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World Lobsters and parkas: Huawei dispute does little to diminish Chinese demand for Brand Canada

People queue outside the newly opened flagship store of Canada Goose in Beijing, Dec. 30, 2018.

CHINA STRINGER NETWORK

In the midst of an ugly crisis between Beijing and Ottawa, Canada’s crustaceans have remained the country’s succulent ambassadors in China. Every day, Chinese diners crack open thousands of kilograms of Canadian lobsters, buying up more than $220-million in live and chilled catch in the first 11 months of 2018.

And the pitched tensions provoked by the Dec. 1, 2018, arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou have done little to dampen the enthusiasm for the lobsters, which are airlifted to China fresh from Atlantic Canada.

“There has been no negative effect at all,” says Di Aijuan, the owner of Beijing Lianxing Seafood, speaking from her shop in the Jing Shen Seafood Market, the biggest in the Chinese capital. It was 8:30 a.m., and she had already sold more than 2,000 kilograms of Canadian lobster.

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She was aware of the anger that has poisoned diplomatic relations between Beijing and Ottawa, with China mounting an unusually personal series of attacks on Canada’s leadership. But, Ms. Di says, “it’s not easy to give up high-quality food, especially if it’s popular in China.”

With the Chinese New Year holiday season beginning, Weng Qihai, a worker at nearby Sunkfa Seafood, said “the only thing people want is to cook up something nice for their dinner tables. Who would think a clash between China and Canada is a priority?”

Canada may struggle to brand itself on the global stage, but in China, Brand Canada connotes a sense of reliability, cleanliness and authenticity. In its reputation, Canada is as an “all-around champion,” open, inclusive and friendly – less domineering than the United States, a place that is “more modern and fashionable,” according to an analysis in the Blue Book of Canada written by Liu Chao, a communication scholar at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.

It’s a national brand that has proven tough to tarnish, even in the midst of the worst dispute in decades between the two countries, one that has seen Chinese authorities warn about the safety of travel to Canada and state media pillory Ottawa as an execrable “henchman” for the United States, where prosecutors have sought Ms. Meng’s extradition.

In the weeks following Ms. Meng’s arrest, two Canadian men have been detained and interrogated by Chinese state security, accused of endangering the country’s national security, while a third has been sentenced to death after a speedy retrial on drug charges.

The tensions have darkened the prospects for investment, since Chinese authorities control capital spent by state-owned companies and exert leverage over transactions made by private firms. Bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs have said the appetite for deals between China and Canada has noticeably diminished.

Some Chinese companies have specifically declared no interest in buying Canadian assets, citing the likelihood that local officials would block any such transactions in the current political environment.

But for Chinese consumers, who often associate foreign products with quality and safety, it’s all proven to be little more than noise.

“Canadian brands haven’t been affected much since the tensions have begun,” said Pang Yi, executive chairman of the Commercial Culture Association of China. Yes, political emotion does sometimes sweep the country, he said. “But it’s no longer terribly strong, especially compared to 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.

“It is a stereotype to paint Chinese people as willing to burn cars and throw stones at stores that sell foreign products. That has happened in the past, but it’s no longer the case. Chinese consumers today are more concerned about their own lives. They make their own judgments, and their willingness to do so is growing stronger.”

Perhaps nowhere is that more obvious than at the new Beijing flagship store for Canada Goose, the clothing brand whose stock has been gutted by worries that it will become collateral damage in the continuing friction.

When the store opened in late December, long lines snaked into the chilly outdoors. In a series of visits since then, The Globe and Mail has found the store consistently busy enough that its aisles are congested. The apparent popularity is particularly remarkable given its location, in a luxury shopping area where most stores typically stand empty of customers. And Beijing is in the midst of an unusually mild winter, hardly a propitious environment for a down-clothing brand.

Yet despite being open little more than a month, some of the customers crowding inside the store – which features a refrigerated cold room to simulate more Arctic-like conditions – are repeat business.

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“We are both Goose fans. We stop by every once in a while,” said Wang Shuyi, who came with his friend, Zhang Nan.

Mr. Wang has no time for politics, which he dismissed as “not a good topic for conversation.” In fact, “I didn’t even know there were tensions between Canada and China,” he said. Besides, he added, it’s not like the two countries are shooting at each other. “No one is going to throw things at me for wearing clothes from Canada, right? So the situation isn’t that bad.”

Indeed, Chinese authorities have so frequently directed official fury at other countries – Norway, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Australia and others – that Chinese consumers have taken to ignoring the headlines.

“China’s relations with Japan aren’t good, either, but does that really mean we won’t buy Japanese goods? For me, the answer is no,” said Zhang Huili, who made an excursion to the Canada Goose store on a business trip to the capital. “I still buy a lot of Japanese cosmetics and home appliances. They are much better than Chinese products.”

“What I feel and what I like are much more important than anything else, and I think most people in China today feel the same. Canada Goose is great and I think it’s affordable, so I buy it. That’s easy logic.”

That’s not to say the tensions have had no effect. A man who would only give his surname, Song, walked out of the Canada Goose store empty-handed. He had intended to buy a coat, going so far as to try it on. But, he said, “I’ve read a lot of Chinese reports about Canada in the past few weeks, and it doesn’t feel right to buy this at the moment.”

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Still, he’s not sure his decision is final. “Canada to me is still a symbol of peace and reliability. I might be back in a few days to buy it.”

At the seafood market, meanwhile, Sunshi Seafood was still selling its typical five tonnes of Canadian lobster a day – and even more ahead of the new year. It doesn’t hurt that Canadian lobster is often marketed as Boston lobster, although it’s not clear that confers any advantage, given the continuing trade war with the United States, as well. Mostly, Sunshi’s buyers just want the best they can find, no matter where it comes from.

“People in China save the best food for their new year dinner table,” said Zhang Fang, a seller at Sunshi.

“Maybe relations with Canada are a big deal for government officials. But for the masses here in China, it’s nowhere near as important as a family reunion.”

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