John Baird Raises His Red Lantern

It appears (to me at least) that the Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, is learning about the world and its localized histories in public and in real-time. On the first of June, he admitted as much to Canadian Press journalist Bruce Cheadle, saying he was “hazy on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Give the man at least some credit, however. He seems already to have made short work of mastering what Noam Chomsky terms the Western norms of hypocrisy. Consider two concurrent headlines from today’s national media: “Baird raised religious freedoms with Chinese counterpart,” and “Effusive John Baird wraps up China visit with praise for ‘strategic partner.’” That’s rather the order, isn’t it, the first a perfunctory throat-clearing before getting on to the meat of the matter: the making of business deals. The “raising of human rights issues” is a shameful cliché, and fitting also since it always brings to my mind the marvelous film “Raise the Red Lantern,” by one of my favourite directors Zhang Yimou. In case you don’t know, allow me to inform you that to raise the red lantern is to convey upon someone the respect due to royalty.

The media themselves are very much complicit in the ritual farce, as they are also in that other set-piece of geopolitical absurdity with which Mr. Baird these days is familiarizing himself, the so-called “Peace Process.” The credulity and laziness of journalists is never more evident than when they go along obligingly with the tedious and outworn narrative. What is curious however are today’s departures from the script. Here are quotations of John Baird in the articles cited above:

Baird said he also raised the case of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen sentenced to life in prison for terrorism in China, with Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing earlier this week. “We have a significant difference of opinion with my counterpart on this issue,” Baird said. [Toronto Sun, Wednesday, July 20, 2011]

When a representative of the Epoch Times, a newspaper with links to China’s Falun Gong movement, suggested Mr. Baird’s language did not match the actions of a Chinese Communist Party regime that has killed millions, Mr. Baird argued history should not get in the way of relations. “When you say millions have been killed by the regime, I mean, obviously countries we work well with like Russia and Germany have been through challenges in their history, but we now count them as allies,” Mr. Baird said. “Obviously we have substantial disagreements on some files with our counterparts, and we’ve taken the opportunity during this visit to raise those.” [Globe and Mail, Wednesday, July 20, 2011]

The breath-taking invocation of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany — for surely these are what he had in mind — suggests a man who lacks both moral seriousness and an appreciation of the burdens of history. Is it really the case that, in Mr. Baird’s world, human rights, torture, and the many other depraved and vicious crimes of China (and there are many) may be reduced to mere differences of opinion? The point ought to be that China’s “opinion” is of no consequence, any more than the Nazi opinion of Jews was at Nuremberg. (You brought up Nazi Germany, Mr. Baird, not me: now you must answer for it.) Notice also Baird’s recourse to the phrase “have been through challenges,” doubly cowardly and doubly evasive, being both a passive construct for active evil as well as a bland euphemism. For shame, Mr. Minister.

One of the very few positive things one might have said of the Harper Government in recent years is that it had at least a bit of backbone in relation to China. No more. As the Globe and Mail correctly puts it, “the Foreign Affairs Minister could not have gone further to signal that the chilly days of the relationship between Ottawa and Beijing that marked the early days of the Harper government are now gone.”  History will judge this generation, and this Government, harshly for its failures in relation to this matter. Every day China gets away with murder, and every day the politicians are raising their red lanterns.

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