Jan Wong – My Half Century with China: Reflections from the Cultural Revolution to COVID to Xi Jinping  (Winter 2023 Forum #4 Summary)

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Jan Wong

Jan Wong

The timing couldn’t have been better. At the moment the House of Commons was embroiled in arguments over China’s alleged tampering in Canadian elections and as international concerns were growing about whether it would arm Russia in its war against Ukraine, Jan Wong provided her unique perspective on the last 50 years of Chinese history in ALLTO’s fourth winter forum.

Wong, of course, was the Globe and Mail’s Beijing correspondent from 1988 to 1994, so she was there for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But she was also there during the Cultural Revolution in 1972. Then, as a 19-year-old McGill student majoring in Asian studies, she travelled alone to the People’s Republic of China and talked her way into a spot at Peking University. She was one of only two Westerners to study in China during the Cultural Revolution.

She was a third-generation Chinese Canadian who, at the time of her first visit, spoke no Chinese languages.

She recounted these experiences in her books Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now (1997), Jan Wong’s China: Reports from A Not-So-Foreign Correspondent (1999), and Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found (2007).

In her presentation, she braided her own experience of the country with Chinese history and politics over the last half-century. But of greater interest were her thoughts on current geopolitical concerns – even though she said she’s been consistently wrong in her predictions on the country’s future directions:

Interference in Canadian elections: Wong said that when she was at the Globe and Mail, she heard about China’s interference in our elections, actively aiding one Chinese-Canadian candidate over another based on how outspoken each was about China’s record in human rights, for example. Having friends in the Canadian House of Commons can only be helpful to China, whether it be for business reasons such as avoiding a boycott of TikTok, or political, such as protecting its interest in Taiwan. “Interference in the election isn’t the issue,” she said. “They’ve got their foot in the door and we have no way to monitor this.” Canadian MPs should be working for only their constituents, and not for foreign governments, she added.

Will China arm Russia in its war in Ukraine: Wong said she thinks that is unlikely because of the centuries-old enmity between China and Russia. But she said she also thinks that Xi Jinping likes the Ukraine war because it’s weakening both Russia and the U.S. – although he may be shocked at how widespread global support is for Ukraine. China probably wants Russia to succeed – in part, because it’s a test case for China’s designs on Taiwan. But it doesn’t want Russia to get too powerful.

Covid: Just before her talk, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it believes the SARS CoV-2 virus emerged as the result of a laboratory accident rather than from transmission to humans from an animal host. And a few days before, the U.S. Department of Energy also said it felt the virus was the result of a lab leak in Wuhan, but reached that conclusion with only a “low level of confidence.” Wong, ever the journalist, said “low level of confidence” was the same as “a big maybe,” and wouldn’t merit a newspaper story.

China reacted differently than the West did to the emergence of Covid, with a zero-Covid policy including a mandatory lockdown. But its vaccination efforts were limited and the country was wedded to its home-grown Sinovac vaccine, which was found to be effective against the original Covid virus, but much less so against later variants. The government has since abandoned its zero-Covid policy but is failing to accurately count cases of infection and disease, Wong said.

Population decrease: Early this year, China reported its first population decline since the early 1960s, marking the beginning of what is expected to be a long period of population decline. Wong attributed that largely to the one-child policy that was in effect from 1980 to 2016. It produced “onlies” who became pampered, self-centred  “little emperors” who decided that to have children of their own would be too great a hassle and a financial burden. Add a Covid-related economic downturn to the picture, and a pressing question is who is going to look after seniors.

By Terry Murray