Review — The Call Of The Motherland

On Wanfujing Street in Beijing the Xinhua state bookstore promoted a single Western author, Charles Dickens. Many others were banned. Dickens’ depiction of 19th century squalor and capitalist depravity appealed to Chinese censors, as if to say: Who are you foreigners to lecture us about our squalor and our depravity?

Great Expectations was written as popular fiction and not a Workers’ Compensation inquiry. If the Victorian era brought child labour and debtors’ prison, it also gave Canada public education; street lighting; an unlicensed press; multi-party elections; the first consumer protection laws; a Criminal Code that presumes innocence at trial; and Labour Day.

Great Expectations was also written by an Englishman for an English audience dramatizing English conditions circa 1861. It is just the kind of novel that would be censored on Wanfujing Street if written by a Chinese author on Chinese conditions circa 2014.

So it’s with genuine dismay that we see Engaging China, an apologia for the regime that drags out the old Dickens prop Xinhua-style. China’s troubles “are not unfamiliar to observers of nineteenth-century Britain,” writes Paul Evans, professor of Asia-Pacific studies at UBC; “China indeed faces a veritable encyclopaedia of social ills, as if the problems of Charles Dickens’ England or Lincoln Steffens’ America during their great industrial revolutions are both magnified in scale and compressed in time.”

I heard this lament often as a foreign correspondent in Beijing in the 1990s. It was a common refrain of China enthusiasts. Western liberals who could never forgive Ronald Reagan for firing air traffic controllers would excuse a Chinese State Council that decreed the death penalty for the mere act of organizing an independent trade union.

Engaging China is a brief summary of Canadian diplomacy in the Motherland since 1970. Its essential themes have been covered elsewhere, exhaustively. It even mentions Norman Bethune. What makes Professor Evans’ work unique is his dogged adherence to old devices like the Dickens speech. To read Engaging China is to witness the last of the magic lantern shows on the Land Of Awe & Mystery.

Most unsettling is Evans’ revival of the “Asian values” argument long discredited as the rhetorical invention of single-party states. The myth accords that human ideals – democracy; dignity of the individual; right of dissent – are Western idiosyncrasies, and we have no business criticizing Chinese Communists for their ideals. Tung Chee-hwa, Party-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong, used to tell white reporters: “You don’t understand this. You are not Chinese.”

Similarly Engaging China tells readers, “The accountability China needs is accountability not to Western ideals and institutions but to the aspirations of its own people, who desire balanced growth, stability, personal security and social harmony.” Professor Evans goes so far as to lecture Canadians on our “self-righteousness” and “moralism”.

Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui dispelled this myth of Asian values in a 1996 interview with Newsweek. Lee was the first democratically-elected Chinese leader in history, but he is not Chinese enough for Professor Evans; Lee’s name does not appear in Engaging China.

“The Chinese people haven’t had democracy for 2000 years,” Lee told reporters. “That has been horrible, horrible for them”; “American people, Asian people, African people, all need human rights. Some talk of Asian values. I say Asian people have rights just like in the United States.”

By Holly Doan

Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper, by  Paul Evans; University of Toronto Press; 144 pages; ISBN 9781-44261-4482; $11.97

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