Two Innocents in Red China

Pierre Trudeau and Jacques Hebert; Douglas and McIntyre, 2007 (first published in 1961)


Canada recognized China 2 years before Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. For years China had been issuing invitations to Westerners to come and see China. Most Western nations still regarded Formosa/Taiwan and the Kuomintang Nationalists as the legitimate government of China. This trip in 1960, was not Trudeau’s first time in China. He had been there in 1949 just before Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were pushed out of Shanghai.


Alexander Trudeau, Pierre’s eldest son, writes a lengthy introduction to the re-published book, describing it as a work of ‘innocence’ in the sense of staying open to something in order to learn more about it. What Trudeau and Hebert describe in 1960 is different from today’s China. Like Ming China or Han China before it, Red China of the 1960’s is part of the new China. This book first appeared in that time period just after the anti-Communist hysteria of Joseph McCarthy in the US.  Canadians, too, were affected by this thinking. One example is the disappearance of the National Film Board’s film of the Canadian surgeon, Norman Bethune. Americans objected to Bethune being celebrated as a hero, as he was and still is in China. Only remnants of the film exist now and can be viewed on the CBC digital archives


Written in slightly ‘tongue-in-cheek’ style, Trudeau and Hebert go first to Beijing, travelling with documents from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. They have a personal guide assigned to them and visit what are now the usual sites such as the Forbidden City and Tiennanmen Square, but they also get to visit more exclusive sites like a prison, because of their privileged diplomatic documentation from the Secretary of State! Tours of communes and factories follow with Trudeau and Hebert’s descriptions and commentary on all things.  The authors ask questions of their hosts wherever they go and it is these passages that are the most interesting to the latter-day readers of this book, having now so much more knowledge of how the ‘story’ is turning out. This is the time of the Great Leap Forward and the Hundred Flowers campaign. The Cultural Revolution has not yet taken place; neither has the Reform and Opening that characterizes the present period.


In a truck factory the authors keep count of the number of trucks per hour being produced. “The director was not exaggerating when he told us that the factory produced fifteen to twenty an hour.” They muse about how the supply of automobiles to China from other states is denied to the Canadian auto industry. “Could it be that some American companies are doing indirectly what they forbid their Canadian subsidiaries to do?”


When the authors see piles of engine parts not being integrated into the production line they ask about bottlenecks but get a disingenuous answer about ‘over production’. They conclude that they must “take with reservation any information whose accuracy we cannot verify”. When visiting a hospital they learn that even doctors do one day per week in political classes. Students do eight weeks a year manual labour. The authors describe ‘Work’ as a kind of ideal state. Through work the Chinese recover their dignity and pride.


The second part of the tour takes them south by train, first to Shanghai. They cross the ‘Blue River’ (Yangtze R.) at Nanjing and arrive in Shanghai after 26 hours of train travel. They stay at the famous Peace Hotel (on the Bund, but apparently not called that at the time). The fantastic architecture of Pudong does not yet exist and the ‘skyscrapers’ they comment on are from the turn of the century (that is 1900). The population of Shanghai is 10 million (now 23 million), and all of China is 650 million (now 1.3 billion).


Next, the tour goes to Hangzhou by train. They visit West Lake and Tiger Spring and drink “the best tea in China” (Dragon Well or Longjing cha) and visit a silk factory. Finally they go to Canton before returning north to Beijing. Trudeau had wanted to visit the “Isle of Sha-mun, the erstwhile strictly exclusive retreat of the consular corps and of wealthy foreigners”. Could this be Xiamen? The trip back to Beijing takes 2 days and 2 nights by train.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *