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Last week, Communist China turned 65, but the outside world could be forgiven for missing it. The date was overshadowed by protests that have overtaken Hong Kong, where authorities went so far as to cancel the celebratory fireworks.

The anniversary nonetheless marks a milestone. For two-thirds of a century now, the revolution that took root under Mao Zedong has flourished, leaving China with a one-party authoritarian rule whose methods have changed greatly over the years, but whose grip on power has not. China today, like China in the years after 1949, rules from the centre, and reacts swiftly and harshly to anyone or anything that could threaten its command.

In fact, if China's 65th anniversary marks anything, perhaps it's a time for other nations to re-evaluate how they approach a country that plays an increasingly fundamental role in global trade, but maintains an often-repressive political and civil society regime.

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In recent years, Canada's unwillingness to offer more than lukewarm opposition to China's undemocratic practices has brought it criticism. Longtime Hong Kong democracy activist Martin Lee, for example, called the international community, including Canada, "despicable" for not rising up more strongly in defence of Hong Kong's protesters. China has "all the power. They have all the money. And all the other countries are on their side, too," he said. "I think it's shameful."

(Canada's Foreign Affairs Department, in its most recent comments on Hong Kong, has said it has raised concerns with senior members of the Chinese leadership and supports "the implementation of universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017 and all members of the Legislative Council in 2020.")

But China's rise has created increasingly vexing foreign policy questions for other countries, because when it is criticized, Beijing has an ever-greater ability to lash back. It is now the world's second-largest economy; by one measure, it already occupies top spot. It played a singularly important role in bringing the financial world back from the brink in the recent economic collapse. Its contributions are increasingly sought for international endeavours, such as fighting terror.

But as it whips up internal nationalism under its "China dream" conception, the country under President Xi Jinping has shown itself increasingly indelicate with those outside its borders: Witness its provocative actions in disputed maritime areas – where it is building islands and even drilling for oil to boost its claims – and its willingness to slap aside foreign competitors to benefit its own companies.

(It is one of the great ironies of today's China that Google's Android operating system claims fully 82.7 per cent of the country's smartphone market share, but virtually all of the company's primary ad-driven services – search, Gmail and Maps – are censored, severely hampering the company's ability to profit from its presence there.)

China, moreover, has consistently defied the efforts of Western nations to seek democratic reforms alongside economic opening – repeatedly refuting the perhaps naive belief that the two would, by some inexorable force, emerge together. It's a sentiment still shared by some members of the business community, but one increasingly out of touch with the reality in China itself.

So what is a nation like Canada to do? The first step might be to acknowledge the futility of the idea that China will march toward a more democratic system as its markets open.

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"Countries generally seem to feel that they can't just say this is a big, tough, nasty government, but we have to deal with it," said James Mann, the author of The China Fantasy, which respected China watcher Bill Bishop has called "the most important and prescient American book on China of the 21st century."

Instead, Mr. Mann said, countries offer "narratives that are either off-base or downright fictional" – that is, like saying trade is helping improve human rights.

He offered a direct counter to that. "It's a mistake for anyone to think that this regime is not going to be there for the coming decades, or that the nature of China's political system is going to open up very much." Beijing streets may now have Ferraris and Bentleys but China's press, he points out, has less latitude for government criticism than in the 1980s. And while discussion of problems like bad air is now more open, Chinese citizens are as unable as ever to band together to do something about it.

One solution, Mr. Mann said, is to allow unvarnished criticism to stand on equal footing with an eagerness for trade. But that's getting harder, he said, as China flexes its muscle. U.S. President Barack Obama declined to meet the Dalai Lama before his first visit to China, to escape Beijing's anger. (Mr. Obama did meet the Tibetan spiritual leader in February.) The Dalai Lama himself has of late softened his tone toward China, an acknowledgment of the country's clout. "That is the continuing outrage. I can't be optimistic that that's going to change," Mr. Mann said.

But there are still options. One, he said, is for countries to work together in criticism – not through institutions like the UN, where China has the power of a Security Council veto, but on an informal basis. For example, after China gave a life sentence recently to Ilham Tohti, a moderate voice in defence of the country's Uyghur minority, "it would be most helpful for other governments to work together to have joint statements," Mr. Mann said.

There are other ways, too, says Paul Evans, a University of British Columbia professor who recently wrote a book on the topic, Engaging China: Myth, Aspiration, and Strategy in Canadian Policy from Trudeau to Harper. He suggests Canada has failed when it pulled back from some of its smaller initiatives in China, particularly through the Canadian International Development Agency, to help train jurists and lawyers. Amid criticism that it has been an ineffective handout to an increasingly wealthy country, CIDA funding has been almost entirely pulled from China (with the exception of legal aid for marginalized groups).

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But, Mr. Evans argues, Canada has been at its best when previous governments used a "comprehensive approach to China, and they had instruments for working with the Chinese other than just the megaphone or a statement by the prime minister."

The biggest mistake the Harper government has made, he said, is "we've reduced the relationship to China, far more than earlier governments, to the commercial side."

That, of course, is precisely how Beijing wants it. The question for Canada: Is it worth it to upset a country that has already marked 65 years of Communist rule and is preparing for many decades more?


Is China still rising?

One of the questions that has long faced those thinking about China is how to describe it. Is it the "two" in a G2 world? Or is it some combination of adjective with "superpower"? "Rising," or "potential," or "second," or "inevitable" – each has a tidy ring to it. But each is also a qualifier, signifying that, in terms relative to the United States, China is not yet quite there.

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According to one measure, though, China has now arrived at unqualified superpower status. This week, the International Monetary Fund published data showing that the Asian country has surpassed the U.S. by one measure of economic strength: the "purchasing power parity" assessment of gross domestic product – a statistic designed to compare how many yuan it takes to buy an orange or taxi ride in China versus buying the same in the U.S. with dollars.

It's a specialized statistic meant to measure buying power inside a country. And by that tally China now eclipses the U.S. by a margin of $17.6-trillion (U.S.) to $17.4-trillion. As recently as 2005, China stood at less than half the size of the U.S. by this calculation. The use of PPP figures stands to "revolutionise the picture of the world's economic landscape," the Financial Times wrote earlier this year, and stands to prompt a dramatic rebalancing of power relationships inside international institutions.

What the PPP does not account for, however, is either individual wealth (where on a per-capita basis, China is in 99th place, compared with 12th for the U.S.) or international influence. "PPP creates so much confusion, and in most cases is a useless number, so I really don't know why the IMF does the exercise," said Michael Pettis, a well-known economist in Beijing.

The traditional measure of GDP compares national economic size based on the relative value of currencies, an accounting of how much one country can buy from another. That makes it a more suitable measure for assessing global power, since countries exert themselves through cross-border trade deals, aid agreements and spending. By that measure, China still merits a "rising" descriptor, since it remains some $6.5-trillion back of the U.S.

Even China has been reluctant to make much of the PPP number, questioning the math that produces it and the wisdom of using it. "In contrast to the hype in the Western media about China ending the U.S. reign as the world's biggest economy … Chinese people are aware that what China needs is green mountains and clean waters – a long-term balanced development model," a recent commentary in state media said.

The PPP measure may nonetheless have a certain usefulness, as an early warning to the need for a reckoning on China's coming place in the world. In a separate report published this week, IHS chief Asia economist Rajiv Biswas forecast that China will, even using the traditional GDP measurement, eclipse the U.S. in 2024. That "matters very much in terms of global geopolitical influence, China's ability to provide aid to other countries, for their companies to invest in other countries – and other things, like tourism," Mr. Biswas said in an interview.

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And 2024 is hardly an endpoint. If as expected Chinese growth continues to outpace other nations, by 2030 its economy will already be 25 per cent larger than that of the U.S., he estimates.

But there's another factor worth considering: Economic clout doesn't always correlate particularly well with global power. China is already the world's biggest market for automobiles, mobile phones and energy. "In almost all markets we usually look at, China has become bigger" than anyone else, said Andy Xie, a former Morgan Stanley Asia-Pacific economist who now works independently. That's not to mention its manufacturing prowess, or the power of its currency reserves, with a trade surplus of $49.8-billion in August alone.

"So China should be the financial centre of the world. All the deals should be done in China. But the Chinese political system is not there," Mr. Xie said. With a legal system that engenders little trust, and a domestic system of privilege that often rewards those with connections over skill, China is not internally structured in such a way that others are prepared to rely on it, he said.

"That's what's preventing China from making the leap to become a premier power like the U.S.," he said. "All the debate about watching the GDP numbers – it's all beside the point."

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that Canada's Foreign Affairs Department, in recent comments on Hong Kong, said it has concerns with "senior members of the Chinese leadership." This passage should have said that Foreign Affairs has raised concerns with senior members of the Chinese leadership.

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