The demonization of China – as shown by refusal to accept Confucius Institutes – is a toxic flaw that runs deep in Canadian history and culture.
As Premier Kathleen Wynne returns from China and as Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Beijing for the APEC summit, the partnership and goodwill between China and Canada that brought Confucius Institutes to Toronto schoolchildren lies in ruins.
The reason is simple: China, and Chinese people, have long been demonized in the Canadian imagination. Only recently Torontonians were appalled by a Toronto Sun cartoon of Olivia Chow with exaggerated Chinese features in a Mao suit. The subtext was clear: Chinese people look different from “real” Canadians, and their politics are not to be trusted.
It is time to end this racist demonization once and for all.
China and Chinese people are part of the fabric of the world, and part of the fabric of our own city.
Of course, no country is perfect. America launched the second Gulf War on a false pretext, and brought about 100,000 or more civilian deaths. But Canadians view America as a flawed big brother whose power we must respect and whose flaws we must, from time to time, accept. It would be absurd to imagine that we should boycott the American Fulbright scholarship program as a result of America’s foreign policy.
China, too, has its flaws and its differences. It thinks about religion in a very different way from Canada, because it has for two millennia been a multi-religious country and has struggled to contain and manage the powerful religious forces that have toppled dynasties and caused widespread social unrest.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the ending of the Taiping rebellion, a religious movement led by a charismatic prophet who declared himself the younger brother of Jesus and set about establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Taiping rebellion was eventually put down with French and British help, and a death toll estimated at 20 to 30 million. Imagine, within the space of a generation, the population of Canada wiped out by war resulting from a quasi-Christian ideology.
This is by no way to excuse or condone China’s current policies. It is to say that China’s decisions, just like America’s, emerge from a particular history and a particular perspective. They deserve understanding and challenging. But they do not deserve demonization.
By demonization I mean the belief that a way of thinking or acting is so beyond the pale that we cannot touch it. China’s Confucius Institutes have become so demonized that North American partner institutions feel they must dissociate themselves from them lest they somehow contaminate the minds of our young people with Chinese ideas.
Often the touchstone issue is China’s treatment of religion.
The Chinese state’s policies towards religion are difficult for Canadians to understand and accept. Our religious institutions are largely docile, declining in authority and generally encourage people to respect Canadian values. Our civic institutions and our state education system follow the studied agnosticism of tolerance and multiculturalism.
But in China religion is a growing, powerful and dynamic force that is frequently at odds with the values and norms of the state. More Christians go to church in China than in the whole of Europe. Nowadays there are more Christians in China than members of the Communist Party. Religion is problematic social issue that intersects with issues of culture, politics and identity in ways that are hard for us to fathom in Canada.
China’s Confucius Institutes provide money and personnel to enable people across the world to learn Chinese and to learn about the Chinese world. Their astonishing success proves that Canadians have an immense hunger to learn about China.
But the demonization of China is a shameful, toxic flaw that runs deep in Canadian history and culture. It prevents rational discussion about Chinese culture, religion and politics. It prevents sensible engagement with the Confucius Institute program. It shamefully hinders the engagement of Chinese Canadians in our civic life, for who would dare subject themselves to the same treatment that Olivia Chow received?
In the end the only victims will be our children who will simply learn to repeat the same flaws and failures of their parents.
James Miller is a Professor of Chinese Religions at Queen’s University in Kingston. @james_miller
Published in The Star Online, November 5, 2014.