Live & Learn: Maurice Strong

The ex-UN special envoy and former CEO of Ontario Hydro on China and the hostility of Stephen Harper’s government toward it.

Born April 29, 1929, in Oak Lake, Man. • Honorary professor at Peking University • UN crusader • Sinophile

China now is very business oriented. You are often taken more seriously if you’ve got a business relationship as well as an academic relationship. I founded this company called China Carbon, which I don’t really run but I’m chairman of it, and all we do is help Chinese companies get Clean Development Mechanism credits. It’s a complicated process, and they often need some help and guidance.

I used to help Canadian and international companies come to China, but now I really work the other side. I help Chinese companies go international.

I try to restrict my travel overseas, but the world comes to Beijing, so I don’t have to travel as much. I’ve always lived in Canada. I pay taxes in Canada. I just spend a lot of my time in China.

A lot of westerners, including Canadians, don’t take the time to understand the business culture in China. And it’s not just language, it’s how they deal with things. They sign an MOU, a memorandum of understanding, and you think you’ve got a deal. But that’s just the beginning of negotiations. The Chinese are very good negotiators, and there’s always a crisis in any deal, just before you sign.

I was on the international board of Toyota for several years, and they asked me about what the Chinese really think of Toyota. I said, well, two things: One, they think you are the best-run company in the world and they have a lot to learn from you. Secondly, they hate you. But that will never show as long as they are getting a net-benefit from the relationship. Even when they decide that they are no longer getting a net-benefit, they won’t say that to you. You’ll just see it in a whole series of subtle actions that they will take or not take. They’re not bellicose.

Stephen Harper’s government has cost Canada tremendously in its hostility to China. Any businessman will tell you the same thing — even though they might be pro-Harper in other respects — that this has been a big mistake for Canada.

Everything is relationships in China. You can’t do a deal only with relationships, but you can’t do a deal without them. And relationships take time. It’s hard to do a hit-and-run type of deal in China. You used to be able to, because they needed money. Now you need to bring something else: technology, particularly, or know-how, access to markets, other things that they feel are beneficial.

I never aspired to be in business. I went into business because I only have a high-school education, and I couldn’t get jobs that required higher qualifications. I went into business quite reluctantly, because it was the only place I could get a job.

I’ve always believed that the real purpose of business is not only to create profit, but also to serve the needs of people. I’m often called a socialist, but it depends on what you mean. I’m not in favour of the state owning everything, because the state is not a very good owner of enterprises.

The credentials I lacked in my academic life became less important, because I started to gain credentials in business and was asked by Lester Pearson to come work for the government. I came in as the deputy minister in charge of our foreign aid program, which was exactly what I was hoping to do.

Eventually, I was able to use my business as a stepping stone to public service. Very often it’s the other way: people like to use their public service as a stepping stone for business.

There are people who say I make money off my government relationships. Quite the contrary. I’m happy because I have gone about this deliberately and purposefully, but if I wanted to emphasize making money, I would have stayed in business, where you make a lot more than you can in government or in the United Nations.

I never really did anything at the UN on climate change by myself, except make my own mistakes. I was always conscious of the fact that I was not an expert. Whenever I came onto something, I would ask myself who are the best people? I went to them and was hardly ever turned down. I was a kind of organizer and maybe even an energizer in some ways, but I wasn’t the source for most of the expertise.

Analytically, I would say that I’m pessimistic. The conditions that support life as we know it on Earth have only existed for a minute portion of the Earth’s history, and they exist within very narrow parameters. The Earth is not going to go away. But the conditions that make life possible? I would say the betting now is that they won’t last. I’m hopeful because I believe that pessimism is self-fulfilling, despite the fact that you’d have to say the odds are against us.