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March 15, 2001 Singer responds to the Gazette for implied criticism of China trip




Concordia administrators in China last month.

Seen in China last month as part of the Team Canada mission, left to right,
Vice-Rector Institutional Relations and Secretary-General Marcel Danis, Dean Martin Singer, André Desmarais (BComm 78), of Power Corporation, Rector Frederick Lowy, and Peter Kruyt (BComm 78), of Power Broadcasting and a Concordia governor.

Dean of Arts and Science Martin Singer wrote the following essay to the Gazette in answer to an article published February 16 and titled “Concordia seals deals with China.”

I was asked to participate in the February 8-17 Team Canada delegation to China both because of my position as Dean of Concordia’s largest Faculty and because of my 35 years of experience as a Sinologist, which has led to the publication of two books on China-Canada academic relations.

Let me begin by saying that I think that the visit was a success. Canada is a relatively small player in China compared to such financial powerhouses as the United States and Japan. The presence of the prime minister and nine provincial premiers gave Canada higher visibility in China. It also gives a competitive edge to Canadians doing business in China, with beneficial results for the Canadian economy and for Canadian employment.

Philosophical and social differences

On the issue of human rights in China, there are three points to make.

First, China’s long history and rich culture (as well as that of many other Asian countries) have emphasized the rights of the group and the responsibilities of the individual to the group. This is very different from the Western emphasis on the rights of the individual and the protection of those rights from violation by the group. In assessing China’s human rights record by a Western standard, one cannot ignore the weight of this philosophical and social difference.

Second, China is a proud country whose people suffered more than 100 years as victims of Western imperialist powers that claimed to be more civilized than China, but nevertheless treated the Chinese people with contempt. To this day, China finds it difficult to accept Western lectures on moral issues (including human rights) as more than self-serving hypocrisy, particularly given the domestic human rights records of those countries.

Third, China has made remarkable progress in improving the living conditions and extending the freedom of its people. I say this from the perspective of someone who has been visiting China for more than 25 years and is in frequent contact with Chinese academics. One should take this remarkable progress into account when looking at China’s human rights profile.

In the above context, China is not likely to respond positively to public lectures from Canada on human rights in China, any more than Canada would respond positively to international criticism of human rights problems in Canada. Private conversations are more likely to prove effective in such matters.

Universities play leading role

Canadian universities and colleges have played a leading role in the development of Canada’s relations with China over the past 30 years. During the 1970s and early 1980s, academic and cultural contacts were the principal means of contact between the two countries. These early contacts operated at the level of people-to-people and institution-to-institution and were remarkably successful, at least in part because they avoided politics and political rhetoric.

The Chinese academics who returned to China after a period of study in Canada became our best ambassadors. Similarly, Canadian academics with experience in China gave us much greater insight into China than we had gained during the period of the so-called Cultural Revolution, when China isolated itself from outside contact. When China began opening up to Western business, it was the Canadian experience in academic exchanges with China that produced the expertise and the contacts that have been at the foundation of the Canada/China relationship over the past 15 years.

Academic co-operation vital

The extraordinary level of Canadian university participation in this Team Canada mission suggests that academic co-operation is still a vital part of the Canada/China relationship. This is certainly reflected in the decision of Prime Minister Chrétien and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to meet with Canadian and Chinese university presidents and vice-presidents in Beijing on the eve of the Team Canada visit. The concerns raised at this meeting (in which I participated) focused on important academic issues and left political discussion to the government officials.

Finally, I take issue with describing an agreement of co-operation between a Canadian and a Chinese university as a “deal,” which implies a motive of profit that is inappropriate. Canadians should be proud of our country’s contribution to China’s modernization and of our efforts to build on past accomplishments through mechanisms such as Team Canada visits. The results, particularly for universities, are likely to be of long-range mutual benefit.

Martin Singer,
Dean, Faculty of Arts and Science