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The campaign to sway public opinion behind a Canada-China free-trade deal is all proceeding according to plan, as long as the plan was to make it look like policy wonks, CEOs and government officials are plotting to tell ordinary Canadians what's best.

Maybe you can't draw a lot of lessons about Canadian attitudes to trade from U.S. President Donald Trump's election or the Brexit referendum. But it should still be clear you don't want to emulate the failed pro-EU Remain campaign, which fought against Brexit by commissioning thick policy briefs, getting business leaders to make strident warnings and generally looking like elitists telling ordinary folks what was good for them.

Here in Canada, the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank, launched a two-year effort funded by big corporations to influence public opinion. It kicked off with a closed-door meeting of CEOs, business-lobby leaders and senior government officials like the deputy minister of foreign affairs. The meeting was co-chaired by PPF president Edward Greenspon, a former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, and Kevin Lynch, vice-chair of the Bank of Montreal who was once Ottawa's most senior bureaucrat.

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Tip: If you're trying to sway ordinary Canadians toward a trade deal with China, try not to look like you're starting a campaign with a secret meeting of the 1 per cent.

Chinese authorities aren't helping, either: Last week, Communist Party tabloid the Global Times scolded new Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, a politician still unfamiliar to most Canadians, for coming out against free trade with China. Nothing persuades Canadians that Beijing is benign like a state newspaper wading angrily into Canadian politics.

It's all a bit worrisome because a free-trade deal with China might – might – be an important thing for Canada's economy. Yet the politics could become entrenched before we even know what the nature of the deal is.

Canada is not Mr. Trump's United States, nor Britain, but the debate over free trade with China already has the potential to echo some of the populist America First and Brexit rhetoric. The Liberals are allied with a pro-China-trade business lobby and Conservatives portray them as elitists with an agenda who will trade away Canadian values and jobs.

Justin Trudeau's government is already fending off the notion they'll bend for Beijing, most recently over whether they should have applied more stringent security reviews to the takeover of Canadian tech firm Norsat. But they don't want to wade directly into the politics of free trade with China, not yet, so they've encouraged efforts like the PPF's.

Mr. Scheer, meanwhile, has rushed to a quick knee-jerk dismissal of free trade with China, considering he's a leader of the supposedly free-trading party. His expressed concern for human-rights and labour-standards clashes with the former Conservative government's arms sales to Saudi Arabia and trade deal with Honduras. China already locks up dissidents and Mr. Scheer still thinks it's important to bolster trade with Beijing, so why is he dead set against a trade deal?

To be fair, Mr. Scheer did allude to a real, important difficulty: A trade deal is supposed to provide guaranteed access to a country's market, and with China, it's hard to be certain of the guarantees.

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Trade deals usually guarantee access through lower tariffs, giving foreign companies comparable rights to domestic ones, or harmonizing regulations. But the Chinese state controls so many corporations and so much of China's economy, and can quietly influence myriad decisions – if tariffs are eliminated, other barriers might keep Canadian goods out. Some Australians complain that's what happened after their trade deal with China took effect in 2015.

The economic question, then, is whether Canada can negotiate effective guarantees – it's not whether a deal with China is good, but whether it's a good deal. We don't know yet.

But it is doomed anyway if it is done the old way – negotiated in utter secrecy then sold as good for the economy by business leaders. We've seen that fail. Too many people suspect that when CEOs say it's good for the economy, they mean their economy – and don't worry about the potential disruption to ordinary Canadians' lives. Forget moulding public opinion for now: Figure out what ordinary Canadians want out of a deal and how many, and who, might actually get it. Then you might have a real campaign.

To be fair to the PPF, it says it was trying to encourage discussion about complex issues led by some serious policy thinkers. But you can't really start the national conversation by gathering powerful advocates behind closed doors. That's more of a conversation stopper.

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