If a company goes bankrupt, where are the jobs?"
One shipping executive complained about the month-long truckers' strike that shut Port Metro Vancouver, Canada's largest port, and left its ocean-going freighters stuck in the Strait of Georgia for weeks.
One engineering firm executive outlined a dispiriting attempt to do business with one of Canada's crown corporations. "We had a bad experience of bidding on a project run by a crown corporation," the executive said.
"We were interested in and had a strong track record with this type of project. However, this crown company seems to have monopoly power in this sector and has never responded to our inquiry about the progress and result of the bidding. It was not transparent and not fair for any bidding companies."
Mr. Zhang, whose research is being published by Simon Fraser University's Jack Austin Centre for Asia Pacific Business Studies, did not ask these executives about Canadian companies' experiences in China. "Most of the executives we polled expressed dissatisfaction with what they saw as unfair treatment of Chinese SOEs in Canada," Mr. Zhang wrote, noting that they thought the media did not portray them fairly and that the Canadian public seemed to dislike their investments here, even though they received government support.
Mr. Zhang also found that resource companies, while understanding of Canada's environmental laws, said that the regulatory approval process for resource projects took far too long and could almost certainly be streamlined and made more efficient. A trading executive warned that Canada stands to lose out if it doesn't start approving more projects.
"Canada would miss a golden opportunity if the resource development is delayed," the executive said.