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Former ambassador to China David Mulroney in a 2009 photo taken on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press

Veteran diplomat and public servant David Mulroney has written a compelling book about Canada's relationship with China, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, which Penguin will publish on Tuesday. Part memoir, part political rumination of his five-year tenure there, ending in 2012, the book goes from very broad to deeply personal: the highbrow concerns of security and trade to the politesse of wearing a baseball cap from Taiwan in Tiananmen Square. And what diplomatic tour of duty in China would be complete without a torrid negotiation over pandas?

You had to go through an ordeal for that panda deal in 2012. How much do we really need them?

It wasn't by my design. It was clear to me that getting those pandas was a big part of my performance package. I'd be assessed on that. It was a symbol of Canadian success.

Canadians just kept on asking for the pandas rather than getting the negotiations right. There are no shortcuts. Just lots of work.

How do Canadians best get what they want when they negotiate with the Chinese?

You have to deconstruct what motivates them: What are problems they have, what they have to deliver on their side?

The other step is doing it on an incremental basis, as opposed to one swing of the bat. And not surprising or embarrassing them. And don't back them into a corner. You have to show almost as much patience as they do.

How do you back them into a corner?

By making ultimatums too quickly. Or being too public about an issue. They'll simply put down tools and move on.

Speaking of backing down, do we bring up human rights issues as much as we used to?

I've travelled to China with three prime ministers. I think they all did a pretty good job of raising them, but I don't think that other ministers do it as the opportunity arises. Let me give you an example. One time, our health ministers had a dialogue. Now we had a case involving a prisoner in detention who needed medical attention and the spouse worried that he wasn't getting it. We had the health minister raise it with her counterpart because he was a doctor, and she said, I need your advice. Normally if you raised human rights with a health minister, he would say I'm just a health minister, not the prime minister. I can't deal with that.

How has the Prime Minister's approach to China evolved during his tenure?

Over the course of many encounters, he established a rapport with former Chinese president Hu Jintao. Don't forget they met often at international meetings in addition to official visits. The PM got to be pretty effective in working with Hu. I wouldn't call them friends, but they understood each other. Now there's a new leader in Beijing. The Canadian PM needs to be on the same footing – not so much friendly as effective – with Hu's successor, Xi Jinping.

How would you characterize the tension between diplomats and political staffers nowadays?

The truth is that public servants now serve a concierge function. They get difficult things done on the basis of careful instruction. So you focus on managing events, like visits, and then you report back to headquarters, but then you feel increasingly bullied. By the end of my career I'd written the same report on Sino-Canadian relations a dozen times. It was time to go.

In what specific way did Ottawa make you feel discouraged?

On the [Chinese social media site] Weibo we hosted a discussion about the case of Lai Changxing, [a fugitive to whom Canada gave refuge].

The other was about the official car I drove, which generated a real discussion about how what kind of accountability officials should be held to.

But there was complete silence from Ottawa, the kind that indicates disapproval. There was nothing they could hold against us because there were too many positives, including two editorials in The Globe. In the end though we turned the way embassies communicate on their head.