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Department of External Affairs/Library and Archives Canada.

Chester Ronning

 

“A brilliant and humane diplomat – Canada’s leading expert on China.”

Seymour Topping
Managing Editor of the New York Times (1977-1987)

 

Chester Ronning gave Canada a bridge into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Fluent in Mandarin, he was recruited by the Department of External Affairs in 1945 and posted to the Canadian embassy in Chongqing. When the embassy closed in 1946, Ronning remained as Chargé d’affaires and parlayed with both the ruling Nationalists and the rising Communists. These latter contacts gave him a line of communication with the PRC and the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. At the 1954 Geneva Accords, he introduced Lester Pearson to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, a personal acquaintance, while his reputation as an expert on China gave him enough credibility to lead a peace mission to Hanoi – codenamed “Operation Smallbridge” – in 1966. At a time when the United States conflated Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese Communism as a uniform threat, Ronning provided the nuanced advice and personal connections that allowed Canada to play the role of mediator during the Vietnam War.

Chester Ronning (second from the left) at the at Coimbatore Guest House in Bombay, India. Department of External Affairs/Library and Archives Canada.

Following his posting to Chongqing, Ronning served as Ambassador to Norway and High Commissioner to India. In Ottawa, he headed Far Eastern Division. An expert on China and Asia, Ronning joined the Canadian delegations to the United Nations and served on international disarmament commissions in Korea and Laos. After retiring from the Foreign Service, he became an outspoken advocate for normalizing relations with the PRC. Ronning’s speaking tours, editorials, and media appearances helped pave the way for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s policy to recognize the Chinese government in Beijing.

The son of Lutheran missionaries, Ronning was born in Fangcheng, China in 1894. After spending his childhood in rural Alberta and studying education at the University of Alberta, he returned to Fangcheng to teach middle school. Forced to leave China during the revolution, Ronning accepted a position as principal of the Camrose Lutheran College before winning a seat in the Alberta Legislature and leading the provincial Cooperative Commonwealth Federation party. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian diplomacy in Asia.


Further Reading:

Evans, Brian L. The Remarkable Chester Ronning: Proud Son of China. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2014.

Ronning,Chester. A Memoir of China in Revolution: From the Boxer Rebellion to the People’s Republic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

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