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China in 1975: a country in transition during the twilight of the Cultural Revolution. Few people had ever seen a credit card. Or, for that matter, a foreigner.
Enter a party of 40 travellers from Canada, one of the largest Western groups permitted into China at that time. The trip was part of the curriculum for a new course called East Asia: Past and Present offered by the departments of History and Continuing Education at Concordia. The professor and tour guide, Martin Singer, believed spending a day on a communal farm was worth a month of reading about them in textbooks.
While in the People’s Republic, the group visited hospitals and communes, textile factories and foundries, universities and nursery schools.
“It gave us an important glimpse of an era that very quickly passed,” says Edith Katz, coordinator of Concordia’s Institute for Co-operative Education. “I was extremely fortunate to have that opportunity, and now I encourage my co-op students to complete international work terms.”
Concordia’s scholarly involvement with China really begins in 1888, after the World’s Conference of YMCAs in Stockholm called upon North American YMCAs to spread Christianity throughout the developing world.
The Montreal YMCA promptly dispatched officials to China to set up popular education programs in science and literature. In 1909, it raised enough money to build a Y in Canton. The Montreal Y also offered night courses which eventually developed into Sir George Williams University.
Chester Chen of Tientsin, China, came to Montreal for a year in 1937 under the Y’s Fellowship Training Plan. Chen took courses with Sir George Williams students and addressed various community groups about his home country.
On an October morning in 1949, the year of the Communist victory, over 300 Sir George students heard Y.C. Tu deliver “an outline of Chinese Culture.” His address received a glowing review from one of the attendees, a student journalist by the name of Mordecai Richler.
Ping-Pong Diplomacy at Loyola
You might be familiar with the term “ping-pong diplomacy,” referring to the gradual thaw in Sino-North American relations in 1971 that began when the Chinese government invited North American table tennis teams to mainland China.
The following spring, the People’s Republic of China world champion table tennis team chose Loyola College as the first stop of their North American tour.
The event made international headlines and the Chinese also allowed their Canadian counterparts to win some games, “something pointedly denied by the American hosts later in the tour,” according to the 1972 Loyola yearbook.
Between 1981 and 1986, 51 Concordia professors and librarians visited China. Concordia had signed three deals with Chinese academic institutions and was negotiating with six others.
“We knew China was an emerging country at that time,” recalls Engineering and Computer Science professor M.N.S. Swamy. The stage was set for the first joint doctoral program between a Western nation and the People’s Republic. One of those participants, Weiping Zhu, is now an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Three Concordia professors — Lorne Switzer, Associate Dean of Research at the John Molson School of Business, Journalism Chair Lindsay Crysler, and the late Vice-Dean of Academic Planning Gail Valaskakis were in China in 1989. Switzer didn’t expect to become, in his own words, “witness to, and an unwilling participant in, an important historical event.”
When he got off the train in Beijing to meet a friend whose plane was arriving early in the morning of June 4, 1989, he saw hordes of people stampeding in the streets, columns of smoke rising from buildings, and heard shots that sounded, at first, like firecrackers. Worried about his students, he followed the crowd to Tiananmen Square – and found himself on the front lines as the army opened fire on student demonstrators.
In the ensuing melee, he fled through Beijing’s narrow alleyways and safely made it back to his hotel. Several days later he was ushered back to Canada on an emergency evacuation flight.
In the wake of the massacre, Switzer firmly believed Concordia should not abandon its academic linkages with China. And if uncertainty dominated the climate in the days and months following Tiananmen Square, Switzer and likeminded others at Concordia came out of it looking prescient.
More recently, Concordia has been represented in several academic delegations and exchanges with China. Since 1979 Concordia has signed sixteen different agreements with Chinese universities. More than one-fifth of our international students are Chinese.