10/24/2012 10:49 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

University of Alberta poll suggests Albertans are wary of Chinese investment

CALGARY - A survey released Wednesday suggests Albertans are wary of Chinese investment in the province — especially full ownership of Alberta companies.

The University of Alberta's China Institute polled 1,210 people just days before China National Offshore Oil Co. announced its controversial $15.1-billion deal to take over Calgary-based Nexen Inc. (TSX:NXY).

"On balance, it's a mix of positive negative. Albertans are quite conflicted in their views of China," said institute director Gordon Houlden in an interview.

The survey, which is conducted annually, found 37 per cent of those polled agreed partial Chinese investment in Alberta is acceptable, with 36 per cent disagreeing and 27 per cent undecided.

But the numbers were much more extreme when it came to full ownership — only 15 per cent agreed it is acceptable, 64 per cent disagreed and 21 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

"When it comes to investment, Albertans are on balance negative in their views. When it comes to full ownership in particular of Alberta-based companies by Chinese enterprises, it's seen as undesirable," said Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat who's had five postings in China.

Though the institute hasn't done polling since the Nexen deal was announced, Houlden said "if anything, I think perhaps the views have become more polarized and probably more negative on balance."

The Nexen-CNOOC deal is currently being weighed by Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who must determine whether the transaction is of "net benefit" to Canada. The review is to last until Nov. 11, though it can be extended in 30-day increments with the permission of the buyer.

The net benefit test has been criticized for its lack of clarity, though Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised earlier this week that new guidelines would be coming "soon." Unease has been growing since Ottawa's surprise rejection of Malaysian company Petronas' $6-billion takeover of Calgary-based natural gas producer Progress Energy Resources (TSX:PRQ) late Friday.

Attitudes in the survey were divided starkly along political lines, with supporters of the right-wing Wildrose Party much less enthusiastic about Chinese investment than voters further left on the political spectrum.

"I think that the wariness of China has an ideological dimension as well as an economic dimension," said Houlden.

On the more positive side, the poll suggested Albertans are not particularly threatened by China's rise as an economic power, are in favour of exporting oil and gas to China and view China as a stable trading partner.

But Houlden said he was disappointed that only 32 per cent of those polls agreed the ability to speak Chinese will become important to Albertans.

"If only Chinese learn English and our culture, we're really at a disadvantage. And that's one that I think we need to redress," he said.

The telephone poll's estimated sampling error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at 95 per cent confidence.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford said she's skeptical of the interpretation of the survey results.

"I've seen some of the results of that. I think that that's jumping to quite a conclusion. What Albertans have said, as I understand it, is they want to make sure that as governments, that we're making sure that there's a net benefit to Canada."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story: An earlier version had the incorrect undecided figure in paragraph 5