Prof. David Lumsden receives prestigious Great Wall Friendship Award

York anthropology Professor David Lumsden received China’s highest award for foreigners last week when he was given the Great Wall Friendship Award in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People by China’s Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang.

“This award is the highest honour that China bestows on foreign experts for their contributions to China’s development and to international friendship,” says Lumsden, nominated for the award by Southwest University and the Chongqing municipal government in southwest China. “Overall, it was an unforgettable honour and experience.”

Right: David Lumsden receiving his Great Wall Friendship Award (R) from China’s Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang

In addition to receiving the award, Lumsden was one of two winners chosen to give a thanksgiving speech on behalf of all the winners at the award ceremony.

Lumsden recently returned to York after spending a two-year sabbatical at Southwest University teaching graduate students and conducting research on the local Tujia people and on the impact of Chinese reforms on peasants and migrant workers flooding into cities. Lumsden, master of Norman Bethune College from 1983 to 1989, received the Three Gorges Friendship Award from Chongqing, Toronto’s sister city, in 2007. (See the Feb. 20, 2008 issue of YFile.) He also played a major role in the twinning of Chongqing city, a municipal region of 32 million people affected by the Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River, with Toronto.

China began giving this national-level award in 1991 and to date has recognized about 1,000 people. This year 150 people were nominated for the Great Wall Friendship Award, but only 50 were chosen to receive the award. Lumsden was the only Canadian; the others came from a wide range of specialties including agriculture, engineering, nursing, architecture, oceanography, archaeology and biochemistry, and from 19 different countries.

Lumsden also had the opportunity to meet, along with the other winners, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. “Premier Wen made a short speech in which he emphasized that the Open Door policy will continue. He also emphasized that China’s is an honest government, one that admits its mistake and problems – he explicitly mentioned the tainted milk problem – and then works to correct them,” says Lumsden.

Lumsden’s association with Chongqing goes back to 1982, when Rod Stewart, a fellow of Norman Bethune College, came back after a year’s sabbatical in the city and urged people at the college to help him bring over a student who had acted as his interpreter while there. The student did come over and that was the beginning of the relationship between Chongqing and Bethune College. When Lumsden became master of Bethune College in 1983, he forged ahead with strengthening the link with Chongqing through an informal exchange program.

Above: Chongqing city in China

At the time, the city was still a part of Sichuan province, but since June of 1997 it has been one of four cities that are direct municipalities, meaning they report directly to the central government. This is because of the population of Chongqing as well as its social and economic importance. About seven million migrant labourers come to Chongqing each year, while about 6.4 million residents leave the city annually. “The city is huge. It’s the same population as all of Canada,” says Lumsden. “That’s something startling and worth reflecting on.”

Chongqing is currently identified as the place to try out national level policy reforms, says Lumsden. It is the national experimental zone for finding new ways of balancing and coordinating development between the rural and urban areas of China. On having spent his sabbatical in Chongqing, Lumsden says, “It gives you a front row seat for all the changes that are happening in China.” As an anthropologist, that’s an important and worthwhile experience as Lumsden has long been interested in urbanization, social and economic changes in Chongqing, the disability experience in the city and in health, social security and education.

“It’s been a real honour and a delight to watch this city grow over the years,” says Lumsden. “It’s been a big part of my life and it’s a very important city for Toronto and area to be connected to.”