Ottawa ‘screwed up’ when it greenlit sale of B.C. retirement homes to Chinese company: UBC prof

The logo of the Anbang Insurance Group is seen on the company's offices in Beijing, Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
The logo of the Anbang Insurance Group is seen on the company's offices in Beijing, Wednesday, June 14, 2017. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The federal government “screwed up” when it allowed the sale of a chain of B.C. retirement homes to a Chinese company that has since been taken over by that country’s government, said a UBC international relations professor.

The feds approved the sale of Vancouver-based Retirement Concepts, one of the biggest senior care providers in B.C., to Chinese insurance giant Anbang last year.

That same year, Anbang also bought Vancouver’s Bentall Centre in a blockbuster real estate deal believed to be worth more than $1 billion.

LISTEN: Canadian government urged to reconsider Anbang Insurance health-care deal after Chinese government takes control of the company

Story continues below advertisement

Last week, the Chinese government accused Anbang’s chairman of financial crimes and took direct control of the company.

Speaking on CKNW’s The Simi Sara Show, Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, said the situation should raise alarm bells.

“Right now, we have the Chinese government owning the largest retirement home company in British Columbia and owning the largest office complex in downtown Vancouver,” he said.

“Should we be concerned about that? Probably.”

READ MORE: Chinese investors buy Vancouver’s Bentall Centre

Byers, who ran unsuccessfully as an NDP candidate in the 2008 federal election, said even at the time of the sale, there were significant questions about Anbang’s ownership structure, which were not adequately addressed.

“Normally, if you’re overseeing, regulating a sale, you want to have a clear paper trail, you want to know exactly what’s involved,” Byers said. “And this one involved a lot of murkiness, and yet the minister, Minister [Navdeep] Bains, approved it nevertheless.”

Byers said that while Canada currently has a friendly trade relationship with China, there’s no guarantee that will continue. He added that China is one of the countries Canada watches most closely over concerns about commercial espionage, and that it has the potential to be our chief military rival in the Pacific Ocean.

Story continues below advertisement

He said the United States weighed both of those concerns when approving the sale of assets to Anbang; it blocked the sale of some assets with potential national security implications.

WATCH: Chinese investors buy Bentall Centre

Click to play video: 'Chinese investors buy Bentall Centre' Chinese investors buy Bentall Centre
Chinese investors buy Bentall Centre – Feb 18, 2016

Those concerns are very real, he argued, when it comes to Vancouver’s Bentall Centre — a collection of blue-chip office towers.

“Where presumably a lot of secret corporate meetings take place, are we exposed to corporate espionage as a result of Anbang effectively being a state-owned company?” he asked.

“I don’t know the answer, and I doubt that Minister Bains does.”

Byers also raised concerns that the retirement homes owned by Anbang could be shuttered as a retaliatory measure should Canada ever find itself in a trade or military dispute with China.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Hilton Worldwide selling Waldorf Astoria New York to Anbang Insurance for $1.95 billion

Byers said it is unlikely that Ottawa can go back on its approval of the Retirement Concepts sale. In the short term, B.C. will have to more closely monitor those homes to ensure that there is no slippage in the quality of care, he said.

The biggest issue now, Byers argued, is how Canada handles future overtures by Chinese investors who are keen to take advantage of opportunities in markets such as the resource sector.

“Can we trust that a Chinese company is not state-controlled, if, as we’ve just seen, that the Chinese government can just step in and take over?” he asked.

“How does this then relate to Chinese investments in the oil industry, how does it relate to Chinese investments in the construction industry… Can we actually trust that a Chinese company is what it says it is or do we have to approach it with a degree of mistrust?”

Sponsored content