Monday, May 23, 2005

Taiwan Conundrum

In recent days, Lien Chan the current leader of the KMT, the Nationalist Party driven out of Mainland China by the Communists in 1949, and James Soong, the leader of Taiwan’s smaller opposition People First Party, have been making unprecedented official visits to the Mainland of China. In Mr. Lien’s case it is his first return to Mainland China since his family fled to Taiwan 56 years ago. This was followed by the Taiwan president, Chen Shuibian inviting his Chinese counterpart to visit the country and Beijing offering a gift of two pandas to Taiwan as a gesture of good will. But unfortunately all this is not indicative of progress toward reconciliation between the two sides.

The invitation to President Hu Jintao of China was accompanied by a statement from President Chen in which he said: "I hope Hu can come to see for himself whether Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country, and what our 23 million people have in mind." For its part the Chinese Government responded that there would be no official contact between them and the Taiwan authorities until the Taiwanese ruling party drops a clause in its constitution calling for formal independence. President Hu is unlikely to visit Taiwan any time soon.

Tensions over Taiwan have mounted since this past March when China’s National People’s Congress passed a law in giving its military the legal basis to invade Taiwan if it moves towards declaring formal independence. Soon after, the US and Japan completed a treaty pledging to mutually cooperate to defend the sovereignty of Taiwan if China seeks to re-take Taiwan by force.

While 50 years ago the conflict between the Mainland and Taiwan was based on a disagreement over whether China was better off ruled by a Communist Party regime based on Marxist ideology led by Mao Zedong, or better off ruled by the U.S.-backed KMT’s “Free China” under Chiang Kai-Shek. But today the China-Taiwan dynamic is not about competing political ideologies in the context of Cold War rivalry. It has changed to something even more serious --- a conflict of ethnic identities underlying competing national claims for the same island territory. The Mainland sees Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province. The Taiwan independentists claim to the contrary that Taiwan was never a part of China but only a protectorate of China for a brief period in the 19th century before Taiwan became a Japanese colony in 1895. It is this latter version of history that is taught in Taiwan’s schools today.

Taiwan's president has invited China to begin peace talks “under the principles of democracy, peace and parity.” But from the Mainland point of view parity is out of the question and that any talks should be focussed on the terms of Taiwan’s peaceful reversion to Chinese sovereignty. Unfortunately there is no common ground to be found between the two mutually incompatible Chinese and Taiwanese identities for people living in Taiwan. To smooth things along, China has offered to allow more favourable terms for Taiwan export of fruits and vegetables to the Mainland and to allow more Mainland tourists to visit Taiwan, but these measures are likely to be no more effective than Canada’s federal government’s attempts to appease Quebec sovereigntists by devolving authority over manpower training to the provinces. Disputes based on of ethnic identity typically end very badly as they unleash irrational and destructive passions: think Ireland, Yugoslavia, Rwanda.

From a realist perspective because Taiwan has only 1/60 of the population of the Mainland and because China is so important to the U.S. today and increasingly so, chances are if the Mainland decides to re-take Taiwan by force, the U.S. in the final analysis will not see it in U.S. interests to become involved. Let us hope so anyway as the wheels of change are already turning in East Asia and the mood in China is to reassert its authority in the region and certainly the first step is to bring Taiwan “back into the embrace of the Motherland.” China will also surely take measures to encourage the other neighbours, Japan and South Korea, to withdraw from the U.S. orbit of influence in East Asia. Probably the U.S. military garrisons in Japan and South Korea’s days are already numbered. But the question really is will the U.S. withdraw quietly or will China’s challenge to the U.S.’s role in East Asia lead to yet another terrible war in the region.

Victor Miroslav Fic

Czech exile, scholar of Asian political culture, eternal optimist, lover of cats. Born January 5th, 1922 in Damborice, Czech Republic. Died February 2, in St. Catharines, of stroke, aged 83.

As a university student in the late-1940s, Victor became active in the nationalist movement to resist the Soviet Union’s imposition of a puppet rĂ©gime in Czechoslovakia. He eventually met with President Edvard Benes to press his case but only after leading thousands of demonstrating students to follow him “To the castle!” This subsequently led to a show trial on charges of treason resulting in Victor being sentenced to 10 years of hard labour. In prison he developed a strong aversion to carrots and black coffee, the culinary staples. After 9 months of solitary confinement he made a dramatic escape while labouring in a coal mine. He fled to Canada via Germany. He completed his B.A. at the University of British Columbia in 1950, partially supported by working as a lumberjack. This was followed by an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. In New York he supported his studies by working as a longshoreman unloading bags of sugar from Cuba. His adventurous spirit led him to India where he studied Indology at the University of Bangalore, eventually obtaining a Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1964. While there, he married Rama Kapur, a scholar in her own right. Alexandra (as she later became known) for her part mastered Czech cuisine and later Chinese as well as her native Indian fare which allowed Victor to indulge his passion for fine dining and good wine over more than 40 years of happy family life.

In 1961 they settled in Burma where Victor taught political science at the University of Rangoon. In 1963, Victor took a job at Nanyang University in Singapore as well as lecturing in the Faculty of Law at the University of Singapore. He also served as Russian language tutor to Lee Hsien Loong, now Singapore’s Prime Minister. In 1994 Victor was honoured by a private dinner hosted by Lee Kwan Yew in recognition of Victor’s work in the early years of the Republic.

In 1971 Victor returned to Canada with Alexandra and their two young children, Jana and Victor, Jr. to teach at Brock University. He touched the lives of thousands of students in his legendary first-year Politics course with his enormous breadth of knowledge, combined with great generosity of spirit, dignity and humour and sartorial elegance. Victor was in his element behind a podium lecturing about the great movements of cultures and politics to a room of hundreds. He served as President of the Canadian Asian Studies Association from 1974-76 and reconnected with the community of Czech exiles in Canada. He wrote and published prodigiously right up to shortly before he died, completing 19 books and a long list of other publications in English and Czech on a wide range of scholarly topics.

Shortly after transformation of his homeland by Czechslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, Victor was asked to “come home.” He was offered a university rectorship to oversee a massive overhaul of the nation’s post-secondary education. But by this time Victor was already retired and preoccupied with his writing. Moreover he felt that as a returned exile who had been absent over the 40 years of Communist rule there, that he would always be perceived as an outsider. Seeing the formidable task of routing the old Marxist guard from their University sinecures as better suited to someone else, Victor declined the offer. In 1998 he was decorated with the T.G. Masaryk medal by President Havel in recognition of his scholarly writings on the Czech legions and his very active support of the Charter of 77 movement.

Victor lived an epic life stretching across the continents and the great civilizations. He unremittingly fought for justice and for understanding and reconciliation between peoples through his teaching and writing on Asian political culture. And he was ever cheerful in adversity. In the St. Catharines General Hospital during his illness, Victor’s dinner tray again featured the carrots he had come to revile in prison 55 years before. The irony of it brought him a final chuckle.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Jiang Chunrui's Obituary

JIANG Chunrui

Domestic servant for the Government of Canada born in 1947 in Linyi County, Shandong China died June 3, 2002, in Beijing of lymphatic cancer aged 55.

Jiang Chunrui grew up in one of China’s most impoverished areas in the shadow of the Yimeng Mountains in central Shandong. Even today most of the inhabitants of his ancestral village live in simple homes made of adobe mud and straw with thatched roofs. The interiors are dark and dank. To keep warm in winter, families sleep huddled together on a raised platform built into walls of the house (called a kang) which is heated by the chimney of the straw burning kitchen stove that snakes underneath it. The only furniture in these homes is a table and some low 3-legged stools. To obtain water, the villagers must walk half a mile to the nearest well and carry the water home on shoulder poles. In China’s great famine of the early-1960s, the young Jiang watched, constantly wracked by hunger, as 20% of his family and neighbours died a slow and bitter death by starvation.

In his late teens, he had the good fortune to be recruited into the People’s Liberation Army. After his tour of military service he was assigned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Service Bureau, which provides staff for foreign diplomatic missions to China. He rose through the ranks as a domestic servant eventually achieving the post of butler at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in 1988. He worked at the residence of Canada’s Ambassador to China answering the door, serving pre-dinner drinks, the meals, and post-dinner coffees and liqueurs to high-ranking Ministers of the Governments of Canada and of China who were entertained by our Ambassador to the People’s Republic. He poured wine into the crystal goblets of Prime Ministers, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Ministers and any number of distinguished Canadians who would be invited to dine with the Ambassador while passing through Beijing. After supervising the cleaning up (blotting the inevitable spilled drinks out of the Ambassadorial carpet, etc., etc.) Jiang would bicycle alone to his Chinese Foreign Ministry dormitory room long after the dignitaries were tucked into their 5-star beds. He had married a much younger woman from a neighbouring village in his early-30s but saw his wife and 3 daughters only a couple of times a year as they were not permitted by the Chinese authorities to move to Beijing. His family resented his long absences and this caused him considerable emotional hardship. Some of his Ambassadors would deny Jiang’s applications for home leave on the grounds of “operational considerations.” His family never knew when he would be coming home next or for how long --- often it was just a couple of days by the time travel was factored into it.

I got to know Jiang when I worked as a junior functionary in the Embassy over 2 diplomatic postings in the 1990s. One of Jiang’s tasks was to bring coffee to the Ambassador’s office to serve to visitors in the day. He would regularly call me out of my office for a cup of left over Ambassadorial coffee in the Embassy kitchen on the sly. As a political officer I would quiz him on conditions in the rural areas and he told me of break down in law and order, dropping agricultural commodity prices (China’s entry into the WTO contributing to this), rapacious local officials extracting arbitrary fees from already hard pressed peasants and the hardship brought about by the frequent droughts in recent years due to the plummeting water table in the North China Plain which has led to Shandong’s rivers drying up very early in the planting season. But he had questions for me too. He was a devoted listener of the Radio Canada International Chinese service and was therefore well versed in Canadian politics. He found Canada’s ongoing constitutional crises puzzling, “according the UN, you have the greatest country in the world, why do you expend so much of your national energy on such trivial matters?” He urged me to vote against the Charlottetown Accord in the ’92 referendum. He was also deeply concerned that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would lead to non-elected judges having too much say in important matters relating to Canada’s political direction. But, as a servant whose virtue was to appear as unobtrusive as possible, he simply offered the cocktail nuts and a fill up of their glass to the likes of Joe Clark, Stephane Dion and Beverley McLachlin in servile broken English and kept his ideas to himself.

His cancer had already spread by the time it was diagnosed in the spring of last year. He suffered badly from the chemotherapy and blamed the pain of it on the American techniques of his doctor recently returned from advanced studies in Oncology at Harvard. He would have preferred a Chinese trained specialist. His voice weak over the long distance telephone, he asked me to come to see him in Beijing one more time before he died, I suspect to discuss provisions for his wife and remaining unmarried daughter who have been left destitute by his death, but I arrived in China 3 days too late. No diplomat from the Embassy attended his funeral. His coffin was a cardboard box.

Jiang Chunrui was in many ways nobler and more dignified than many of those he served. His parting gift to me was an exquisite set of tiny Chinese calligraphy brushes of rare quality that must have cost him several weeks’ wages.

He was my closest friend and I was his closest friend.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Comments to a Friend on China-Vatican Relations

I did an interview with the Chinese service of RCI on China-Vatican relations the other day, so I have had the matter in my mind. The key to the issue is who controls the naming of bishops. There could be accommodation there, but it is a lot to ask of the Vatican to make concessions on this in a formalized way. But the Catholic Patriotic Association is something of an embarrassment for the CCP as they only control a minority of Chinese Catholics and even some local governments ignore them and allow Rome-loyal churches to function openly in their area. When I toured China with a church delegation including a Canadian Catholic bishop in 2000, I observed a mass presided over by an "illegal" Chinese bishop (with 18 years of prison behind him over 3 arrests) in Henan who was a member of the local zhengxie (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference). So it could be good from all points of view to get the CPA and Vatican collaborating. When I accompanied Bishop Fu Tieshan and other Chinese religious leaders in Canada two years ago, the Catholic Church here would not allow him to attend mass as he is not considered in communion with them.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

My Comments to Geoff York on Wheat Sales and Canada's China Policy

China has been a major donor country of grain to the DPRK for some years now and has donated grain as disaster relief to other nations periodically over the years. China used to be a very important market for Canadian grain and wheat sales accounted for the lion's share of the value of our exports to China. When Alvin Hamilton, the Minister of Agriculture under Prime Minister Diefenbaker, decided to broach the US embargo on trade with Mainland China, the nation was in the throes of the Great Leap Forward famine. We know that something in the order of 30 million people died in that famine due to the effects of malnutrition. Undoubtedly without the Canadian wheat even more Chinese people would have died a miserable death by starvation. The strong support of Canadian farmers at a time of crisis and need was very much appreciated by the Government of China under Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai. This gave Canada considerable advantage in competing for Chinese wheat purchases in the years afterward.

"Friendship" was a substantial factor in import decisions in those years. But today hard-headed economic calculations take the upper hand. Moreover China has improved the productivity of grain production through wider use of chemical fertilizers and improved seed strains. Also consumption of grain per capita has gone down in China as with increased prosperity people are eating much more meat and fish than they used to and moore rice in preference to mantou steamed bread. So wheat is no longer the main product of Canadian exports to China. The grain rationing system in Beijing used to be partly in rice, partly in rice and partly in zaliang (mixed grains mostly corn). People generally most preferred the rice, then the wheat, and then the zaliang (which was made into a very hard steamed bun called wotou) was definitely last choice. Wotou are very little eaten now except as a trendy curiosity, although I daresay they must have been quite nutritious albeit hard to digest.

Another relevant aspect of our grain trade to China is that the quantity of imports from Canada was not actually reflective of Chinese grain production shortfalls. It was more a response to bottlenecks in China's domestic transportation infrastructure. China would ship Canadian grain to the eastern coastal ports, particularly Tianjin and Shanghai,for use in the those cities and Beijing. Chinese rice would in return be shipped for export south to Southeast Asia (and in addition a modest profit would accrue as rice is higher price per pound than wheat).

The continuing need by China for developmental assistance is a factor of lack of political will and Government capacity to redistribute China's wealth to assist the poor. The Communist Party has repudiated Marxist ideology in favour a politics of national self-strengthening through economic growth. A by-product of this political change has been that socialist ideals of social and economic justice have also been discredited. Lip service is paid to the idea of a Government mandate to relieve poverty and encourage development in Western China, but the reality is that the Chinese Government only seeks to maintain political stability in the disadvantaged regions. Its priority is to engender a favourable environment for coastal based urban business to create great wealth. And so the gap between rich and poor in China continues to widen at an alarming rate. The result is that international development agencies still feel bound to respond to the significant needs of a very large proportion of the Chinese population who continue to live under conditions of great hardship and poverty.

Presently CIDA continues to engage in a broad range of programming in China. In my view our developmental aid program as well as our other programming in China --- immigration, trade and political relations is lagging badly behind changing reality in China. Canada urgently needs to engage in a major overhaul of our entire approach to China. We have been losing market share in this very important market over the past years. This should be cause for considerable alarm in Ottawa and with the shortest possible delay serious investigations and meaningful action taken to turn this trend around again.

As time goes by Canada is more and more missing opportunities in China that are potentially very important to us. As a Canadian I am very concerned because I see our current moribund China policy as a serious failure on the part of our Government that impacts on Canada's national interest, our future prosperity and place in the world.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Memories of Godfrey Hewitt at Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa

I was a member of the choir from 1963 to 1972. Mr. Hewitt was an important formative influence on me and the other boys in our generation.

The music he created became very important in our young lives. It was a great experience for me to sing with the great soloists of that period --- Bill Bowen and Garth Hampson. There is some record of how the choir sounded over the period as the choir made two gramophone records (the second partly recorded in the foyer of the Supreme Court of Canada). Mr. Hewitt also always recorded our annual performance at the Government House Christmas party and many other performances. I hope the tapes are preserved somewhere.

We also did some modest touring around Ontario to churches in Hamilton, Arnprior and Kingston.

A highlight of my time in the choir was the series of performances of Benjamin Britten's "Noyes Fludde" on a stage built in the Cathedral chancery and produced by Nicholas Goldschmidt in 1967.

I also remember well the Sunday morning in that Centennial Year when the Queen and Prince Philip came to the service and the power failed wreaking havoc with Mr. Hewitt's special musical arrangements in honour of the Royal presence. Godfrey took this unexpected development in his stride, of course.

In those years we had a strong rivalry with the choir of St. Matthew's then led by Brian Law. We used to take it out in our annual football match against them led as usual by Mr. Hewitt from the sidelines.

Aside from the wonderful musical and moral education that Mr. Hewitt offered us, there was a great spirit of friendship and fun among the boys and the men. Godfrey Hewitt set the tone for the wonderful institution that the choir was in the '60s and '70s. He engendered in all of us enormous affection and respect.

I entered university the year after I left the choir and studied in Toronto, Cambridge, Shanghai and Princeton. I have been a professor of political science at Brock University since 1989 with two periods of leave of the University from '91-93 and '98-2000 when I served as a diplomat at our Embassy to China.