Skip to main content

Canadian anthropologist and educator Isabel Crook receives an award from China's President Xi Jinping during a ceremony at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on September 29. Ms. Crook and her husband, David, were detained on allegations of spying during China’s bloody Cultural Revolution, but they remained in the country after their release. She is now 104 and still lives in China.

GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing’s new ambassador to Canada is holding up a Canadian recently hailed as a hero devoted to the Chinese Communist Party as an example of good bilateral ties between Canada and China.

Cong Peiwu, the new envoy, recently delivered remarks in Ottawa celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and cited the case of Isabel Crook, a Canadian anthropologist and teacher who has been a supporter of the communist cause for many decades.

Ms. Crook and her husband, David, were detained on allegations of spying during China’s bloody Cultural Revolution, but they remained in the country after their release. She is now 104 and still lives in China.

Story continues below advertisement

Diplomatic ties between Canada and China have deteriorated significantly in the past 11 months since Beijing locked up two Canadians on allegations of espionage. Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor were taken into custody in apparent retaliation for the Canadian arrest of a Chinese tech executive to comply with a U.S. extradition order.

Despite the chill in relations, Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this fall conferred a rare honour on Ms. Crook, awarding the Canadian the Medal of Friendship, a prize reserved for foreigners who have made contributions to China’s socialist modernization and promoted co-operation with other countries. The medal has only been awarded eight times and recipients include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Raul Castro, the current first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan.

Speaking in early October, Mr. Cong hailed Ms. Crook as a good example of Canada-China relations.

“There is great potential for co-operation between China and Canada. Our two peoples have friendly sentiments towards each other,” he said, mentioning Canadian doctor Norman Bethune who has “long been a household name in China” for his medical service to China’s Eighth Route Army.

“And I am very glad to learn that President Xi Jinping has recently signed a presidential decree to award Madam Isabel Crook, the Canadian emeritus professor of Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Friendship Medal of highest state honour,” Mr. Cong said.

Like Mr. Kovrig and Ms. Spavor, Ms. Crook and her husband suffered detention on charges of espionage during the bloody Cultural Revolution in China. A 2005 profile by state-owned China Daily said she “harbours no bitterness" over the incarceration.

In an interview with writer Nicholas Shakespeare published in the British Spectator magazine this past August, Ms. Crook explained that ‘When I was locked up, I read Volumes I-IV of Mao’s complete works three and a half times, ’ ” she told the Spectator. “I loved [Mao’s] rare shafts of humour.”

Story continues below advertisement

Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney said it makes little sense for Chinese diplomats to cite Ms. Crook as a model for Canada-China co-operation.

“Not only is the example of Isabel Crook unlikely to inspire much more than compassion for her suffering on behalf of such an unworthy cause, but, as we near the first anniversary of the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, we are also reminded that the Communist Party of China has a long history of capriciously locking up foreigners,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

“Isabel Crook fits the classic description of what China’s Communist Party calls an ‘old friend’. These are foreigners who have devoted their lives to the “new China,” which means the communist People’s Republic. Such individuals tend to maintain an unwavering devotion to China, despite the fact that another feature common to ‘old friends’ is a long spell in one of Mao’s brutal, Cultural Revolution-era prisons.”

In a 2016 interview available on YouTube, Ms. Crook recalls that she was detained on a school campus. Her husband was incarcerated in jail.

A 2003 biography of the British author George Orwell by Gordon Bowker said that David Crook, in the years before he met and married Isabel, spied on Orwell for the Soviets. The Wall Street Journal in 2005 described Mr. Crook as a “committed Stalinist who had spied for the KGB in Spain and Shanghai.”

Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who worked in China, said the last time he saw Ms. Crook was about three years ago and “she was highly supportive of President Xi’s policies.” He said Ms. Crook’s two sons, who were Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, have subsequently been very successful at business in China. The Red Guards were the cadres of youth who carried out the Cultural Revolution’s destructive actions.

Story continues below advertisement

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter