Chinese are trying to secretly prospect the North Shore to find ore

A Chinese delegation attempted to explore a corner of the North Shore this summer by directly calling on local officials. Beyond the anecdote, the event reflects China’s global ambitions in the field of mining.

Curious visitors surprised the general director of Baie-Johan-Beetz, Martin Côté, last summer. A delegation from China showed up unannounced in his small hamlet to question him about a high-quality quartz mine located nearby. This deposit contains over 99% pure silicon, making it an excellent candidate for manufacturing electronic devices and solar panels.

Last July, Martin Côté quickly asked questions when he saw a trio made up of two men and a woman of Chinese origin strolling around the town hall. Its village of less than 100 inhabitants is still 13 hours by car from Montreal; such visitors are rare. When he calls on them, the youngest of the three, “speaking very little English”, explains to him “that he has been studying for five years in Toronto”. Despite his basic English, he still managed to convey his interest in said silicon deposit.

The director of the municipality then puts them in contact with the owner of the premises, who quickly refuses the advances. The trio insists. The latter said he was open to buying ore samples in silver, but without success. The talks are brief. Martin Côté invites the three visitors to come to his office the next day to discuss it further. The following morning, he received an email from the lady, the oldest in the group, who introduced herself as Fang Liu and who claimed to represent Comefar Asia Mining Industries.

His company, registered in Hong Kong, reportedly has factories in eight major cities in China, deals with multinational clients like Samsung and exports refined ore to several Asian countries. “Can you show us around the mine today and give us an idea of ​​government policy? » she asks at the end of the letter written in Mandarin.

The intriguing trio shows up a few hours later at Martin Côté’s office with small gifts, which the general manager promptly refuses. “They ask me about mining laws, how to get equipment out of Canada, permitting processes, etc. Listen, I’m at the municipal level. I’m not into that at all. »

Faced with this refusal to collaborate, the small team ended up leaving the region. This visit may be an “anecdote”, as Martin Côté suggests, but it still reflects China’s ambitions around the world. This country is currently experiencing significant growth in its overseas mining activities. Chinese investment in overseas mines is expected to reach a record level this year. Spending in the sector exceeded US$10 billion in the first half of 2023, representing 131% year-on-year growth, according to a report from Shanghai Fudan University.

The door is closed in Canada

These mineral seekers “probably didn’t get the memo,” says Chinese political economy specialist and professor at the University of Ottawa Pascale Massot with irony. “It is not easy for China to do business with Canada at the moment. »

Last year, Ottawa forced three Chinese mining companies to divest from their investments in Canadian companies in the critical minerals sector. A reform of the Investment Canada Act has also restricted the freedom of Chinese companies in Canada. Last year, investments from China in the country consequently reached a 10-year low.

Such impromptu approaches have been spotted elsewhere in the world, especially in Asia, confirms Alex Payette, who heads the Cercius Group, a strategic consulting firm specializing in China. “It is not necessarily for an immediate investment, but rather to be able to map the quality of the subsoil in certain places, to know if it is worth returning. Do we find particularities, for example, in Canada that we do not find elsewhere,” notes the expert. The company cited by visitors is known to specialists like him, “is not a state company”, but still serves the Chinese state. “Considering the growing needs for the high-tech sector, silicon is one of the priorities of the regime in place. In this sense, it is normal to see this type of company prospecting in Canada in a context of shortage for China. »

This Chinese interest in the North Shore may be attributable to an autonomous “commercial” attempt, extrapolates Pascale Massot. “We often tend to attribute to China a lot of strategic coherence, even though it is an absolutely immense country of 1.4 billion people with millions, hundreds of millions of businesses and walking around. » This all-out approach has nevertheless allowed China to rise to the top in the extraction and refining of minerals necessary for the energy transition.

Canadian authorities did not respond to our requests for an interview on the subject.

This report is supported by the Local Journalism Initiative, funded by the Government of Canada.

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