Trudeaumania at N.Y.U.
Seeing the happy faces of my N.Y.U. Class of 2018 friends dressed in black caps and purple gowns all over social media recently makes me reminisce about my college days. But seeing Justin Trudeau — who is receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and delivering the commencement address this year — so universally and uncritically praised troubles me. He comes from a political dynasty that champions almost everything a pro-democracy Hong Konger like me is against.
Justin’s father, Pierre, another Canadian prime minister, was an unabashed communist sympathizer. Back in 1960, eight years before his rise to the nation’s highest office, he was invited to China for over a month and even met Mao Zedong, the chief initiator of one of the deadliest human-induced famines in recorded history that was still ongoing at the time. The latest credible research on this episode places the death toll at above 45 million. In other words, more Chinese people perished of starvation between 1958 and 1962 than the entire population of Canada — 37 million — today! But Pierre believed none of this was happening: It was repudiated as a story fabricated by the “conservative press of the West” in Two Innocents in Red China, which he wrote with Jacques Hebert upon returning home. “The ancient enemy of China is hunger. It had been in occupation of the whole country for millennia,” the 1961 book argued. “Who was it that vanquished this implacable enemy? Mao.”
Some three decades later, in the summer of 1990, the Trudeau family made a celebrated trip to China. The timing wasn’t great. Full Sino-Canadian diplomatic ties, severed by the Brian Mulroney administration in protest of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, still hadn’t yet been restored. But as Justin’s younger brother, Alexandre, would recall: “We were treated as political guests and accompanied by officials and interpreters wherever we went. Every night, there were banquets and solemn toasts and speeches.” The Trudeaus were also grateful that “there were practically no other foreigners to be seen anywhere. The tourist hotels were empty.” The city of Beijing was indeed hollow then — hollow enough to hear the painful crying of the Tiananmen Mothers, whose young sons and daughters were shot, if not squashed by tanks, for demanding democracy. I wonder if the distinguished visitors thought for a second about putting down their cocktails and opening their ears?
This mercilessness was echoed once again by the scandalous remark from November 2013 that Justin, now the 41-year-old Liberal Party leader, was caught making on camera. “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China, because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say: ‘We need to go greenest fastest; we need to start investing in solar,’” he commented at a ladies-only fundraiser in Toronto before jabbing his future predecessor. “There’s a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about, of having a dictatorship that he could do everything he wanted — that I find quite interesting.” Except it was Harper who consistently favored self-determination for Taiwan and Tibet; even Premier Wen Jiabao couldn’t help but condemn his aversion to China in late 2009 when they first met.
The younger Trudeau indeed shares his late father’s worst political instincts, often deriding Quebec nationalism and, even worse, praising authoritarian countries. Long before these positions would come to define the family brand, however, Pierre was an unmistakable pro-fascist and pro-independence Francophone. In his youth, he blamed Allied aggression for World War II and dismissed Nazi atrocities as Anglo-Canadian propaganda. He eventually moved to the opposite extreme. Seeking a closer alliance with the Soviet Union, he criticized America’s “overpowering presence” that threatened Canada’s “national identity from a cultural, economic, and perhaps even military point of view” during a goodwill trip to Moscow in May 1971, merely three years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. And when the Polish government imposed martial law in December 1981 to crack down on the Solidarity movement, he welcomed it as “a way to avoid civil war and Soviet intervention,” which he deemed “not all bad.”
It came as no surprise, therefore, that in response to Fidel Castro’s passing in November 2016, Justin issued an official government statement calling him “Cuba’s longest-serving president” (a “dictator” maybe?) whose “supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people.” Those exiled and murdered by the communist regime in Havana would beg to differ.
Speaking in Hong Kong two months earlier, in September, the prime minister did briefly raise some concern about China’s record of human rights abuses. But determined to repair Sino-Canadian relations — having succeeded the Harper administration, which was never too enthusiastic about dealing with the Chinese — he played right into Beijing’s hands when he injected a note of self-criticism and declared that Ottawa was “not immune to criticism on human rights either.” The false equivalence is inappropriate: While Canada’s treatment of its aboriginal communities hasn’t always been perfect, it has earned a solid reputation (under the leadership of many of his more courageous, high-minded predecessors) for standing on the side of freedom around the world. China, meanwhile, stands decisively on the side that contradicts Canadian core values: not only openness, inclusion, and creativity but also women’s rights and minority rights that he supposedly champions.
At home, Justin is perhaps most hypocritical on the environmental front. Unlike Harper, he says all the right things in public about the dangers of climate change; like Harper, however, he continues to go all in on promoting a fossil fuel-based economy. “No country,” he told a group of industry representatives who gave him a standing ovation in March 2017, “would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” But as the environmentalist Bill McKibben points out, extracting and burning all that oil means Canada alone “will use up a third of the earth’s remaining carbon budget” set by the Paris Climate Accord of 2016 that the prime minister has so enthusiastically endorsed. His controversial backing of both the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction and the Trans Mountain pipeline’s extension is also facing significant resistance from a loyal base of support: the First Nations peoples. Overall, he falls short of delivering his signature campaign promise to advance their rights.
Exactly a half-century ago, in 1968, Trudeaumania gave Pierre the first of his four federal election victories over his extensive, consequential political career. Now, this phenomenon has spread into N.Y.U. where his son (a vigorous defender of the elder Trudeau’s global legacy) enjoys soaring popularity. While I understand how Justin Trudeau can be charming compared to his American counterpart, Donald Trump, all the fanboying and fangirling over his attractive looks are obscuring his phoniness, flawed character, and fondness for absolute power that shouldn’t escape scrutiny. Learning doesn’t end with graduation; I encourage all those graduating this year to learn more about the man who has challenged you to “be vulnerable to another point of view” but does very little of that himself.