Vancouver mayor will downplay Bethune link on Chinese trade mission

Vancouver — The Globe and Mail

Today begins an ambitious 11-day mission to China for Vancouver Mayor Gregor Angus Bethune Robertson. Yes, that Bethune.

In what is undoubtedly a first for any visiting politician, Mr. Robertson is a distant relative of Dr. Norman Bethune, the famed Canadian physician known to hundreds of millions of Chinese after he was eulogized by Chairman Mao. The mayor even bears his name.

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For years, this connection to one of China's great revolutionary heroes might have opened countless doors of opportunity for the mayor and the business representatives accompanying him on the trip. Just coming from Canada was an 'in'.

But this is China 2010. While still ruled by Communist descendants of Mao, the country is home to the world's most thriving capitalist economy.

These days, Mr. Robertson's bond to Bethune is likely to be little more than a talking point, worth an extra toast or two, if that, at a maotai-fuelled banquet.





"It's a nice ice-breaker, but it's not going to bring home the bacon, even if the mayor were Bethune himself," said long-time Beijing resident and Canadian business consultant, John Gruetzner. "That whole era of Canada maybe getting something because of Chinese reverence for Norman Bethune is over."

Fred Bild, Canada's ambassador to China from 1990 to 1995, agrees.

"When I was there, we would use Bethune as often as we could, as a way of making people feel good about Canada," Mr. Bild said Sunday.

"But China has modernized itself. The name of Norman Bethune is not going to disappear, but I don't think he'll ever be as relevant to China as he was when students were forced to memorize what Mao Zedong wrote about him."

Dr. Bethune died in China in 1939, while treating Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese. In one of his most well-known essays, Mao paid tribute to the Canadian physician. "I am deeply grieved over this death. … We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him," he wrote.

Mr. Gruetzner, who worked on the 1992 Canadian-Chinese film about Dr. Bethune starring Donald Sutherland, said Canadians venturing to China need to move on from their rote references to "Bethune, wheat, Trudeau and Da Shan," the Canadian cross-talk celebrity in China.

"China has the most competitive economy in the world. We're deluding ourselves if we think we have some sort of special advantage. My advice is to tone down the Bethune. If his name comes up more than twice at a banquet, you're in trouble."

Earl Drake, who was Canada's Chinese ambassador before Mr. Bild, said the name of Bethune still resonates in modern China.

Yet he acknowledged it's not something to seal a deal that would not otherwise be made. "It just makes for a good atmosphere, a nice friendly, fuzzy feeling for a toast."

Before he left on Saturday, Mr. Robertson said he understands that it is a different China, and he doesn't intend to make a big thing of his family relationship to Dr. Bethune. But he will mention it, at least early on.

"I don't know if it's going to be hugely significant, but I'm intrigued to find out," he said. "It certainly can't hurt."

Mr. Robertson's grandmother was a first cousin of Dr. Bethune, who was born in Gravenhurst, Ont.

So much was he a part of family lore that Mr. Robertson at one time aspired to become a doctor. "The name had great importance to us, growing up."

However, the mayor said he had no idea of the hero worship accorded Dr. Bethune in China until he visited the country in 1986. No mention of Canada failed to produce a reference to Bai Qiu En (the doctor's name in Chinese). "Then, when they realized I was a relative, the Chinese took us to some hospitals and other places tourists didn't normally get to, because we were connected to Bethune."

One site Mr. Robertson didn't get to in 1986 was the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery in Shijiazhuang, 280 kilometres south of Beijing, where Dr. Bethune is memorialized.

On Tuesday, he will be the first of his family to pay respects at their renowned relative's final resting place.

"I am really looking forward to that," said the mayor. "It's a very personal thing."

Follow on Twitter: @rodmickleburgh

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