The People’s Republic of China has an image problem. Skim the world’s headlines for the last few years, and you may well be overwhelmed with reports of the regime’s aggressive diplomacy, its interference in the domestic affairs of other nations, its use of arbitrary detention to achieve political goals, or its abuse of human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. The litany of its alleged offences is long.
All this bad news has had a major impact on how the country is perceived abroad. According to surveys released by the Pew Research Center last summer, 79 percent of Canadians hold unfavourable views of China — a ratio that has been growing for six straight years from a relative low of 40 percent in 2017. Worse, distrust of the leadership extends to the very top: the same percentage of Canadians have little to no confidence in the ability of Xi Jinping, China’s president since 2012, “to do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Such views are widely shared across the Western world, and several factors help explain the high levels of doubt. The authoritarian policies of the Chinese Communist Party bear much of the blame, but ignorance and even naïveté within the broader population also play a role. That is a problem: unless we improve our understanding of party and country, we will struggle to engage with either effectively, thereby hampering our ability to meet one of the most important foreign policy challenges of our time.
Two books by Quebec authors aim to fill this knowledge gap. The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University is by Daniel Bell, a long-time resident of China and now professor of political theory at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law. Bell worries that China is being unduly “demonized” and that too much Western policy making “is based on crude stereotypes.” He is also upfront about his agenda: to provide a more balanced view of the country and its government. That is a tall order, which Bell does not quite meet, although, as we will see, he achieves something of value nonetheless.
Les angoisses de ma prof de chinois: Où s’en va la Chine? (The anxieties of my Chinese teacher: Where is China going?) is by Jean-François Lépine, a former journalist who spent more than forty years with Radio-Canada and the CBC. A household name in Quebec, Lépine was the public broadcaster’s Beijing bureau chief between 1982 and 1986 — and the first anywhere to report for the two networks in both official languages. For the next three decades, he frequently returned to China as a journalist. In 2016, he was picked by Premier Philippe Couillard to head the Représentations du Québec en Chine, the province’s diplomatic offices, a job he held until late 2021.
Lépine’s book is the more comprehensive of these two titles. He skillfully covers the country’s recent history, from its first tentative steps on the path of market reforms in the late 1970s through the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and on to COVID 19. The narrative is loosely organized around the author’s conversations with his language teacher, a curious and savvy woman from Shanghai with whom he discusses racism, liberty, Chinese traditions, and many other topics. The absence of an index and the spare and seemingly haphazard use of footnotes will frustrate some, but those looking for a critical primer on post-Mao China will be amply rewarded.
One of his central themes is change. When Lépine landed at Beijing’s dilapidated, half-empty international airport in the fall of 1982, China was one of the world’s poorest countries. The drab capital’s population was 5.5 million, a quarter of its current size. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) was still fresh in everybody’s mind. Social controls remained tight. Lépine’s fixer was a spy in all but name, and the state did everything in its power to limit impromptu contacts with locals. The enterprising journalist nevertheless quickly made friends, but they were unable to visit his flat unless they secured permission from the police. In this vast country, only nine cities were open to foreigners.
Things were changing fast, however. By the time Lépine left in 1986, he could roam across China at will. Markets were booming and offering an increasingly wide range of produce, not just the dull potatoes, cabbage, and carrots of old. Customs such as the celebration of Lunar New Year, which had been banned during the Cultural Revolution, were allowed once again, adding colour to social life. Perhaps most significant, there was genuine hope about the future.
That mood was contagious. “For a long time,” Lépine writes, “I believed, like many China observers, that the development of the economy along market principles, globalization, and the expansion of communications would inexorably lead the Chinese to share our values of democracy and freedom.” Wherever Lépine went, he was impressed by the industriousness of the masses and their zest for life. He developed an abiding passion for them, which remains undimmed to this day.
His belief in the government’s ability to serve its people, however, is not what it once was. Lépine writes that under Xi, China is not the welcoming country he discovered in the early 1980s but rather a “feared nation with an aggressive foreign policy that has few real friends outside of North Korea and Russia.” Gone are the days of Deng Xiaoping, the man who, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, ushered his nation onto the transformative path of economic reform and openness. China is turning inward once more.
Why? Lépine puts the blame squarely on the paranoia of the regime and its obsession with control. Although he seems pessimistic that much will improve as long as Xi remains in power, he rightly draws a sharp distinction between the CCP and the Chinese people and warns that in these difficult times, it would be an enormous mistake to turn our back on the latter. “We need each other,” he argues, and we must find ways to stay connected.
That is easier said than done. Lépine writes admiringly of “visionary” entrepreneurs such as Power Corporation’s Paul Desmarais and Bombardier’s Laurent Beaudoin, who pioneered the development of business relations with China, in the early 1980s and mid-1990s respectively, and who reaped handsome rewards in the process. Crucially, they did not achieve their goals alone: they joined hands with curious, resourceful, and inventive Chinese people, some of whom had studied in Canada and forged deep relationships that endure to this day. To bridge the current skepticism, Lépine suggests, we need to revive this collaborative spirit.
That approach is conceptually sound, but whether it can succeed nowadays is open to question. Beaudoin and Desmarais operated in a very different context: a time when China was genuinely interested to learn from the rest of the world; when René Lévesque, a mere provincial premier, could meet for a full hour on his 1984 visit with Zhao Ziyang, who was the Chinese premier for seven years; and when Michel Gauvin, Canada’s ambassador in Beijing between 1980 and 1984, was regularly invited to play bridge with Deng Xiaoping. Today, such access is unthinkable.
While Lépine approaches China with the critical flair of a seasoned reporter, Bell does so from the perspective of a consummate insider. The Montreal native spent more than a decade teaching at some of China’s most prestigious universities before being appointed the dean of Shandong University’s political science faculty in 2017 — the first foreigner to occupy such a position in the country.
Bell is a polemical figure. Trained at the University of Oxford and a scholar of Chinese classical thought, he is best known for his efforts at mining China’s rich intellectual traditions, particularly its Confucian heritage, to identify solutions to contemporary problems. This work has led him to argue, controversially, that the CCP is a meritocracy, albeit an imperfect one. It has also opened him to accusations that he is a China apologist. Whatever the merits of that reproach, Bell does not eschew criticism of China’s rulers in The Dean of Shandong, though he limits his censure to the regime’s impact on academia. The tone is engaging, even humorous at times; the author pokes fun at his frailty, vanity, bureaucratic mishaps, and belated recognition that he lacks the stamina to run a university faculty. Most importantly, he opens a perceptive window on aspects of China’s bureaucracy that few in the West have witnessed first-hand.
Take censorship. Bell recounts how, soon after he began teaching in Beijing in 2004, his proposal to lead a class on Marxism was turned down. The problem was not that the topic was controversial but rather that his “interpretation might differ from official ideology.” In another case, Bell explains how a publisher chopped off the index of a volume on “a recent Chinese leader by a famous American academic” before it appeared in Chinese bookstores. The justification? Censors “want to make it harder for people to find what has been said about whom.” Bell believes that “things have gotten worse the past few years.” To his dismay, and to that of his colleagues, more and more topics are off limits.
Bell shares surprisingly little about the intellectual straitjacket that has been imposed on academics. Under Xi’s rule, party ideology has gained an importance not seen in decades. How did that manifest itself when Bell was dean? It would be fascinating to know, but he does not explore this topic in any depth. The mechanics of the bureaucracy that he does describe, however, would be recognizable to most Westerners with experience in large public institutions. Consultations are frequent and extensive, while promotions are generally based on merit and rely on criteria such as the number of publications in professional journals. Political considerations can also play a role. Being a CCP member, for instance, is not a condition for promotion, but “there is an assumption that such candidates are smart and tend to be good at cooperating with other people.” In the early 1980s, few bothered to pursue membership, but today, “top students compete ferociously to join the party, and applicants for academic jobs who are party members proudly mention their affiliation on their résumés.”
Bell participated in his institution’s well-oiled system of “collective leadership,” in which officials debate issues freely and openly before deciding by consensus on the way forward. In theory, the CCP is committed to a similar model, but Bell questions whether senior leadership adheres to it. Do the other six members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s highest decision-making body, “present alternative possibilities and criticize the views of President Xi when they deliberate about policy proposals?” Bell admits he has no way of knowing, but if the results of the Pew survey are anything to go by, whoever calls the shots could do with some extra advice.
Martin Laflamme is a Canadian diplomat, currently posted to Taiwan. The views presented in the magazine are his own.