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A Chinese policy instrument is buying into a Vancouver mountain, and Canadian naivete is an inadequate response

A Chinese company with gold-plated political connections is buying into a Canadian mountain.

And not just any mountain: Grouse Mountain, whose ski slopes famously look down on Vancouver.

A skier on Grouse Mountain, Vancouver, Canada.
Lijuan Guo Photography | Getty Images
A skier on Grouse Mountain, Vancouver, Canada.

The Shanghai-based China Minsheng Investment Group (CMIG) isn't buying the entire mountain of course, but the sale of the ski operation by the Canadian McLaughlin family does include 500 hectares of privately owned land. CMIG's pending purchase was revealed by the Globe and Mail last week.

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Reports on Tuesday said CMIG was a 40 per cent stakeholder in the newly formed buyer, GM Resorts Limited Partnership. The CBC quoted a CMIG spokesman as saying it would be a "silent investor".

The total asking price was C$200 million (US$159 million) – well below the threshold for federal foreign investment review - but the symbolic significance is obvious.

With its ski slopes floodlit at night, Grouse is like a north star when viewed from below, a literal guiding light that can be seen from just about anywhere in Vancouver.

From up top, the ski slopes and hiking trails boast incredible views of the city and sea. Grouse Mountain isn't world-famous like nearby Whistler - but it is Vancouver's mountain.

Whistler, too, recently ended up in foreign hands, when US-based Vail Resorts bought Whistler Blackcomb Holdings for C$1.4 billion last October.

So is this just the way of the world? Is the sale of Grouse to simply a more-modest version of the Whistler-Vail deal?

This way of thinking betrays a polite kind of Canadian naivete that verges on the quaint.

I'm not suggesting outrage is justified. Nor is the purchase demonstrably nefarious. However, even a cursory examination of what CMIG is all about suggests the Grouse deal is quite a different proposition to Whistler's sale, regardless of the "silent investor" protestation.

Yes, CMIG is a privately owned firm, but it exists and was created at the pleasure of the Chinese state: CMIG sprang from the brow of Premier Li Keqiang when he ordered it created in 2014. Fifty-nine big Chinese firms dutifully stumped up 50 billion yuan (US$7.4 billion) in starting capital and it was away.

So China Minsheng Investment cannot be understood purely as a product of market forces, at least, not as Canadians generally understand them. It serves Chinese government policy, and its goals, explicitly stated on its corporate website, are those of the state.

"As a representative of Chinese private capital, CMIG serves the national 'Belt and Road Initiative' and 'Going Global' strategy, bringing out financial wisdom and industrial strength, focusing the power of capital, building a globalised industrial platform," it says, namechecking various government policies.

"By fully utilising the technology, brand, and resource advantages of developed countries, and the tremendous opportunities of 'Going Global and Bringing in' brought by the development potentials of countries along the 'Belt and Road Initiative' route, CMIG guides Chinese private capital to go abroad together, and promotes industrial upgrading and economic transformation."

Look beyond the jargon and the purpose of CMIG is clear. It's not just about profit. It's a tool of Chinese national strategy and economic development.

This isn't always incompatible with Canadian priorities, public and private. But China Minsheng is most certainly not analogous to some US ski company, or to western investment firms that are creatures of supply and demand.

On its website, CMIG extols the Communist Party, explaining that it was "90 years ago, thanks to a group of advanced Chinese intellectuals who spread Marxism on Chinese soil with Prometheus-like courage, our nation became independent and prosperous".

"In the next stage of our work, we must actively display the vanguard and exemplary spirits of the Chinese Communist Party, realise the core values of 'Five Concepts, Four Senses and Three Loves' advocated by Chairman Dong [Wenbiao], and contribute to the development of China Minsheng Investment, and to the implementation of national strategies.

"With the dream faraway, we are on the way."

The polit-speak isn't unusual for a big Chinese company, but there should be no illusions about the company's role.

The part purchase of Grouse cannot be viewed simply as a private firm, like any other, getting into the ski business. It's part of a global acquisitions strategy endorsed and guided by the Chinese state.

In this respect, CMIG is the yin to Anbang Insurance's yang. Both firms took to foreign acquisition like it was a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. The main difference is that Anbang's foreign activities – including the purchase of a chain of BC retirement homes, and Vancouver's Bentall Centre for a record-setting C$1billion – were apparently not conducted with the happy endorsement of the Chinese state, and Anbang's chairman Wu Xiaohui now sits behind bars for reasons unclear.

Another key difference – the provenance of CMIG's capital and ownership is well known, while Anbang's is a near-total mystery.

But like Anbang before it, CMIG has been growing at an explosive rate. It now boasts assets of 260 billion yuan, according to the state-owned China Daily. And CMIG isn't just big, it is a behemoth in the making. Company president Li Huaizhen told the SCMP last year that it seeks a valuation of 1 trillion yuan by 2019. That's an ambitious five-year goal for a company started from scratch, but its political purpose and backers make it a good bet, I reckon.

Its investments around the world so far include the purchase of Sirius International Insurance Group last year for US$2.6 billion, and a pledge of US$5billion to develop an industrial park in Indonesia. Through a subsidiary, it spent US$88 million in May on an 80 per cent stake in an under-construction luxury condo development in San Francisco, setting a price record in the process. In London, CMIG has been buying up property in the financial district, including Societe Generale's UK headquarters for £84.5 million (US$110 million) in September.

And now a big stake in Grouse Mountain.

I doubt the good folk at CMIG know a mountain from a mogul, and the long-term strategic purpose of buying into a small ski resort in a coastal location that is seen as particularly vulnerable to global warming isn't instantly obvious. But I'd bet those 500 hectares of private land (further distinguishing Grouse from Whistler, which leases Crown land) have a lot to do with it.

CMIG did not respond to the SCMP's questions about the deal.

Canadians, mostly good capitalists, tend to accept that they are beholden to market forces. But as the Grouse sale demonstrates, they are also increasingly beholden the forces of Chinese state policy. This can be beneficial – certainly to the McLaughlins – but it's a process that demands clear-eyed scrutiny.

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This story has been corrected to show that CMIG claims its effective stake in the purchase is 40 percent.