A Barbarian Abroad: Alexandre Trudeau and the call of China

Filmmaker and author Alexandre Trudeau on his family’s fascination with China, the state of Chinese-Canadian relations under his brother’s government, and why, when it comes to human rights, his hardest demands are reserved for his own country.

By: /
September 23, 2016
Shanghai's landmark building The Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai, China, November 14, 2015. REUTERS/Aly Song

For Alexandre Trudeau, a deep interest in China was almost preordained.

“Parents teach their children and grandchildren to remember,” he writes in his new book, Barbarian Lost – Travels in the New China, describing a tenet of Confucianism. “With both past and future resting heavy on their shoulders, something grand is being passed on through the ages.”

From his father, former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau – who opened up diplomatic relations with China in 1970 – Trudeau inherited a lifelong interested in China and its people. A 1973 visit to Beijing while in his mother’s womb notwithstanding, Trudeau made his first journey to China in 1990, accompanied by his father and older brother, Justin.

Fifteen years later, in Shanghai for the Chinese release of his father’s book, Two Innocents in Red China, Trudeau was gripped anew by a fascination with the country. “I resolved to devote myself to understanding China,” he writes in Barbarian Lost, keen for a change from reporting from war zones in the Middle East.

Accompanied by a young Chinese journalist, over almost a dozen trips, Trudeau travelled to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and many places in between, speaking with people from all walks of life: migrant workers, constitutional lawyers, business people, artists, farmers.

The result is a love letter to a place the author is resigned to never fully understanding. “I could’ve kept going – I’m still a barbarian, still only a novice – but at one point I decided okay, I have to finish this book,” Trudeau told OpenCanada in a sit-down interview earlier this week, ahead of the book’s launch.

Alexandre Trudeau. Credit: HarperCollins.

Let’s start with your first trip to China in 1990 – what were your impressions?

I can’t say that on that visit it was a country I fell in love with. The kind of trip that we did there is something that I did a lot of as a child, which had the ‘state visit’ feeling, which means you’re still very far from the reality. There’s nothing intimate about it. I was 16, I wasn’t super aware of stuff, I thought it was kind of stodgy, and what I would have liked to have seen, we weren’t experiencing then – digging in, rough travels [etc].

What interested me was my father’s disposition. He had a kind of framework for dealing with China which was not his usual framework. He was there in ’49 – China was mass chaos, I think he didn’t know what to make of it, where it was going – and then again in ’60, so he behaved in a very modest, humble way in China which I found interesting. I mean, he was a very respectful and diplomatic guy, but in China I felt there was a deeper connection, that this country maybe troubled him in some ways, challenged him in ways that other places didn’t. 

But my own feelings were, you know, why can’t we get off this bandwagon and go run around? Where are the students that I watched on TV [in Tiananmen] the year before who seemed so brave? They felt like China’s future. In the years that followed, as I grew older and wiser to the world, I didn’t have too many answers from my own experiences there, what China is all about, which made it that much more pressing when 15 years later I renewed contact with it. 

Where does the title of your book come from?

That was a lesson of my father’s. In that stodgy trip that I was describing, when you’re 16 and you’re forced to sit at a long, diplomatic-speak banquet, steam starts building inside of you, you just want to run, you want to get outdoors. Justin and I, when we got to Taishan, which is a sacred mountain just south of Beijing, we were just happy to exert ourselves…I think my father was a little annoyed that we sort of left him behind, and we didn’t take a moment to ponder the Taoist notions of the mountain. We were running in such a foolish manner that we really injured ourselves, and hobbled [around] for the next few days. He pulled us aside and said, you’re behaving like animals, for the Chinese to watch these stupid kids injure themselves, when they’ve perceived us as barbarians in the past – don’t give them reason to.

Typical fatherly words of wisdom...

Grow up! That’s what it means. 

You first returned to China in 2005, and the bulk of the book takes place from 2006-2008 – why the delay in publishing?

Failure on my part to get it done. I wasn’t a writer – that’s like asking me, why did it take so long to lose your virginity? It’s not because I wasn’t trying hard enough, you know, it was just I didn’t quite know what I was doing. You really think that you’re doing something really big, so it’s kind of intimidating. I could write a chapter maybe, and then get stir crazy, and then I’d launch another film project, and you know, make some money and then go back to it. By 2008 or 2009 I was stumped on the chapter where we spent time on a boat in the Yangtze and I was just depressed, held up in my cabin, and I was like, how can I make that relevant?

That must have added to the challenge – telling a story about a foreign country but also about yourself.

It’s the challenge and the fun.

What are some of the successes China has seen in recent years?

"The whole of China is the greatest human success story ever, in my view, in terms of wealth creation."

The whole of China is the greatest human success story ever, in my view, in terms of wealth creation. No country has moved so fast…considering the problems China has, land scarcity, food insufficiencies, water problems, no oil. They’ve done in 30 years what took the West 200 years, in terms of material freedoms…[though] not harmoniously, I was at [the University of Toronto] with some academics, they were saying now the official figure of people who died of hunger in the Great Leap Forward is between 40 and 50 million people.

The success stories – I mean you have to accept a liberal basic that material freedoms, consumer freedoms and facilitated trade is a great success, and it is in China, it just is. Not to say that China doesn’t have a long way to go still, and one would hope it evolves further. The creation of the middle class is the real success story – at least the material middle class is there, the political side is not there.

The majority of the people in the book are of that – I describe it as people who have choices. People who are wealthy don’t have choices anymore because there are no limiting factors, but the middle class have to make choices. The poor have no choices – what to do, where to live, whom to marry.

Despite choices for some, China remains a country where access to information is greatly curtailed…

Freedom of information is not a facet in China and never has been. It’s a powerful, dynastic power. That being said, in closed circles, just having a chat, people are very frank and well informed. There is a struggle – there is a figure that came out that there’s two million people in the employ of the state doing surveillance, to watch emails and intervene – but nonetheless there are lots of unofficial means for people to stay in touch, so there’s awareness. 

That has changed a bit under Xi [Jinping], things have gotten harder since his ascendance to the presidency. The guys tackling corruption cracked down on the burgeoning freedom of the media and that sort of thing. It’s a stiffer place than it was 10 years ago.

What’s the pattern of evolution you see for China – how does it move forwards and open up?

There’s this contrast that people are just thrilled that they can shop and live and travel, but growth is slowing, it’s now fuelled more and more by debt, and the manufacturing mass of the country is probably declining, moderately, as wages are increasing there. The boom days are coming to an end, and that has always been the prime legitimizer of Communist power – it’s funny to say that, because it’s not ideologically Communist – but the one-party state legitimizer is that it has provided stability, growth and prosperity. 

There’s a kind of apathetic-ness to the young people in regards to politics, they’re not super interested, but I figure for this generation as they grow older there’s more and more sense of, what is our freedom for? It’s not just for the car and the apartment or even the travel – it’s for building notions of ourselves that are more interesting, and taking a more creative part in designing who we are.

Now, China has no easy way to copy a Western liberal democracy, nor do the Chinese expect that. But I think the real marker for political evolution, as I put it in the book, is Hong Kong, which really has the drive to say, we would like a more politically responsible government. It was sort of promised to them when the Brits handed [Hong Kong] over. Whether and how the Chinese Communist Party manages that – if it can’t deliver any progress then Hong Kong may become more and more unmanageable. But if it does deliver progress, well then that’s an example to the rest of China of what can happen.

That being said, as I said in the context of Xi, who is hardening his grasp on power and making the party more involved in media, it’s hard to say. You could wonder whether he’s “Putin-izing,” trying to get beyond the two terms…I remain positive because I don’t think China’s going to go back, and going back is starvation or even just poverty, I don’t think 800 million people are going to be reduced back into rudimentary life, if they have their say.

Your brother recently went on a state visit to China – did you have any particular advice for him?

"Trying to sell Canadian products to China or placate our allies – none of that interests me."

No, I mean I sure could have had lots of things to say but I don’t want to compete with the civil service, for one. I also chose not to be a casual backseat driver. It would complicate our relationship, and it’s not terribly interesting to me, I don’t have the same objectives. I’m only interested in understanding and not, you know, trying to sell Canadian products to China or placate our allies – none of that interests me. So no, we didn’t discuss, apart from that he enjoyed the book, he said it was enlightening to him. I thanked him, and asked him if he enjoyed China. 

Do you think he was able to have anywhere near the sort of experiences you’ve had there?

No, you can’t – that’s why he was grateful to read the book, because then you know what’s out there, when you’re in that prison of diplomatic officialdom (laughs).

How would you describe the state of Chinese-Canadian relations now, when compared to the Harper years? Are you happy with where we’re going?

Are you kidding? Even if it weren’t my brother – I’d probably be even more impressed. It’s such an obvious one. If Canada is not a positive-thinking, hopeful, open, tolerant country – what other country has a chance? I found the previous government preposterous…it also had premises that I found deeply flawed, that somehow we Canadians know best, what’s best for Libya, or for China – we just don’t. It was just such a narrow, flawed view that the previous government had, that you could not build a world on. Through the course of it they struggled because it was so unrealistic that it didn’t allow for the realism necessary, the fact that China’s a client, a big client, and we buy tons of Chinese product and there are dual citizens and travel and everything. Those kind of narrow views…I’m glad to see them gone.

How do the Chinese see Canada? Are we on their radar?

Trudeau the younger, as they call him, is a rock star. He gives a feeling of joy to people who see the generational change – he’s very obviously a young person in so many ways. That’s something they take notice of, and it corresponds to what people think of Canada – a benign, hopeful nation, which it should be. As I say, if we’re not, who else is going to be?

So yeah, I think Canada has a special place, so many Chinese come here because they feel you can be both Chinese and Canadian, you can thrive here, you can exist in both worlds (which annoys some people, but I think it’s wonderful). You can take advantage of the great tolerance and the great education there is here…our links are very deep and I think the Chinese people realize it. They rate it, if they’re informed, in a fairly historical manner too. Canada’s not a super power, not a colonial nation, we don’t have hidden security agendas, and yet we have so much, especially resources, so partnership is important.

With many Chinese choosing to work and live in Canada, what should Canadians who want a deeper understanding of Chinese and Chinese-Canadians keep in mind?

It’s the same tactic that I had in all my documentaries: try and look to the normal people, don’t read everything through our government or theirs. China’s so surprising, so complex, so mixed, there are people of all stripes. The thing [to keep in mind] that I constantly come back to is China’s actually a happy country – despite its challenges, they’re just happy to have come so far…It needs friends to help it work through the flaws, and that’s the kind of role I think Canada [can play].

Many Canadians look at China and are concerned with the human rights abuses they see perpetuated by the Chinese government. What can be done to make progress on this issue?

"China needs to follow the example that’s set by more sophisticated nations…We’re a long way from [perfection] in Canada.”

Well, you have to be a little bit patient, which is tough to be with things like human rights. One story: I’m from Montreal and our construction is terrible, it’s shameful, [but in China] there is such graft and incompetency. There was this one highway and the engineer cut corners and they found out – they put him to death. It’s so ancient that way, it’s like, we’re a billion and a half, there’s no luxury when you screw up. 

I could be very harsh, and you could find stories that are disgusting, but in a way I’m harsher on Canada, or way more on the United States, which I think have every reason to be better. And yet I remain concerned – Obama’s about to leave his presidency and Guantanamo is still open. Those challenges hurt me more because these are supposed to be the example to countries like China. Which is why Trump is also worrying. Do you think there’s going to be a stronger feeling of human dignity impressed upon nations like China with a man like Trump talking the way he talks about people? 

China needs to follow the example that’s set by more sophisticated nations. I like that my brother said it’s wrong to think there’s any kind of human rights perfection, we’re a long way from it in Canada, there are real obstacles, security certificates, around the First Nations. 

I think human rights…concern all the world and especially the so-called leader nations, which China will soon join economically. The example that’s been set hasn’t been a good one, in the last 10 to 20 years. The United States is a human rights country in some ways but look at the – avoidable – devastation they’ve wrought on the world. I see those questions with a lot of nuances, and my hardest demands on human rights questions are on my own country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.