Book Review: The China Apologists

Chester Ronning was a renowned Canadian diplomat and Sinophile so admiring of Chinese culture he spoke fluent Mandarin and into his 80s still prepared his own meals of steaming vegetables and noodles in broth. He was also a Mao apologist.

The Communist leader was not a mass-murderer but a “teacher” and “liberator,” Ronning enthused. When visiting Peking in 1971, he was invited to view May Day celebrations alongside Party functionaries atop Tiananmen Gate. He was “wild with excitement,” Ronning said. Here he could “feel the presence of a new power.”

The decision was all his. If Ronning loved the Chinese people he must love its dictatorship, too. China like all police states demanded no less. “Westerners with no actual experience of what China was like before the People’s Republic cannot possibly understand what the early reforms meant,” he said. It was an outrageous claim.

Famed novelist Pearl Buck loved China as a missionary’s daughter but criticized the regime. To her death in 1973 she was denied a Communist-issue visa. Chester Ronning loved China as a missionary’s son and did what he was told, and was welcomed in 1971, 1973, 1975 and 1983 – twice at the invitation of Premier Chou En-Lai.

“He often confused the ideal, described to him by Chou En-Lai and others, with the broader, harsher reality,” writes biographer Brian Evans. “Indeed, as a guest of the premier of China, he travelled under special circumstances, and wherever he went, the word that he was a special guest of the highest order preceded him. He was honest in reporting what he saw, but what he saw did not generally apply.”

Evans was a diplomat to Beijing and retired professor of Chinese history at the University of Alberta. His recounting of Ronning’s apologia is mournful, as though the old man’s lapses must not detract from his unusual life story. The result is an intriguing glimpse of China in turmoil and one Canadian’s attempt to make sense of it all.

Born of Lutheran missionaries in Hubei Province in 1894, Ronning carried an early childhood memory of his parents fleeing the 1900 Boxer rebellion. As a diplomat posted to Chongqing in 1945, Ronning recalled he had to store his soap by dangling it from a string so the rats wouldn’t eat it. Attending a state banquet in 1971, he exchanged riddles that are amusing only to those immersed in Chinese culture: “What is a golden axe with a silver handle? A bean sprout!”

Ronning often returned to Alberta where his family homesteaded. He served a term in the legislature as a United Farmers candidate. Yet over and over he found himself back in the Motherland.

“Ronning’s life was entwined with the history of China,” writes Evans. “Fate kept drawing him back to the land of his birth, and when recalling his life, he invariably measured it by key events in the history of modern China.”

There was much he chose not to measure. Witnessing Communist troops take over Nanking in 1949, Ronning made it sound like a Legion homecoming: “The soldiers were orderly and disciplined and were greeted by welcome posters and school children singing new songs of praise.” He made no mention of the arrest and summary execution of political opponents.

Ronning once attempted to justify his enthusiasm for the Communists in a 1980 film China Mission: “I sympathized with their side of the case because they were pledged to free China, the Chinese peasants, from the vicious oppression of the landlords,” he said.

If the finer details of Mao’s atrocities were still unknown when Ronning died in 1984, much had already been chronicled by the plainest observer.  In China, then and now, you can see what you choose to see.

Diplomat Peter Lum in a memoir Peking 1950-1953 by Camelot Press recounted the Great Dog Massacre that followed the Communist takeover. “Dogs were simply killed,” Lum wrote. Police went house to house rounding up pets to be clubbed to death or hanged: “They were taken away in small carts like garbage carts, closed tight and packed solid, and if you passed one you could hear them thrashing inside and see blood on the sides of the cart. And there are no more dogs in Peking.”

Ronning saw only the New China depicted in propaganda films, devoid of brutality. “Mao Zedong elevated the people,” he told the National Film Board. “The first thing he did was to establish kindergartens.”

In the summer of 1980, Professor Evans made repeated visits to interview Ronning at his home in the town of Camrose, Alberta. Ronning was a silver-haired widower then. Evans recalls he liked to visit the local Chinese diner and speak Mandarin to the waitress.

Did Ronning regret his pro-Mao views? Evans did not press the old man, and acknowledges it would have been pointless anyway: “Ronning had minor memory problems. I found that certain questions or phrases would launch him into his memories of Chinese history. Ronning, like many teachers, came to think in set pieces.”

The Remarkable Chester Ronning is a deft and skillful biography, and more honest than Ronning ever was.

By Holly Doan

The Remarkable Chester Ronning: Proud Son of China by Brian L. Evans, University of Alberta Press; ISBN #9780-8886-46637; $34.95

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