Lament 25 Years On
It has been 25 years since I left Ottawa to take up my current position at Brock University in St Catharines. I feel very grateful to Brock University for providing me with a stable platform for my work on China and relations between China and the West. Over these years most of my focus has been on matters pertaining to Ottawa and Beijing. At the same time I have tried to "pay back" Brock University in St. Catharines by being conscientious about teaching undergraduates and supervising graduate students and by participating in committee work in service to the Institution.
But reflecting over my life in these 3 places: St. Catharines, Ottawa and Beijing, I feel some degree of disappointment over how things have developed compared to my aspirations of a quarter century before.
With regard to Brock University in St Catharines: the decline in quality of education there is comparable to what has been happening at postsecondary institutions throughout the West, albeit things are arguably worse at Brock than most Canadian universities.
The bottom line is that my undergraduate class sizes have increased by a factor of 8 to 10. My students have little contact with me compared to the high degree of mentoring face-to-face that I was able to do with students in the early years of my career.
Part of it is is attributable the influence of technology. Students prefer to obtain information and interact with their professors via the internet. So they do not stop by my office or even pass through the doors of the University Library as they used to as a matter of course in the undergrad life of 25 years before.
Nowadays I frequently receive emails from students asking for letters of reference I would not recognise if I walked past them in the halls. They have no recourse but to approach me about this as so many of the courses are now taught by grossly underpaid contract instructors who cannot be found when it comes time to get letters of reference a couple of years later. The upshot is that I write a lot more letters of reference than I used to but have much less to say about the students I am ostensibly recommending.
The expansion of enrolment has naturally meant that many students now get in who would not have been considered intellectually qualified for tertiary education 25 years ago. It is disheartening to observe the average marks given out has not declined commensurately, but standards certainly have.
Over this period at Brock and most other universities in Ontario, there has been a massive increase in the proportion of non-teaching administrative personnel. These people largely have no sympathy with scholarship as an inherent good. They could just as well be working for a municipal government or in the human resources department of a business corporation. The professors are perceived by them as "service providers" and therefore we are subject to many humiliations by these people that would have been unthinkable in years past. Morale among the scholars in the Academy is much lower than it was 25 years ago as a consequence.
But to end on a positive note, thanks to the internet research has been enormously facilitated. 25 years ago I would frequently take carloads of graduate students to the Robarts Library in Toronto where we would furiously photocopy articles from scholarly journals for several hours before a late dinner in Chinatown and long drive home. Today with a few clicks of a mouse the materials I need to do my work perfectly reproduced on my computer screen. My scholarly productivity and the quality of my output has increased considerably as a consequence.
With regard to Ottawa's Approach to China: while the suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement was still the dominant factor in Canada China relations 25 years ago there was still a great deal of optimism that China was moving towards democratic governance and wholehearted integration into international regimes such as the UN and WTO. This would be of enormous importance to Canada in years ahead. It was therefore incumbent on the Government of Canada to significantly strengthen our capacity to engage China substantively and meaningfully.
On the positive side, compared to when I was sent to the Canadian Embassy on my first posting as "Post Sinologist" and Head of the Cultural and Scientific Affairs Section, there are now some diplomats posted to China who have been there earlier in their careers and so have developed some expertise in the ins and outs of Canada-China relations.
But we are still sending people to Beijing after a very expensive two years of language training in Ottawa. While in China they cannot fluently read a Chinese newspaper or understand the Chinese TV news much less read diplomatic correspondence or engage with Chinese officials without interpretation. This is in rather severe contrast to the level of linguistic expertise and cultural knowledge of the people that China sends to its Embassy in Ottawa.
Moreover the problem of Chinese regime influence over Canadian politicians, civil servants and others is largely unaddressed. But former foreign ministers, ambassadors and more junior diplomats seem to end up on lucrative boards of directors and have other involvements that are directly or indirectly funded by Chinese state sources on retirement. How this possibility may consciously or unconsciously affect their decisions on China files is an open question.
But we have signed agreements with China that seem to largely favour the Chinese side on foreign investment protection, allowing Chinese police to come to Canada to investigate allegedly corrupt Chinese exiles here without reciprocity and so on. But we make little progress on "political" consular cases important to us such as Burlington's Huseyin Celil or Kevin Garratt from Vancouver.
Another area of concern that has not been addressed is the weak legislation that has Canada has to prosecute persons who have transferred Canadian classified information and technologies (such as related to military weaponry) to agents of a foreign power. As a result the USA and other Western nations are sending people trafficking secrets to China away for long prison terms at rates of dozens a year. But Canada has failed to bring a single alleged perpetrator of this kind of serious criminal betrayal of Canada to justice as the RCMP has to date been able to satisfy the Canadian Department of Justice that it has enough evidence to make a viable case that can be successfully prosecuted under the current legislation.
Basically Canada is not as effective in our relations with China as we could be. We have not sent strong political appointments to Beijing as we have done to other nations important to Canada. Our commitment to engage better with China in future remains a low priority for Government.
With regard to Beijing's domestic politics: When China's policies of opening and reform were announced in 1978 I was a student living at Fudan University in Shanghai. There was great optimism for the future and enthusiasm to be a part of it among my Chinese dorm-mates in those years. There was confidence among my table mates in the University canteen that we would complete the work of the intellectuals of the May 4, 1919 movement and finally bring science and democracy and freedom to mainland China. I got very caught up in this myself.
The mid-80s movements against "bourgeois liberalisation" and Western "spiritual pollution" and against humanism did worry me that the reform and opening might fail.
But the 1989 Tiananmen movement despite its tragic suppression encouraged me that the Chinese people yearn for the entitlements of citizenship, human rights, freedom from patriarchal authoritarianism.
By the late 90s there were the beginnings of democratic elections with universal suffrage at the village level, increasing suggestions that China would legitimise civil society, China's signing of the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and and shortly thereafter China's successful accession to the WTO.
Unfortunately under Xi Jinping civil society is being ruthlessly suppressed, ethnic minorities subject to harsh assimilationist measure, activist lawyers imprisoned and the norms of liberal democracy explicitly denounced as inconsistent with the maintenance of the dominant authority of the Chinese Communist Party.
China's political future has become disquieting uncertain.
I wonder if all of my years and years of close collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Central Party School on policy issues have been for naught in the end.
I am really disappointed with the way things are going in China now. I am heading towards the age when people start retiring. I have been working on Chinese politics more or less full-time since I was a teenager. In many ways the current crop of leaders, so cynical as they are, cause me even more despair than all their predecessors.
God willing, I expect to be able to be professionally active for another 15 years or so. I do hope that by then I can look back with some satisfaction that the things that I hold dear in Canada and China will be in much better condition than I find them today.
That being said the happy and deeply meaningful memories of my family and many close friends in China at least will remain to be cherished.
Yes, I feel some disappointment over how things have gone these 25 years. But overall, I have few regrets.