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Denise Chong: Never bow before the bully

Date: Tuesday, 15-December-2009
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National Post: December 10, 2009,

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the air en route to Beijing lastweek, I waited out a connection in an airport lounge. Unaccustomed tosuch perks — my guest pass was to make up for having spent much of aflight trapped in the teensy washroom, but that’s another story — Iobserved among the business suits, a nearby executive urgently workinghis cell phone. Suddenly, he erupted with elation. Evidently, the personhe’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 Chinain a way that comes with a payoff. If not for this time, then the nextopportunity to trade with China. I do not think he meant the kind oftalk that was my purpose as I headed for New York to discuss my newbook, Egg on Mao, at a book fair on freedom of expression sponsored byHuman Rights in China.

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

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

Of course, were this China instead of the West, the protests andcrackdown 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 ofthe Chinese regime reaches abroad, too. A business and marketingprofessor friend showed my book to her Chinese exchange students. Alarmleapt into their faces and some even physically retreated. In anotherinstance, a Chinese student displayed curiosity, but declared shewouldn’t read the book. “My father is high up in the military,” sheexplained. “He wouldn’t approve.” At another talk that I gave as part ofa series on global leadership, exchange students retained anonymity bysubmitting 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’sorigins in Canada go back more than one hundred years), always Chinese.How incautious, therefore, to attack the myth of a great unity, of da yitong, of a monolithic Chinese nationalism. More pointedly, thesuggestion is that my addressing human rights issues is decidedlyun-Chinese.

The regime in China, in overt or subtle ways, gets across a message thatit can choose to sideline those in the West who raise issues that“offend or embarrass the Chinese people.” China’s human rights recordtops the list of those issues. I’ve met Canadians doing or seekingbusiness with China who see my book for the first time and visiblyrecoil. For example, someone in Toronto who makes several trips a yearto China to buy furniture asked me: “Is this a China-bashing book?” Inthe censorious tone, I hear a fear of reprisal. This cowering person isnot Chinese and has no family in China to worry about. I mentioned thisin 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, publiccommentary exalted the end of tyrannical regimes in Eastern Europe andthe Soviet Union. In contrast, most Westerners bought into authoritarianChina’s line — forget human rights in China and we’ll both prosper.

An exception was Canada’s Stephen Harper. Three years ago, he talkedtough and said he wouldn’t sell out on human rights in China to the“almighty dollar.” Then he sent emissaries to assuage China’s hurtfeelings, and last week he could have backed off or sought cover behindthe complexities of foreign policy. He could have acted suitablychastened after the Chinese premier’s very public rebuke at histardiness in coming to visit. Laudably, Harper did none of that. Laterin a speech in Shanghai, he asserted that economic progress and humanrights can go hand in hand, and that Canada will be vocal about raisingCanadian values of freedom and human rights with China.

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

In the wake of Harper’s China visit, many have been asking, “Is it timeto rethink how we ‘engage’ China?” My answer: Maybe we need to take themeasure of ourselves by our own character. If human rights are indeeduniversal, why couldn’t human rights be the driving force behind allthat 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 WhoDefaced An Icon And Unmasked A Dictatorship. Excerpts will appear inthese pages tomorrow and Saturday.

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