Richmond Mayor Malcom Brodie would rather keep the lines of communication open with the Chinese government than reject their offer of hospitality at a Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) reception.
On Friday, the UBCM executive, in response to an outcry from some Lower Mainland politicians, decided it would look at all its conference sponsorships, but would not cancel the Chinese-hosted reception.
“Given the political tensions between the two countries, the way to solve those problems and reduce the tension is to communicate with each other,” Brodie said, adding it’s an opportunity to have “a good exchange of ideas.”
Cancelling the reception would have done the “exact opposite” of reducing tensions, Brodie added.
He pointed out human-rights issues with China have been in the “forefront” for several decades, for example, the massacre of Tiananmen Square, but with 50 per cent of Richmond population of Chinese origin, it’s important to keep communicating.
“I don’t see that by rejecting discussion we solve anything at all,” Brodie said.
Since last year’s reception, two Canadians have been taken prisoner and China has blocked some of Canada’s agricultural products in what seems to be a response to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou last year for extradition to the U.S.
Brodie said, despite these issues, which he calls “serious,” he wants to keep the lines of communication open, and going to the reception help to keep dialogue going.
“The message is I want to speak to them, and I want to indicate our points of view,” Brodie said.
Brodie pointed out there are others who hold receptions, for example, lawyers, companies and CUPE, and he thinks it’s okay to attend all these events.
Coun. Linda McPhail, who sits on the UBCM executive, said whether she attends the reception will depend on her schedule at the convention. She said the days are full of workshops and clinics and meetings with MLAs, and sometimes she’s too tired to attend evening events.
“For me, it’s usually a last-minute thing,” she said.
While there have been opinions about the Chinese-hosted event bandied about, McPhail said the executive wants to give the opportunity for all 1,100 elected officials in B.C. to voice their opinion.
“We wanted the whole UBCM membership to have a say and that hasn’t happened yet – we’ve heard from some individuals,” she said.
She added that everyone is concerned about the two men being held in jail, but she thinks the federal government is working through the “proper channels.”
McPhail said she has spoken to people for and against holding the Chinese reception and she understands both sides of the argument, adding it’s a good opportunity to review the sponsorship program.
Coun. Alexa Loo said she won’t attend the event, as she will go home to look after her children. She has attended four UBCM events, and once attended the Chinese reception.
“We were given a standard promotional ceramic coffee mug as a takeaway,” she said.
Coun. Michael Wolfe said he won’t attend, and he stands with Port Coquitlam mayor Brad West, who was the first to protest the reception.
Couns. Carol Day, Kelly Greene and Harold Steves also said they won’t be attending the reception.
“We have two Canadians being held hostage by the Chinese government and that is no friend of mine,” Day said.
Steves said he doesn’t take appointments with “lobbyists.”
“I don't meet with lobbyists. I don't attend receptions by lobbyists,” he said.
In addition to being a much larger, more powerful entity, the Chinese government is also known for its human-rights abuses, Greene said, when explaining why she wouldn’t attend the reception.
There’s a large power disparity between municipal governments and foreign national governments, she said, adding that “international trade is the domain of provincial and federal governments.”
Greene said it’s “inappropriate” for municipal politicians to engage with foreign governments – they don’t receive security briefings, and the information they have about foreign policy is largely from newspapers.
Au said he will most likely attend the reception, and he doesn't see it as a "big deal."
“It is one of many social activities that can be found in a convention like this and it is hard to believe that the elected officials who want to attend will be easily influenced by the hosts of such an event,” Au said. “I also do not believe that avoiding any contacts with the Chinese officials is beneficial to Canada, the province and our city.”
Coun. Bill McNulty said he will not be attending the Chinese-hosted reception.