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John Burns
John Burns

John Burns, June 28, 1971 - June 23, 1975 Add to ...

For nearly 40 years roving the Earth with a notebook in the pocket of my oil-stained trench coat, it has been my guilty secret: I never planned to be a foreign correspondent, much less a correspondent in Mao Zedong's China, then about as enticing to me as the far side of the moon.

That all changed when Pierre Trudeau threw a punch at me - actually, several punches - in the government lobby of the House of Commons in Ottawa. The time was October, 1970, at the height of the War Measures Act crisis, and Mr. Trudeau was at the height of his powers as prime minister. I was just 26, assigned as one of The Globe and Mail's parliamentary correspondents to cover the Prime Minister's Office.

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It was a mismatch in more ways than one. Mr. Trudeau was a black belt in the martial arts, and he caught me unawares, knocking me backward and down into an overstuffed leather armchair. His press secretary, Roméo LeBlanc, later to be governor-general, had whispered in the prime ministerial ear that I was trying to eavesdrop as Mr. Trudeau briefed a cluster of Liberal backbenchers on the latest turn of events in the Quebec kidnappings.

In fact, I was trying to get Mr. Trudeau's attention to ask a question. But the upshot was a flurry of unwanted headlines, including one in The Toronto Star, and an order from the Commons Speaker banning me from the precincts of Parliament. That was quickly rescinded when one of the Liberal backbenchers took my side of the story to the Speaker, but by then The Globe's managing editor, Clark Davey, had summoned me to Toronto.

"It's plain you can't go on working in Ottawa," he said.

So what, then, I asked? Halifax? Winnipeg? Saskatoon?

"No, we're sending you to China."

And so it was, on an overcast day in May, 1971, that I crossed the covered wooden bridge leading from Hong Kong's New Territories into the People's Republic of China, then in the midst of the often-violent upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution.

It was not a promising start. Midway across the bridge, I met a dispirited fellow - in a trench coat, I swear - who identified himself as a German correspondent based in China, then one of a tiny crew of Western reporters based in Peking. (Yes, Peking: When we English-speakers start calling the capital of Rome "Roma," and the capital of Russia "Moskva," I'll make the change. But Peking it was to me then, and Peking it remains.)

The sad-eyed German fellow had some ominous advice. "Turn around!" he said. "Go back! It's crazy where you're going! Save yourself now!" With that, he lumbered off toward Hong Kong, never to be seen again within the precincts of Mao's dominion.

I headed north, glancing back as I did so, thinking, "What a sorry fellow - 45 years old, minimum. Way past his bedtime. Won't catch me bellying up to the bar when I'm that old. This is a young man's game."

As I write, more than 38 years later, I am still roaming the Earth, covering wars and other mayhem, though now from the safe aerie of a base in London. Next month, I will have completed 34 of those years at The New York Times, almost all of it as a foreign correspondent, most recently as bureau chief for five years in Baghdad.

All of this I owe to The Globe and that serendipitous decision all those years ago by Clark Davey, choosing a reporter with no knowledge of Chinese, and little of China's turbulent history, for the only bureau any of the Western world's newspapers had in Peking.

In a sense, too, I suppose, I owe a debt of gratitude to Pierre Trudeau, with whom I buried the hatchet during my four Globe years in China when he made a prime ministerial visit and invited me to join him one day for a trip across Tiananmen Square in the Red Flag limousine provided by his hosts. Recalling our fistfight, we shook hands.

'By negative example'

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