OTTAWA -- Dr. Norman Bethune was a surgeon and crusader for the poor. He invented a mobile blood-transfusion service during the Spanish Civil War and at least a dozen surgical instruments, some of which are still used eight decades later.
He was rowdy and stubborn and flamboyant.
He was also a communist who died treating Mao Zedong's troops in China during the Sino-Japanese war.
That had many Conservatives seeing red last week after Canada spent $2.5 million on a new visitor centre at the National Historic Site to honour Bethune's memory. The site opened in 1976 in Bethune's hometown of Gravenhurst, Ont. The money was announced in 2009, but the centre opened July 11, with Treasury Board President Tony Clement in attendance.
It did not go over well in conservative circles. From Conservative MPs to Sun News Network host Ezra Levant, the government was under attack from some of their own.
"The idea that taxpayer money is being used to glorify somebody who was a propagandist for Mao, there's a lot of taxpayers out there who would say that was an inappropriate use of resources," said Calgary MP Rob Anders. "That is a project that could have fallen within our deficit-elimination efforts and been eliminated."
Nothing elicits Conservative scorn like any suggestion of a connection to communism. Just check the comments sure to appear under this column as soon as it is posted on the web.
Last year, then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was pilloried by the Sun crowd for using a phrase that, when rewritten almost entirely, could have possibly, maybe, been a quotation from Mao himself.
"Let some flowers bloom here, let democracy breathe. Let it live," Ignatieff said, which some reported bore a striking similarity to Mao's "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend."
Last week, Levant launched a Twitter assault on a Globe and Mail journalist for daring to move to Cuba, where his wife took over as the head of CARE Canada's aid offices. Clement got in on that action, suggesting there was a difference between his supporting Bethune and the journalist moving to a communist country.
So it may be somewhat confusing to see the Conservative government opening up taxpayers' wallets for a lowly communist who happened to also do some kind of nice things. Even more confusing when the same government slashes millions from the budgets of other national historic sites, cutting visiting hours and eliminating guided tours at many, including Winnipeg's Riel House.
So why are two of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's most trusted cabinet ministers -- Clement and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird -- defending the expenditure?
It has diplomacy and global politics written all over it.
Bethune is a beloved figure in China with almost-mythical status as a man who gave his own life to help save Chinese soldiers' lives. Chinese school kids read Mao's essay In Memory of Norman Bethune in history classes. An international peace hospital was named in his honour in Shijiazhuang, about 300 kilometres southwest of Beijing.
Most of the 15,000 annual visitors to Bethune Memorial House are Chinese, and Chinese nationals are shocked when they learn most Canadians have never heard of Bethune. He's almost as well-known in China as Chairman Mao.
China is one of the world's dominant powers these days, with an economic reach Canada cannot ignore. The decision to invest in Bethune's memory is entirely about making the Chinese government happy.
If China is happy with Canada, they may be more open to trade deals and we sell more oil and potash and wheat. A market of one billion people is too good to pass up for petty politics about a man who died 80 years ago.
To underscore that point, the Chinese national anthem was played at last Wednesday's event, and Clement arrived at the unveiling by rickshaw.
"I don't think we're here to promote the communist principle," Clement said at the event. "I think we as Conservatives can be comfortable that there's a message here broader than just his communism, that goes to his humanism and entrepreneurship."