Pierre Trudeau´s three visits to China

Chou Enlai toasts Pierre Trudeau during a banquet at the Great Hall of the People in Peking in October 1973.

Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister and long-term leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, died on September 28th, 2000 in his home town of Montreal, the biggest city in the country’s only French-speaking province, Quebec.

In 1659, his ancestor Étienne Trudeau (1641–1712) had arrived in Canada, then part of New France, from the French seaport of La Rochelle. He was born on October 18th, 1919 as the second child of wealthy attorney and businessman Joseph Charles-Émile «Charley» Trudeau (1887-1935) and Grace Elliot (1890-1973), also from an upscale background.

In power after the 1968 federal election of June 25th, 1968, Trudeau’s foreign policy preceded the United States’ rapprochement strategy under US President Richard Nixon (1913-1994).

He established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 13th, 1970, breaking them off with the Republic of China (ROC) lead by Chiang Kai-shek (1997-1975) at the time.

Since 1942 both sides had been allied against the Axis powers Germany, Japan and Italy during World War II. Canada dispatched an Ambassador to the temporary capital of Chungking.

The embassy was moved to Nanking in 1946, where the Accredit stayed until shortly after the city was taken by the Chinese Communists in the spring of 1949.

Instead, a Chargé d’affaires remained until early 1951, when the nation’s growing involvement in the Korean War against China made the situation unsustainable.

Nevertheless, Ottawa chose not to open an embassy in Taipei, where the Chinese Nationalists had ended up, and instead maintained relations through its new trade mission in Manila.

Meanwhile, Canadian citizens in Taiwan received assistance from the British consulate, which finally closed down in 1972. The Nationalist Chinese Embassy in Ottawa remained operative until Canada officially recognized Red China.

Trudeau’s officially visited the PRC from the 10th to the 16th of October 1973, hold talks with Premier Chou En-lai (1898-1976), and even briefly met the “Great Helmsman» Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976).

In that year, the trade balance was still heavily weighted in Canada’s favor, which had just agreed to sell the Chinese an important amount of wheat. In 2019, the deficit had surpassed 35 billion US dollars.

Military Attachés were finally exchanged, an agreement about regular trade meetings was signed and the Canada-China Scholar’s Exchange Program established.

Nowadays, tensions are quite evident. Canada in December 2018 arrested Meng Wanzhou, a top Huawei executive on a provisional US extradition request. Peking retaliated in June 2020 by charging two Canadians with spying on State secrets and intelligence.

Trudeau didn’t live to witness the current Sino-Canadian friction, which actually increased after his eldest son Justin (born 1971) was reelected in 2019 and had made trips to the Middle Kingdom in 2016 and 2017.

But Trudeau Sr. definitely witnessed some of the worst episodes in modern Chinese history: during a year-long world tour, he briefly stayed in Shanghai in the last phase of the civil war, later describing the panic caused among locals and refugees by the advancing communist troops.

In 1960, just as he was gaining his first prominence in Quebec as one of the leaders of what became known as the Quiet Revolution of French Canadians, the Chinese government invited him to return as its guest for 32 days in the midst of the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-1962).

Together with journalist and world traveler Jacques Hebert (1923-2007), Trudeau in 1961 published a book entitled Two Innocents in China about their experiences in that turbulent period.

While the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1965-1975) was still ravaging, he went back a third time. Obviously he left very satisfied and wanted to further please the hosts. Due mostly to his initiative, Taiwan at the end wasn’t able to participate in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics.

Also, the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei (CTOT) started operating only in 1986 in the days of his successor as Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney (born 1939).

Pierre Trudeau might not have been a true friend of the Chinese people, though without doubt as a leftist intellectual he had strong sympathies for those who relentlessly oppressed it for decades.

P.D.: A good friend, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (1926-2016), whom he had met in Havana in 1976, attended his funeral.


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