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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Denise Chong: Never bow before the bully

December 15, 2009

National Post: December 10, 2009,


As Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the air en route to Beijing last
week, I waited out a connection in an airport lounge. Unaccustomed to
such perks — my guest pass was to make up for having spent much of a
flight trapped in the teensy washroom, but that’s another story — I
observed among the business suits, a nearby executive urgently working
his cell phone. Suddenly, he erupted with elation. Evidently, the person
he’d wanted to reach picked up. “You’re the person,” he exclaimed.
“You’re the one to talk China!”

To talk China? I suppose, being a businessman, he meant channeling China
in a way that comes with a payoff. If not for this time, then the next
opportunity to trade with China. I do not think he meant the kind of
talk that was my purpose as I headed for New York to discuss my new
book, Egg on Mao, at a book fair on freedom of expression sponsored by
Human Rights in China.

In my book — two excerpts of which will be running in these pages
tomorrow and Saturday — I recount the life of Lu Decheng, a bus mechanic
in a river town far from Beijing. Frustrated with the busybodies and
officials who mercilessly hound him and his wife over an illegal
pregnancy, even after it comes to a tragic end, he has an epiphany about
how not to deal with a bully: The softer I’ve been, the harder they’ve
been hitting back. Indeed, for tyranny to prevail, it takes a tyrant and
a people who submit and appease — people who, worn down, conduct
themselves in constant fear of reprimand and reprisal.

In 1989 during the pro-democracy protests, this revelation led Lu and
his two friends to conceive of a defiant and, they hoped, inspiring
gesture: They stared down Mao’s iconic portrait and threw paint-filled
eggs at it.

Of course, were this China instead of the West, the protests and
crackdown of 1989 would be an untouchable subject in any public forum.
But, as I discovered on a book tour this fall in Canada, the long arm of
the Chinese regime reaches abroad, too. A business and marketing
professor friend showed my book to her Chinese exchange students. Alarm
leapt into their faces and some even physically retreated. In another
instance, a Chinese student displayed curiosity, but declared she
wouldn’t read the book. “My father is high up in the military,” she
explained. “He wouldn’t approve.” At another talk that I gave as part of
a series on global leadership, exchange students retained anonymity by
submitting questions on slips of paper. Eventually, one put her hand up.
“Are you proud to be Chinese?” she asked.

Implicit in the question is the notion that once Chinese (my family’s
origins in Canada go back more than one hundred years), always Chinese.
How incautious, therefore, to attack the myth of a great unity, of da yi
tong, of a monolithic Chinese nationalism. More pointedly, the
suggestion is that my addressing human rights issues is decidedly
un-Chinese.

The regime in China, in overt or subtle ways, gets across a message that
it can choose to sideline those in the West who raise issues that
“offend or embarrass the Chinese people.” China’s human rights record
tops the list of those issues. I’ve met Canadians doing or seeking
business with China who see my book for the first time and visibly
recoil. For example, someone in Toronto who makes several trips a year
to China to buy furniture asked me: “Is this a China-bashing book?” In
the censorious tone, I hear a fear of reprisal. This cowering person is
not Chinese and has no family in China to worry about. I mentioned this
in New York to Minky Worden, the media director for Human Rights Watch.
Her term for such behaviour? “Pre-emptive kowtowing.”

Upon the recent 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, public
commentary exalted the end of tyrannical regimes in Eastern Europe and
the Soviet Union. In contrast, most Westerners bought into authoritarian
China’s line — forget human rights in China and we’ll both prosper.

An exception was Canada’s Stephen Harper. Three years ago, he talked
tough and said he wouldn’t sell out on human rights in China to the
“almighty dollar.” Then he sent emissaries to assuage China’s hurt
feelings, and last week he could have backed off or sought cover behind
the complexities of foreign policy. He could have acted suitably
chastened after the Chinese premier’s very public rebuke at his
tardiness in coming to visit. Laudably, Harper did none of that. Later
in a speech in Shanghai, he asserted that economic progress and human
rights can go hand in hand, and that Canada will be vocal about raising
Canadian values of freedom and human rights with China.

A bully is goaded by weakness in potential victims, but respects
strength. Lu and his two friends, who received harsh sentences ranging
from life in prison to sixteen years, unnerved the regime because they
were loners who acted based on their moral conscience. Similarly, Harper
may be a loner in his stance on human rights in China, but it is better
that China respects us than that we diminish ourselves.

In the wake of Harper’s China visit, many have been asking, “Is it time
to rethink how we ‘engage’ China?” My answer: Maybe we need to take the
measure of ourselves by our own character. If human rights are indeed
universal, why couldn’t human rights be the driving force behind all
that we do — including pursuing trade and commerce with China?

National Post

Denise Chong’s new book is Egg on Mao: The Story Of An Ordinary Man Who
Defaced An Icon And Unmasked A Dictatorship. Excerpts will appear in
these pages tomorrow and Saturday.
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