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.