Leading the way on China-Canada relations

(Edmonton) Just seven years after it was established, the University of Alberta’s China Institute has become one of the most important resources in Canada for engaging with China, says institute director Gordon Houlden, who was recently reappointed to another five-year term beginning July 1, 2013.

Since coming to the university in 2008, having served with the Canadian Foreign Service, mostly in China, for more than three decades, Houlden has elevated the profile of the institute, which is one of the university’s main vehicles for engaging with the international community. Houlden says the institute's successes have come with support from others.

“We’re very fortunate to have support from the team at University of Alberta International, through Britta Baron, vice-provost and associate vice-president (international) and Cen Huang, director international relations and recruitment, and the university leadership of President Indira Samarasekera and Provost Carl Amrhein, who chairs the U of A’s China Regional Council.” He says help also came from others formerly with the institute, including former president Rod Fraser, acting director Wenran Jiang and deputy director Monica Barclay.

Houlden says there will be changes during his second term that build on earlier successes.

“We will work with partners to increase scholarship of China, to expand on our knowledge and understanding of global China,” he says. “We need to know how China trades, its growth patterns, and its future prospects in order to help serve the public policy needs of this province and the country.”

The institute has taken the lead in meeting those needs. Recent examples include a study commissioned by the provincial government, in which the institute examined how Alberta could best meet China’s energy needs.

Houlden has also served as national co-chair on the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s “Focus on China” educational initiative, which promotes closer educational linkages between Canada and China. The institute organized a conference marking four decades of diplomatic relations between China and Canada.

Earlier this month, the institute organized a forum that brought together 80 Chinese and Canadian representatives from government, the private sector, and academic and research communities to consider the challenges and opportunities posed by China’s investment in Canada.

Chinese ambassador Zhang Junsai said earlier this month that Houlden, through the institute, is currently playing a pivotal role in forging stronger Canada-China relations.

"The Chinese Investment Forum comes just at the right time, providing a platform for discussion of the current state of Chinese investment in Canada, the policy framework Chinese enterprises face and the problems to be solved. The forum is also conducive to promoting mutual knowledge and understanding between our two peoples, which is good for the long-term and sustainable development of China-Canada relations.”

Houlden says the institute is well placed to continue providing such support to government. “I come from a government that shares with its provincial counterparts the responsibility of managing relationships with states such as China. The reality is that there are very few resources now in government, either federal or provincial, to conduct in-depth study of issues pertaining to China,” Houlden says. “Large research universities such as the U of A are well positioned to provide policy advice to government.”

The institute’s focus on scholarship in coming years will build even stronger links with China’s leading academic institutions, Houlden says. “China has the highest number of university students in the world, and fortunately the Chinese are very open to international collaboration on an increasing number of research topics.”

Ambassador Junsai suggests the U of A, through its engagements with China, will help meet a new goal of increasing the number of exchange students between China and Canada to 100,000 within five years. The goal comes from an agreement signed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in February while visiting China, during which the prime minister witnessed Lorne Babiuk, U of A vice-president (research) and Weihe Xie, vice-president, Tsinghua University, signing an historic agreement that created the Sino-Canada Joint Energy Research Initiative.

“The University of Alberta has entered into more than 100 exchange and co-operation programs with more than 50 Chinese institutions of higher learning and research institutes, including Peking, Tsinghua and Nanjing universities,” ambassador Junsai said. “These programs have played a positive role in discipline building, talent training and scientific research of both countries.”

Houlden says the institute will also focus on building cultural linkages during his next term. “China has a 5,000-year history of a very distinctive culture. As China’s society becomes more affluent and better educated, we can expect to see China become a source of global influence on the arts,” Houlden says.

“China will affect Alberta and Canada far more than we will influence that emerging great power. But by expanding the understanding of China in Alberta and Canada, we can help prepare this country for a 21st century where China will play a pivotal role.”