Mandarin makes Canadian diplomat’s China journey easy
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canadian ambassador to China, is an old hand when it comes to the country.
So talking to him can feel like chatting with an old friend.
The conversation flows seamlessly between diverse topics— from the late Canadian physician Norman Bethune’s help to China in earlier decades to the origin of the diplomat’s Chinese name, Zhao Pu.
The name was given by his Mandarin teacher in the 1980s at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where Saint-Jacques enrolled during a diplomatic stint. For the briefness of his given name, Guy, the teacher suggested the Chinese character pu.
“It’s very good for a diplomat — humble, simple and that describes me well,” SaintJacques says.
Saint-Jacques has spent 13 years in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Before his posting as ambassador here, the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail said he was among the few high-ranking Canadian diplomats who spoke Mandarin.
Saint-Jacques says his Mandarin has made him a “better” ambassador. He recalls that in 2012, when he was presenting his credentials to then-Chinese president Hu Jintao, he was offered eight minutes for the meeting. But as he spoke in Chinese he gained more time with Hu, saved from the lack of translation.
And on CCTV, where an annual program for ambassadors sees them promoting their countries to Chinese investors, Saint-Jacques makes the most of the few minutes he gets on air by speaking Chinese.
“I sweated so much to learn the language, and if I have the advantage, I will use it every time.”
Saint-Jacques got his degree in geology from the University of Montreal in 1974, and a master’s in land planning and regional development from Laval University in1976. Ayear later, he joined Canada’s foreign ministry and his postings have taken him to the United States, Mexico, Britain and China.
He says his fascination with China goes back to his university days, but his first posting in Africa saw him make a number of friends among Chinese diplomats there.
“You have to hope that life will be a succession of happy coincidences,” he says, adding that he and his wife, Sylvie, had wanted to come to China for a long time.
After learning Mandarin in Hong Kong for two years, he arrived in Beijing in 1984, where he was stationed until 1987.
“When I left in 1987, it (China) was a very poor country. And I still have the bicycle that I used to go to work then,” he recalls.
He returned with his family in 1995, and found Beijing tobe a completely different place.
This confirmed the success of the economic reform that has led to the unleashing of the potential of entrepreneurs and helped to lift China and its people’s living standards, he says.
“There are no other examples in the world.”
To him, Beijing has become a very modern city with visible creativity and openness. The Chinese middle class has more money and is becoming more sophisticated in taste.
Saint-Jacques has witnessed and experienced the deepening of ties between his country and China that are not just close trade partners. They celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations last year.
He estimates that 500,000 Chinese visited Canada and more than 600,000 Canadians visited China in 2015.
“One of the best ways to know each other and to develop the relationship is to anchor people-to-people exchanges,” he says. “Education and tourism are two main ways.”
According to him, there are more than 500 academic exchange programs between universities in the two countries.
In 2014, Canada became the first Western country to offer 10-year multiple-entry visas to Chinese citizens. He says there will be more air links between the two countries and more Canadian visa centers in China.
As part of the ongoing series of events related to the ChinaCanada year of cultural exchanges that began in 2015, the ambassador has been to Yugong Yishan bar in Beijing, where he joined a young audience to watch a performance by Canadian singer Felix Dyotte in March.
Saint-Jacques has a preference for Chinese architecture and films. He is also a reader of classical works as well as works by Nobel winner Mo Yan and the crime novelist He Jiahong.
He also goes to the gymand enjoys sports, but hasn’t fostered a taste for baijiu (white liquor) yet. “I’m convinced that baijiu is used in rockets to put satellites into orbits,” he jokes.
Speaking of links between the two countries, he says there are 1.4 million Canadians of Chinese origin.
“So there are a lot of family links between the two countries.”
Guy Saint-Jacques has spent 13 years in Beijing and Hong Kong.