An entrepreneur with Saanich roots is finding out what it means to be caught in a geostrategic conflict.
Alistair Vigier, chief executive officer of Clear Way Law, had been exploring for some ways to expand into China when the Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, while she was travelling in Vancouver, acting on a request from the United States.
The Chinese government has since responded with the arrest of two Canadian citizens on charges of spying.
The arrest has since set off a diplomatic row between Canada and China, which itself is part of a larger economic dispute between the United States and China over trade, intellectual property rights, and cybersecurity. One of China’s most important companies, Huawei, is the world’s leading supplier of information technology and stands accused of having close ties to China’s authoritarian government.
The dispute has been the subject of high-level international diplomacy with plenty of collateral victims, including Clear Way Law.
While Vigier’s company had not made any major financial commitments towards expanding into China, it did not long for attitudes to change.
“We were waiting a few weeks [to see how the dispute would unfold], but it was becoming obvious that things were becoming worse and worse,” he said.
Vigier found this out in January, when he thought about applying for a work visa. What was once a short, straight-forward application had suddenly become much longer and bureaucratic.
“I looked at that, and I was like, ‘you know what, not right now,’” he said. “I got other stuff. By no means, have we tapped out the Canadian growth or the U.S. growth or pretty much the rest of the world. The world is a big place.”
Vigier, who has been developing professional and personal ties to China over the last few years, said he and his Chinese partners mutually agreed to put things on hold.
“But it is more important for the Chinese, because of the amount of interference that businesses get over there from the government,” he said.
Maintaining ties with Canadian companies could earn Chinese companies the ire of the Chinese government for a long time, a prospect entirely unfamiliar to Canadian businesses, he said.
Familiar with the workings of Canadian corporations and governments in China, Vigier said larger Canadian players wishing to enter into the market are biding their time because they have means to absorb losses and lobby government, options not available to a boutique law firm specializing in divorces.
Companies, unlike governments, cannot take money from taxpayers, as they wait for the politicians to work things out. “If you go and start investing heavily in another country, and things change, that is a massive hit [to your bottom line].”
Looking at the bigger picture, China’s large economy makes it an attractive destination for foreign entrepreneurs, said Vigier.
“It could be very lucrative, but even in the best of times, it is very challenging to do business in China — the culture difference, the language difference, and that was when both sides were very ambitious, really wanting to connect with each other.”