Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Foray contributed to the end of innocence about China
By JAN WONG
Saturday, September 30, 2000
In 1960, a labour lawyer and a journalist from Montreal journeyed to China in the midst of the Great Leap Forward. After spending 32 days in the People's Republic of China, they wrote a slender book. They called it Two Innocents in Red China.
The title was modest. The two were astute observers who quickly saw through the official jargon of their guides. In 1968, when their book came out in English, the labour lawyer had become prime minister. Pierre Trudeau actually first visited China in 1949, when he slipped into the country just as the Communists were about to win the civil war.
In his forward to the English edition of Two Innocents, Trudeau added this all-purpose disclaimer: "If there are any statements in the book which can be used to prove that the authors are agents of the international Communist conspiracy, or alternatively fascist exploiters of the working classes, I am sure that my co-author, Jacques Hébert, who remains a private citizen, will be willing to accept entire responsibility for them."
More seriously, Trudeau added, "it seemed to us imperative that the citizens of our democracy should know more about China."
Two years later, prime minister Trudeau established diplomatic relations with China. It was a huge geopolitical gambit for the time, one that broke the recognition logjam in 1970 and set a pattern for other Western nations to follow.
It was also a move that would change my life. Fresh out of Montreal West High School, I was unsure what to study at university. But in the China fever that followed Trudeau's opening to Beijing, I decided to major in Asian history.
In 1972, during my summer vacation from McGill University, I packed a suitcase and headed, alone, to see China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Trudeau was 40 when he first went to China. I was 19. My only Chinese came from Mandarin 101 at McGill. Enamoured of Mao's vision to create a new society, I accepted without question the official jargon of my Chinese guides. Unlike Trudeau, I really was an innocent in Red China, and was too dumb to figure that out.
Beijing was also making its first overtures to the West. It must have figured a gullible Canadian like myself might be useful. Perhaps it envisioned me as a future propaganda link between China and Canada. That summer, the Communist government mysteriously invited me to enroll at Beijing University. I became the first Canadian to study in China since the start of the Cultural Revolution.
I embraced Mao's dictum that hard labour was good for the soul. So, in addition to language classes, I dug ditches and hauled pig manure. After 13 months in China, I came home and graduated on time. It was the 1970s, after all. McGill gave me credit for hauling manure.
By then, the Trudeau government had established an academic exchange program. I became one of 12 Canadians sent to China in 1974. Ottawa gave us scholarships worth $150 a month, an investment that has since repaid itself many times over. My fellow graduate students formed a new generation of Canadian diplomats and China specialists, fluent in the language and equipped with a deep understanding of that complex country.
I stayed longer than most. When I left in 1980, I was no longer an innocent in Red China. In 1988, I became The Globe's 13th China correspondent and -- thanks to Trudeau -- the first one actually fluent in Chinese.
I don't think a foreign correspondent was quite what the Chinese government had in mind. I filed stories about everything from unwanted female babies to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Like Trudeau, I felt it imperative that the citizens of our democracy should know more about China.
When my posting ended in 1994 and I returned to Toronto, I wasn't surprised to learn I had been dropped from the Chinese consulate's A-list. Like Marx -- no, not that Marx -- reporters wouldn't dream of joining any club that would have them. By that same logic, we love going where we're not wanted. So that is why I decided to crash a Chinese consulate reception this past Thursday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Sino-Canadian diplomatic relations.
By coincidence, the party started minutes after the news broke of Trudeau's death. I slipped into the reception at a Chinese restaurant in suburban Toronto and felt right at home. Just like in the old days, crowds of mainland Chinese in ill-fitting suits were sipping Dynasty wine and waiting anxiously for the food to be served.
In his welcoming address, the Chinese consul-general never mentioned Trudeau. Spontaneity is dangerous for Chinese officials, and there had been no time to obtain authorization from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. And so consul Zhou Xingbao offered Maoist-era platitudes and China's latest Olympic medal count.
Elinor Caplan, Canada's Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, called for a moment's silence. Alas, the networking buzz of this capitalist-Communist crowd never stopped.
As a student of history, that offended me. Without Trudeau, it's safe to say that this crowd wouldn't have even been here. Normalization of diplomatic relations with Beijing led to increased trade. The most obvious result is that China has become one of our biggest trading partners. And by opening our doors to immigration, Trudeau literally changed the face of Canada. China now accounts for our largest group of immigrants each year.
After 12 years in Beijing, I now take celebrities to lunch in Toronto. Readers often ask, if I could take anyone to lunch, who would that be? Let me answer this way. In 1997, I invited Trudeau to lunch. I expected a brief "no thanks" via his secretary. But one day, a letter arrived in the mail. It was from Trudeau. He thanked me, but said he was declining all interviews.
I held that letter a long, long time. Trudeau was the greatest Canadian of his generation. Thank you, Mr. Trudeau, for letting me learn more about China, and life.