Q&A with Alexandre Trudeau on his China book, his famous brother & politics

June Chua
Daily Brew

[HarperCollins is publishing this month a new book on China by Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau. PHOTO: Alexandre Trudeau]

China is a big deal with the Trudeaus. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just wrapped up an eight-day trip there to attend the G20 summit while his brother, Alexandre, is debuting a book about China this month.

“There was no plan in that,” laughs Alexandre, when asked if his publishing company HarperCollins aligned the launch with the prime minister’s visit. “They had wanted a fall launch because it’s a serious book and a time when people return to work, back from vacation.

Alexandre adds though his brother has read the book: “He read it a week before he left for China and he told me it helped him get up to speed in what to think and feel about China.”

It’s marks a full circle, in a way, as both had been there as children. Back in 1990 just months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau took his family there. In fact, the elder Trudeau had a deep curiosity and affection for China, visiting there for the first time in 1949 and then again in 1960. Subsequently he co-authored a book about that visit — Two Innocents in Red China and then returned to the country as prime minister in 1973 and a few times after.

“We wanted to take a trip from Chengdu to Kunming; it’s over some high mountains and quite spectacular,” recalled Alexandre Trudeau about the 1990 visit, in an interview with Yahoo Canada News. “But the authorities felt that such distinguished travellers should not be travelling on such a rough, local train.”

The 42-year-old got to return to that area and was struck by what he calls “one of the most impressive highways in the world” from Chengdu to Kunming.

It’s with this wonderment that the Montreal-based filmmaker and journalist — he pens occasional pieces for Maclean’s — launches his first book: Barbarian Lost: Travels in the New China.

Spanning a 10-year period, beginning in 2005, Trudeau would go to China once or twice a year, with the longest trip being two months. Sometimes, he also brought his family — his wife and three children, who are all under 10.

The book is a departure for the muckraking journalist and filmmaker whose previous documentaries included Embedded in Baghdad (2003), his experiences in the capital as coalition forces invaded Iraq and 2008’s Refuge about the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region.

“China is a deep, difficult subject and it’s not an easy place to work in as a filmmaker,” noted Trudeau. “While the Chinese are very candid, they tend to keep their head low when there are cameras plus there is the language difficulty [whereas] in a book, you can take your time and expand the narrative. I wanted to build stories and have the reader feel close to the people that I draw out in the book.”

Trudeau spoke to Yahoo Canada News about his time in China — where a young Chinese journalist served as his translator and fixer — and why he wrote the book.

Q: After visiting China over a 10-year span, what are the things about China that stand out for you?

Most of all, I watched Beijing change a lot. A whole section of a hutong (old village communities) that I had visited over the years was replaced by a park. I saw the creation of a new Beijing, as it hit its speed with a new downtown area. Young people there just don’t remember what it was like before, they take for granted all the modernity that their lives [are surrounded by].

That drive from Chengdu to Kunming is incredible. You can get off in the high mountains to these little ancient villages, which are extremely isolated, and you can feel the effect of that development — mushroom entrepreneurs have sprouted. That was not possible before as the country was quite fragmented. The development has reached deep into the bosom of the country and connected these parts. 

It’s yin and yang when it comes to this — there’s wonderful improvement and great loss — ancient neighbourhoods with their stone gateways and wood carvings are gone, making way for highrises and malls. But then to emphasize the loss is to make a mistake because there is also opportunity.

Q: China, in western media, is often presented with a political or economic lens, how do the Chinese see themselves?

The Chinese are more business minded if you compare them with Canadians who have ideas of responsible citizenship. They are dealing with their own lives and not what’s going above their heads. If you want to be political, you join the [Communist] Party. It’s an ancient way of dealing with government — so long as their lives are going well, the government is more or less legitimate and can carry on.

Political power is seen not unlike any other dynasty that has gone before it. But then, maybe it’s changing with this material freedom and comfort they have now. They are travelling and living abroad and beginning to experience different modes of what it means to be a citizen. It may be a slow thing but the Chinese may be becoming more politically sophisticated as time goes by.

Q: What did you learn in the process of making this book?

The title of the book hints at a documentary approach: I’m assuming I know very little about China.

When they ask what is your profession, I sometimes say pilgrim. When I first started travelling, I was a hitchhiker, so I was putting myself at the mercy of other people’s kindness. Implicitly and explicitly, that was my father’s philosophy — he was the original rough and ready explorer. His idea of fun was to backpack travel.

[With this journey of the book] I changed and I hope the reader can participate in that. There’s a lot to learn in the story of China. You can get a sense of the human soul. It’s about travelling — what you discover when you leave your home and your comforts.

I see now that Western influences are very superficial, that the West has had a great run for 500 years and pretty much controlled the planet. But China stands apart because it is so old and focused on itself.

Once one gets involved in China, you can look at the West from such a different point of view. I consider myself a devout disciple of individual freedom and that’s a privilege of being Canadian. Hardcore individual freedoms do not occur without a cost. There is often a use of violence by Western powers to conquer [in the name of individual freedom].

As the world has grown small, resources are ever more limited, we have to start understanding about limits to individual freedoms — there are powerful lessons I learned from this.

I’m a big fan of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. They can all teach people how to live in a world full of pressures, to find peace in a world of conflict.

Q: Some of what you do is political and now that your brother Justin is leader of Canada, have you thought of diving into that arena more fully?

I look at my personality and it seems so very far from the demands of political life. I admire what my brother is doing but he is constantly travelling. He has three small children who are about the same age as my kids and those are precious years.

A politician has to speak for everyone and I only speak for myself. I’m an introvert. I can’t do what he does — to always be there for the country, to be mindful of all its citizens.

When I wrote the letter [to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale in February] asking him to allow Mohamed Harkat to stay in Canada, I was one of thousands of prominent Canadians petitioning the government to do so.

(Algerian-born Harkat is a former gas-station attendant who was arrested in 2002 on suspicion of being an al-Qaida sleeper agent, which he denies. In 2005, Trudeau offered to act as surety for Harkat during a bail application.)

I have been speaking out for years — long before my brother entered politics — about the problems surrounding security certificates.

I continue to be interested in justice above all else.

Q: What is it like between the two of you when you get together?

Our relationship long precedes his political career. We have fun together. We have always had this active, sporting relationship. He can be himself with me. We play, we joke and we have the same relationship we have always had.

It would be problematic for our relationship if I brought up political issues. It’s not appropriate that I influence him in any serious manner.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

Below is a list of dates for Alexandre Trudeau’s book tour:

Eden Mills Writers Festival and The Bookshelf, Guelph, Ont., Sept. 17

Ben McNally Books, Brunch Series, Sept. 18

University of Toronto, Ignatieff Theatre, Sept. 19

University of Waterloo, Sept. 20

Showcase Literacy, The Bookkeeper and Organization for Literacy, Sept. 21

Blue Heron Books, Uxbridge Music Hall, Sept. 22

Canada China Friendship Society, Ottawa, Oct. 12

Knowlton Literary Festival, Oct. 15

Paragraph Books, brunch event, Oct. 16

Drawn and Quarterly, Montreal launch, Oct. 19

Montreal Press Club, Nov. 11

Indigo Rideau, Ottawa, Nov. 24, 7 p.m.