China and the World

“Bring me Dashan”

Canada looks to mend fractious China ties

Harper's new stance

The award for the best-known Canadian would likely see a close run-off between Celine Dion, Norman Bethune and Mark Rowswell.

The singer’s place on the shortlist will be less surprising to most readers.

But few may have heard of Bethune. In fact, he has two claims to fame: he pioneered the first mobile blood transfusion unit in 1936, and later became the subject of a celebrated essay by Mao Zedong.

It was Mao’s commendation, and Bethune’s work with the Chinese communists, that cemented his reputation. Bethune died treating Mao’s army in 1939 and the Great Helmsman wrote: “We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of integrity.”

In Memory of Norman Bethune became required reading at elementary school, and during the Cultural Revolution most of the population could even recite Mao’s tribute. With instant name recognition among China’s 1.3 billion, and statues erected in his honour in many Chinese cities, the Ontario-born doctor surely has no peer?

Step forward another unlikely candidate: Mark Rowswell. He too is a household name in China, although little known elsewhere. The Chinese know him by his local appellation, Dashan.

Rowswell moved to Beijing in 1988 and soon became a TV celebrity thanks to a flawless proficiency in Chinese. Locals were flabbergasted that a Westerner could speak their language so well and even perform xiansheng comedy. Rowswell remains so well-known today that if he walks down any street in the country, taxi drivers will lean out their windows and bellow ‘Dashan’ as they motor past.

Canada’s government has tapped into this popularity, making Rowswell the nation’s Commissioner General for next year’s Shanghai Expo. And, sure enough, when the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper was in Shanghai this week, photographs in the local media featured Rowswell by his side.

Harper needs some of Dashan’s magic. The China Daily pointedly reported that the Canadian leader’s trip was an attempt to “warm up ‘cool to icy’ ties between his country and Beijing”. Ottawa had angered the Beijing leadership with criticism of its human rights record and allegations of spying. More recently there have been spats over increased import duties on Chinese steel. Nor did it help that Harper was one of the few world leaders to choose not to attend the Beijing Olympics last summer.

But with trade between China and Canada hitting a record $50.3 billion last year, Harper’s trip sought to draw a line under past tensions, and promote what one of his aides termed “a modernised Canada-China relationship” based on “new global realities”.

Both Canadian and Chinese media noted his more “respectful” tone and a promise to “stick to the One-China policy”. Harper even told Hu Jintao that he had dreamed of visiting China since he was a small boy. And after the obligatory sightseeing tour, he made all the right noises about the “unbelievable” Great Wall.

But did his charm offensive earn any returns for Canada? The Wall Street Journal noted that the visit “didn’t exactly overflow with substantive achievements”. But newswire, the Canadian Press, reported that Canada had at least been granted “approved destination status”. This allows Chinese travel agents to market Canada as a destination and is reckoned to be worth $100 million annually.

Tourism authorities hope to see Chinese visitors surge 50% in five years. The country’s minister for tourism Diane Ablonczy called the announcement an “early Christmas present for Canadian tourism, and one that will keep on giving for years.”

And good news for Dashan too: who better to feature in TV commercials promoting Canadian tourism to his Chinese fans?


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