Whatever Pierre Elliott Trudeau is remembered for, it will not be for his daring openness to Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist China. Or at least, that’s the impression set forth in author Nino Ricci’s portrait of Trudeau, published in 2009 as part of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series.
There’s a couple of dozen words on Trudeau and China here, including a quick reference to the 1960 memoirs he co-wrote with Jacques Hebert about their joint trip to China (Trudeau eventually visited twice).
As prime minister, Trudeau “scooped [US President Richard] Nixon in 1970 in recognizing Red China,” Ricci writes, as Trudeau courageously ignored the American desire to isolate the Communist country.
Ricci’s profile mixes his own memories and reactions to Trudeau with research and commentary from essayists and biographers, picking the best from already published sources.
The result is a sort of Coles notes on the career and impact of the philosopher king on this country (written a scant few years after his death) for readers who don’t want to plough through the thousands of pages previously published on the much loved, and much hated, Liberal politician. Some will find the last section, on the impact of the Canadian Charter of Rights, to be one of Trudeau’s most interesting and complex legacies.
But to return to China, Ricci’s belief that Trudeau was violently tweaking the Americans is likely completely wrong. While the US ambassador was snarky about Canada’s move to open relations with China, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were in fact secretly working around their own State Department and diplomats to set up their own historic meeting with Chairman Mao, one which would shock the world.
That meeting took place in February 1972.
Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon In China: The Week That Changed The World (2006), offers a fascinating look at the machinations, self-doubt and triumph of the difficult manoeuvring that went into a stridently Red Scare-obsessed politician eventually realizing that friendship with China would help the US put one over on the malevolent USSR during the Cold War.
While China was a Western ally during World War II, a civil war left the Communists in control soon after. The losers set up their own government-in-exile in Taiwan, competing with mainland China’s Reds, and the rest of the world lining up on one side or the other. Still, the ideological alliance of the USSR and China was fraught. And Nixon hoped to help stabilize the world by further driving a wedge between the two major Communist countries (not that Mao was any better than the murderous Russian leaders: the chairman’s Cultural Revolution killed millions).
Nixon called the opening of relations with China “the high point of his time in office.” China and the Asian continent, he said presciently, “will be at the centre of the world again.”
MacMillan uses American and Western documents (official Chinese sources are still largely restricted) to fashion an engaging read (MacMillan is a lovely storyteller) that brings in history, politics and people to recreate an important moment in modern times.
By the by, there’s more in the Canadian MacMillan’s book on Canada and China than there is in Ricci’s. At the dawn of diplomatic relations, Ottawa sent two beavers to the Middle Kingdom as a gift. They were shipped in an Air Canada plane washroom. And we had long ignored a US ban on trade, sending wheat to China from the 1950s onwards.
Those many years ago, China was a gigantic but backward country in terms of technology, with millions upon millions essentially eating dirt to survive. The Americans accompanying Nixon on his trip were astonished to discover that all documents were still copied by hand by the Chinese bureaucracy; MacMillan reports that the visitors left their photocopier behind.
And look at China now. Ted C. Fishman’s China, Inc.: How The Rise Of The Next Superpower Challenges America And The World (2005) looks at how capitalism has come to modern totalitarian China.
Certainly North American workers have lost jobs to China, but it is those lower priced goods that have caught the interest of western consumers seeking to save money (not to mention helping the pocketbooks of the new Chinese consumer, as well). World investors are following along, putting ever more cash into the Chinese manufacturing infrastructure (indeed, “most of the world’s countries now see China’s growth as a critical engine for their own economic growth”).
Fishman looks at Chinese labour, economics, politics, and the (previously banned) mass migration to urban areas to offer a view of how China got here, and where it’s headed. (Even the “independent” Taiwan is a part of the Middle Kingdom’s growth, its already-trained private entrepreneurs returning to China by the thousands with capital and technology.)
Profit can come out of state-owned property, Fishman suggests, but the street-level economic growth in boom-town Shanghai, for example, is largely fuelled by black market lending. Through all this, China’s agricultural land is increasingly lying fallow; the deprivation in rural areas is devastating.
For those interested in business and the balance of power in the world, China, Inc. is a must-read.
For a different economic take, there’s husband-of, John Ralston Saul (as soon as Adrienne Clarkson was appointed Canada’s governor general, she made an honest man out of him). He includes a chapter on China (coupled with India) in his 2005 book, The Collapse Of Globalism: And The Reinvention Of The World. Saul critiques capitalism run amok, and has some nice things to say about China, too.
– Eleanor Brown, June 17, 2011