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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks in Toronto on Nov. 8, 2013.MICHELLE SIU/The Globe and Mail

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It's not what Justin Trudeau likes about China that's worrisome, it's what he doesn't seem to know.

Yes, it's foolish for a Canadian politician to express admiration for China's "basic dictatorship" when the country also locks up dissidents, censors speech and executes thousands.

But it's more than just a gaffe. Even after he brought up human rights on Saturday to address the hubbub sparked Thursday when he expressed admiration for the ability of China's "basic dictatorship" to turn the economy on a dime, he still embraced a myth. China's authoritarian leadership didn't make it an economic miracle or a model of efficiency. It's not even a "basic dictatorship," for that matter.

Mr. Trudeau's burst of admiration will be seen by some as part of a Liberal tradition of soft-soaping human rights in China, but then again, Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird referred to China in 2011 as not just a friend but an ally.

But in a world of growing Chinese influence, harbouring the myth of the nimble tyrant – that its dictatorship has allowed it to steer growth – is a potentially hazardous misread for an aspiring leader.

Last Thursday, Mr. Trudeau was asked what country, other than Canada, he admires for its administration. "There's a level of admiration I actually have for China," he said. "Their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime and say, we need to go green fastest … we need to start investing in solar."

On Saturday, in Drummondville, Que., he told reporters he was trying to make people think about "both how we celebrate our freedoms and our rights but also how we can ensure that we're really up to the challenges we face in a globalized planet." He was trying to make us think, apparently, about keeping up with a power unencumbered by inefficiencies.

One aspect of Mr. Trudeau's point inadvertently echoes the argument Beijing employs to blunt criticisms of its human-rights record; it is using it right now to ward off critics of its bid to join the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday. Beijing argues it has pulled millions of people out of poverty in recent decades – in other words, that it's had to skimp on freedoms to focus on managing the economy.

But authoritarianism didn't drive China's boom. Its economy took off after the government loosened the grip in the late 1970s and the 1980s. China reduced state intervention and allowed profit, leading farms to modernize, then small businesses and factories. Productivity increased. People moved to the cities. There was new investment, domestic and foreign, but the take-off was, according to several economic studies, mostly driven by increased productivity. Looser control drove growth.

It's true Chinese government intervention changed the economy. After the 2008 financial crisis, it tried to shift its economy from exports to domestic demands, but it used the tools common in democracies, like health-care programs and pensions, to try to weaken the obsession with saving, and stimulus spending on infrastructure. And the economy didn't turn on a dime.

Even Mr. Trudeau's example, solar energy, is that of a state struggling with thick urban pollution that's using subsidies and incentives to promote solar-energy use – following the example of leaders like Germany. Chinese industry hasn't gone green yet. Its state businesses might yet stand in the way.

That's in part because of another feature of modern China that Mr. Trudeau misjudged, or at least misnamed. China isn't run by a dictator anymore, it's run by an authoritarian class: senior Communist Party poobahs, officials, executives of state-owned firms and their families. It is seen as riddled with corruption, and often driven by its interest in guarding privileges. The days of Mao and Deng Xiaoping have given way to committees that must balance the interests of that class. Leaders now must periodically move on. The class stays. It's not a recipe for efficiency.

That's not to say China's leadership never makes good economic or environmental decisions. But it also has to answer to competing internal interests in an inefficient system. Mr. Trudeau needs to know that because dealing with China matters to Canada's economy, and the world's.

He also needs to know it because China's leadership, despite its authoritarianism, has to worry about public will – not just demand for freedoms, but discontent with corruption. It has lost the underpinning of communist ideology, and replaced it with economic growth and nationalism. It has changed, and will change again sometime, somehow. The question of what China will become will be critical. It'd be better not to start approaching it with myth.

Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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