The Hongcouver
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Vancouver has a new economic deal with Shanghai – but why were the details kept so blurry?

A letter of intent signed by mayors Gregor Robertson and Ying Yong was withheld by Vancouver, with the city initially forcing it to be pursued via a freedom-of-information request. But it has now been released, with an apology

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 2:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 12:42pm

The photo is fuzzy, but the lanky bespectacled Westerner standing on the train platform in Beijing is definitely Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

So why is the City being so cagey about his recent five-day trip to China, a place so intricately entwined with Vancouver’s present and future?

Specifically, the City withheld the apparent centrepiece of this month’s economic mission – a memorandum of understanding Robertson signed with Mayor of Shanghai Ying Yong. Rather than just handing over this deal signed on behalf of Vancouverites, the City required that it be pursued via a freedom-of-information request instead.

UPDATE: Vancouver mayor’s office apologises and releases letter of intent that was withheld ‘for no reason’. See appended paragraphs at end of story

The first word of Robertson’s trip came on September 6 (September 7 in China) in the form of that blurry photo, taken on a train platform in the Chinese capital by a friend of the Hongcouver blog. Wasn’t that Vancouver’s mayor, waiting for the train to Shanghai?

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It certainly was. But no mention of his September 5-9 trip to China had been released by the city or the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC), which turned out to have organised the mission. Robertson’s social media offered not a hint of the fact he was in China as he tweeted on a range of local Vancouver issues – extra water fountains during “this warm back to school week”, endorsing a council by-election candidate and touting Vancouver as a possible site for Amazon’s next headquarters.

It was only on September 8, a day after I asked what Robertson was up to in Beijing, that the Chinese mission’s itinerary was posted on his website. By then, the fourth day of the five-day trip was over; that morning, Robertson had signed the MOU with Mayor Ying.

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Ying is no insignificant figure. Close to President Xi Jinping, with whom he worked during Xi’s tenure as Zhejiang Communist Party chief, Ying has been regarded as a rising star in the mainland leadership since being elevated to the mayoralty of China’s financial capital in January.

The Shanghai mayor’s chair has served as a waypoint to the highest offices in China, having been held by luminaries including ex-president Jiang Zemin, ex-premier Zhu Rongji, and various other members of the Politburo.

Nevertheless, no press releases or announcements were issued about the meeting or the MOU until the trip was over (at least, not by Vancouver, but more on that later). When I asked the mayor’s chief of staff, Kevin Quinlan, for a copy of the MOU on September 8, he referred me to the VEC.

When I asked the VEC for a copy on September 9, a staffer passed the request on to Joan Elangovan, the Director of the VEC’s Asia Pacific Centre.

Eleven days later, and after another prompt, Elangovan replied, apologised for a tech issue and said providing the MOU “shouldn’t be a problem”. It was just a matter of getting Shanghai’s consent, which she duly said had been obtained.

Wasn’t it unusual to require Shanghai’s permission before providing a non-secret agreement with Vancouver’s most public representative?

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“It’s a matter of courtesy, a practice of being a good partner, regardless of government or any other partners, foreign or local. I am just trying to do my job Ian, I can’t speak for the City,” said Elangovan, sounding a little exasperated.

She hoped the MOU would be handed over on Monday.

But instead, what arrived was acknowledgement of an FOI request, apparently filed with the City by the VEC on the South China Morning Post’s behalf. After being told by the mayor’s right-hand man to obtain the document from the VEC, my request had come full circle – the City was withholding the document and preventing the VEC from providing it immediately.

It’s just weird. Why should a letter of intent – yes, signed on behalf of the people of Vancouver, it bears repeating – be the subject of so many layers of opacity?

Such city-to-city letters of intent are usually more about appearances than legally binding commitments. The recipe demands equal parts boiler plate, good intentions and wishful thinking. They are more lubricant than substance. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s hard to imagine such a document contains explosive secrets.

You sign it, you sell it

What makes City Hall’s reluctance to provide the MOU to the Vancouverites whom it concerns even more obtuse is the wide coverage that the deal and Robertson’s visit to China received in the Chinese media.

Outlets ranging from internet portals Sohu and Sina.com, to state-funded The Paper, and state-run China Daily carried reports of the signing. The Shanghai mayor’s office had helpfully issued a press release the morning after the ceremony.

“We will not only promote business and investment in both directions, but also deepen cultural ties,” Robertson told China Daily.

In Shanghai’s press release, the deal was touted as a way to “push forward our pragmatic cooperation in the economic, trade, scientific and technological innovation and tourism areas.”

The release also quoted Robertson as saying “cooperation and exchange between Vancouver and Shanghai is conducive to the development of Canada-China relations”.

“[Robertson] called for the two cities to further enhance mutual understanding, learn from each other, promote investment and trade, and strengthen cooperation in the cultural and creative, environmental protection, energy and smart city areas,” it said.

The SCMP asked the Shanghai municipal government to provide the agreement on Tuesday. It has yet to do so.

Bombshells notwithstanding, Robertson and his handlers are probably right if they have concluded that any economic deal with Shanghai is a tough sell in Vancouver at the moment. Chinese money gets plenty of bad play amid the city’s affordability crisis and perennial concerns about money laundering and tax evasion.

But if you sign it, you should sell it, instead of acting like it never happened.

Update: Vancouver mayor’s office releases letter of intent that had been withheld for ‘no reason’

After this blog was published, the Vancouver mayor’s office released the letter of intent, apologising to the South China Morning Post and saying it had been withheld for “no reason”.

The agreement, in nondescript terms, says the cities “will endeavour to encourage and support economic and trade exchanges and collaboration between businesses of the two cities”, as well as “increase exchanges and collaboration in such sectors as technology and innovation, environment protection, culture, healthcare, transportation, tourism as well as urban administration and management.”

Katie Robb, director of communications for Mayor Gregor Robertson apologised and said “there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have been given this document immediately in the first place”.

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The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email ian.young@scmp.com or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.