Chan and Confucius - New Canadian Media

Chan and Confucius

by Simon Li in Hong Kong You’ve probably never realized that Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan is a highly polarizing figure within the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA)…

by Simon Li in Hong Kong

You’ve probably never realized that Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan is a highly polarizing figure within the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) Chinese communities until the Globe and Mail’s recent coverage.

That’s the case at least for my non-Chinese friends in the city, perhaps because the 64-year-old gentleman’s appearance seems rather gentle; not the controversial type. During his eight years in Cabinet, opinions about Chan among Chinese Ontarians have remained sharply divided.
 
Three Little Surprises
 
Three little things have actually surprised me since the Globe ran the story on the only Chinese Canadian in Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet. (The minister threatened on the eve of Canada Day to take further legal action against the Globe if the paper does not apologize and immediately retract the story within 72 hours.) 
 
The Confederation of Toronto Chinese-Canadian Organizations, making a similar demand on Canada Day, has just asked the Globe to apologize not only to them but to the Chinese community and Chan. Apologizing to the Chinese community? This sounds like the whole community of Chinese Ontarians are homogenous while sharing a single view on the Globe story.
 
This is the very first thing which surprises me as a scholar of Chinese Canadian history. Time after time, the Chinese-Canadian community is intentionally being misrepresented by some (and hence mistakenly seen by the mainstream society and governments) as a homogeneous group, while it certainly is not. It is much more heterogeneous than one can imagine.
 
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Even if you don’t pay close attention to security matters, you may still have noticed that Canada’s spy agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), has been paying awfully close attention to one country in particular these days: China.[/quote]
 
Although some associations’ names may sound like they are sole spokespeople for Chinese Canadian society, the reality is that there is not a single group that can speak on behalf of the whole Chinese community on the Michael Chan matter or any other issue.
 
Second, while it would not be difficult to hear polarizing views about Chan in the community, a good number of the province’s Chinese-language media have strangely selected interviewees from just a particular side since day one — that is, views that simply side with Chan — instead of professionally reporting multiple views, including those that are other than pro-Chan’s. Why? 
 
The third surprise has to do with the controversy surrounding Chan and Confucius — an unexpected pairing and the focus of this commentary.
 
The Background

 

Even if you don’t pay close attention to security matters, you may still have noticed that Canada’s spy agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), has been paying awfully close attention to one country in particular these days: China.


Apart from the Globe’s coverage of the CSIS revelations that Chan may have been under the influence of a foreign government and had “unusually close ties to Chinese officials,” what catches some community members’ attention is actually facet of the paper’s reporting.
 
The Globe story suggested that Chan once lobbied for a deal between the Toronto District School Board and the Confucius Institute (CI), named after the ancient Chinese philosopher. This Institute has now been banned from a number of universities and school boards across Canada amid concerns about interfering with academic freedoms. Those which officially cut ties with the Confucius Institute include McMaster University, the University of Manitoba and the University of Sherbrooke.

Let’s zoom out a bit here: What are Confucius Institutes? And why would the Liberal minister, as the Globe report disclosed, lobby the controversial Institute to make a deal with Canada’s largest school board? 

Many wonder.

 
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Digging deeper, these are the legitimate questions a journalist should ask. While the Chinese press has also been following the Chan story in the past two weeks, none of these questions have really been put forward to the minister.[/quote]
 
The Chinese government says the Confucius Institutes, the brainchild of Beijing’s Ministry of Education, are simply promoting Chinese culture and business ties. However, according to a declassified CSIS brief which was obtained earlier by media under the Access to Information Act, Canada’s spy service believes China has enlisted the institutes to advance China’s power behind the scenes. The secret intelligence report, portions of which were blacked out, states, “In other words, China wants the world to have positive feelings toward China and things Chinese.”

“Soft power” is the keyword here. CSIS warns that Confucius Institutes are not as benign as they pretend to be because they are a part of — albeit a relatively small part — of China’s strategy of “soft power”.
 

Chinese “soft power”

While Chan’s spokesperson replied to the Globe that the minister only “wrote one letter offering his personal support to the TDSB in pursuing a dialogue to establish a Confucius Institute in Toronto,” there is still a puzzling question: Why would then-TDSB chair Chris Bolton actually deem Chan’s support of the establishment of the Confucius Institute in Toronto as crucial?

As Bolton publicly disclosed during last summer’s gala to celebrate the CI-TDSB arrangement, “I’d like to take a moment to thank the people who were directly involved in the establishment of the CI. Right from the beginning, an MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament) by the name of Michael Chan has supported the establishment” — it keeps one wondering: what precise role did the Ontario cabinet minister play in this whole deal involving a CI establishment which the CSIS refers in its report as a calculated part of China’s “soft power” campaign?

Another essential question would be: what motivated him to be so “directly involved” (using the ex-TDSB chair’s choice of words) in supporting the Beijing-sponsored institute which would be in charge of the curriculum and the hiring of teachers instead of the public-secular school board for Toronto? Chan represents Markham-Unionville, which does not fall under the Toronto school board, and his portfolio in Cabinet has nothing to do with education. 

In the wake of the high-profile CI crisis to date, why did the minister say earlier that he had “not paid attention at all, in terms of the curriculum” during the lobbying process? As a matter of fact, different concerns surrounding these controversial Confucius institutes and their curriculum have been extensively reported in Canada in as early as 2007.
 
Legitimate questions

 
Digging deeper, these are the legitimate questions a journalist should ask. While the Chinese press has also been following the Chan story in the past two weeks, none of these questions have really been put forward to the minister.

So at this point, only Chan knows the true answers.

Confucius too, maybe?  

The Chinese master of enduring wisdom once counselled, “Study the past if you would define the future.”  And while our country’s spy service believes China has enlisted its ancient politician-philosopher in its quest for power, don’t be surprised by the fact the Communist Party of China has never quite been supportive of Confucian ideals (there was even a “Criticize Confucius” campaign in the People’s Republic in the mid-1970s).

The past is ironic. 

So is the controversy surrounding the cabinet minister and the Chinese master.  

The clock is ticking. Let’s see what happens when Chan’s 72-hour ultimatum expires. 


Simon Li, a former Canadian political journalist, currently teaches political science and investigative journalism in Hong Kong. Before entering an academic career, he was a political host on AM 1540 in Toronto and guest hosted The Current on CBC Radio. He previously researched Canada-China relations and Chinese Canadian history at Queen’s University.
 
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