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Why We Should Admire Justin Trudeau's Answer Instead of Mocking It

11/13/2013 05:33 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Justin Trudeau has "shocked" the media by providing an unusual response to a question posed to him during a fundraising event. When asked which nation, besides Canada, he most admires and why, Trudeau could have provided a "safe" answer and said the United States. Instead, Trudeau had the courage to name China.

Sun News was first to offer a transcript and the National Post lamented "Trudeau's gaffes" on its front page.

It is entirely reasonable to challenge whether China is the best answer to that question. I want to thank Justin for injecting some honesty into public discourse in Canada. I hope that the mocking to which he is being subjected will not result in Justin changing to the current administration's modus operandi of never saying anything "real" or "off-message". Clearly it is beyond the capacity of right wing media commentators to use this response as the starting point for public discourse with intellectual rigor on possible reasons for the many successes China has achieved.

Justin Trudeau's father had the courage as early as 1968 to begin negotiations with the People's Republic of China. Consequently, Canada established diplomatic relations with China in 1970; whereas the United States waited until 1979.

As a result of Pierre Trudeau's courage, I, as a Canadian, was able to attend China Import and Export Fairs in Canton in 1971 and 1972. Canadian businesses could visit and trade with China nearly a decade before U.S. companies. Conservative commentators were far more inflammatory in their criticism of Pierre Trudeau's willingness to recognize the political and economic reality of the People's Republic of China in 1970 than they are of Justin Trudeau in 2013. Maybe that is because they recognize the fact that China has a government which has achieved unparalleled economic gains.

I am a charity lawyer who has circled the globe scores of times dealing with issues of poverty. There is little doubt that the economic reforms initiated by Premier Deng Xiaoping have enabled the Communist government in China to lift more people out of poverty than the world's largest philanthropists like Bill Gates. There is even less doubt that those economic achievements have been possible in part because of the non-democratic powers available to the government of China.

The first time I voted to help Stephen Harper become Prime Minister, it was substantially because I believed he would constrain Canada's deficits and debt. Both deficits and debt have skyrocketed under Stephen Harper. Our Conservative government reassures us by comparing Canada's economy to others in the G7. Canadians would be less comfortable, but would learn more, if we had the courage to compare our economy to China's, which has grown exponentially faster than Canada's.

In the last decade I have personally been involved in more than 100 meetings with senior government officials in Beijing. This is because I have been a "foreign legal expert" advising the committee in the Ministry of Civil Affairs drafting China's first charity law. I know from personal experience that behind closed doors there is robust discussion of controversial issues such as the environment and the rights of individuals to mobilize and organize to address social programs. The outcome has not always been what I had hoped. However, if reports of how tightly Stephen Harper controls debate in the Conservative caucus are to be believed, my consultations in Beijing allowed more dissent than is tolerated in Ottawa.

It was legitimate for Justin to focus on governments which actually accomplish the hard work of governing. My friends in China are losing respect for democracy when they watch the absolute dysfunction of the U.S. Congress. They cannot understand taking the world economy to the brink of catastrophe by refusing to raise the debt ceiling because of a partisan political fight. They would be no more impressed by the dysfunction in Ottawa if they cared enough to follow the current Senate scandal. It is discouraging to have political discourse driven by a mindless fervour that brooks no debate on the shortcomings of democracy.

Canadians express a blind belief in our superiority when we talk about Canada's democracy. We do have an elected Parliament and the ability for politicians to debate in the House of Commons. However, answers in Question Period about the involvement of the Prime Minister's Office with Senator Duffy in the Senate scandal should cause Canadians to ask hard questions about the functioning of our own democracy. Chinese observers would say Canadians have been subjected to a comparable performance of withholding difficult information from the public as they experience in China.

I know China's human rights record is troubling. I was born in China, to Protestant missionaries, during the Communist revolution led by Chairman Mao. My father escaped with his life after being called to appear in front of a "people's trial" in Kunming in 1951. Growing up as a boy in Alberta, every day our family prayed by name for Chinese Christians imprisoned by the Communists when saying grace before meals. My exposure to the human rights issues did not come from abstract rants about persecution. Rather, I had true stories of individuals known personally to my parents seared into my consciousness.

My views of China are too conflicted for me to name it as the country I most admire. However, I remain grateful that Justin Trudeau had the intellectual courage to encourage Canadians to learn from China. If we want healthy political discourse in our country, we must listen and learn when politicians answer questions with responses that are honest rather than poll tested. If our politicians are not willing to study and learn from China, Canada is not benefiting from the political leadership we need.

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