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Wanted: Canadian China Alumni

Joanna Wong | August 8, 2011

Canada’s preoccupation with sending a steady stream of crude tankers and virgin lumber to China is obscuring our most valuable resource – people. With a full 10 per cent of the overseas Chinese population residing in Canada and an estimated 300,000 Canadians living in China, it’s time to get serious about mobilizing our vast cultural capital.

The flow of people between Canada and China is unmatched by any other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country. Our people-to-people links with China are vital to skillful cross-cultural partnerships and increased collaborations. Yet despite growing recognition that human resources are crucial to our future relations with China, we have yet to see a bold national engagement strategy.

Much has been made of “brain drain” between Canada and China, with policymakers on both sides of the Pacific fretting over the movements of the biggest and best-educated intellects. It’s a familiar story: China’s full-tilt growth and booming economy seduce big dreamers and entrepreneurs, while Canada attracts top talent and immigrant investors with an appealing trinity of social services, cultural freedom, and a clean, family-friendly environment.

Figuring out which brains are going in which direction is an important statistical task. But much more important is the design of a mechanism that engages people – regardless of country of residence.

Canada’s deep historical ties with China have left a legacy of sophisticated people-to-people connections that rarely dwell exclusively within a single border. Individuals regularly travel back and forth for parenting, schooling, entrepreneurial, or retirement reasons. Instead of fixating on “brain drain” or “brain gain,” we should focus on designing a Canada-China network that is relevant on both sides of the Pacific.

It’s a big endeavour, but there’s no need to start from scratch. We already possess a powerful and naturally occurring human network with China: the alumni of our educational institutions. An estimated 5,000 Canadian students are currently in China, and Canada is currently home to over 50,000 Chinese exchange students – some of the best, brightest, and most bilingual minds our countries have to offer. Tracking and cultivating these relationships early on will not only help retain talent post-graduation, but will also sustain connections as lives and careers take alumni across the globe.

Getting our collective heads around the advantages of investing in Canadian “China alumni” – that is, nationals from both Canada and China who share the common link of education – isn’t always an easy task. With a long and expensive domestic “to-do” list, putting precious resources into something as nebulous as human capital can be a hard sell. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty learned this lesson the hard way last year when his announcement of 75 new scholarships for foreign students was met with public outrage.

A closer partnership with China, however, isn’t just an option; it’s a necessity. From economic stability to environmental toxins, and from alternative energy to food security, China’s rise matters profoundly to Canada’s future. Government officials excluded, our China alumni are our quickest and most significant link to the world’s fastest-growing market.

Strategically, Canada could take some notes from its American neighbours and Australian mates in institutionalizing human links with China. Both countries have prioritized grooming a new, savvy generation of cultural capital with a host of governmental and non-governmental programs. Australia, for example, offers bilateral study- and work-exchange opportunities through the Australia-China Youth Dialogue, while the Obama administration recently launched the “100K Strong” initiative, a national effort designed to dramatically increase the number and diversity of American students studying in China.

Boldness pays: 100K Strong will send 100,000 young Americans to China over the next five years, 10,000 of whom will be fully funded by Chinese government scholarships. Fast forward a decade and imagine 100,000 China-literate Americans in the workforce with personal relationships abroad, and the power of the initiative is clear.

Energizing the resources of our China alumni requires a creative action plan. A well-designed Canadian China alumni network could bridge the work of existing platforms such as non-profit Canadians in China and overseas Chinese associations in Canada. The long-term impact of thoughtful and relevant on-the-ground events and conferences, created to push forward key priorities and growth industries, would be transformational.

If building this kind of network were easy, we would have already done it. Persistent cultural rifts between the way Canada and China do business have tripped up many well-meaning trade missions, business ventures, and institutional collaborations. But if anything, these continuing difficulties point to the urgency of tapping into those who understand how to operate in the world’s most vibrant market.

Designing an effective network will require time and risk, a challenge best taken on by an independent government-supported body in the forgiving (and relatively inexpensive) medium of the internet. Building on virtual-network models such as projectpengyou.com and connect2canada.com, a smart strategy could harness popular social media and offer culturally-sensitive content, written in English and Chinese by Canadian China alumni themselves.

China’s rising star has the world lining up at its doorstep. If Canada acts now to mobilize its wealth of human resources at home and abroad, the impacts will shape the future for generations to come.