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It was just two years ago that the Trudeau government returned from Beijing empty-handed and rather sheepish. The trip, which came after a year of exploratory talks, had been widely expected to launch formal free-trade negotiations between Canada and China. Instead, the Prime Minister returned to Canada with the impotence of his “progressive trade agenda” laid bare. It turns out that China wasn’t interested in being lectured on gender and labour rights.

A couple of years later and Canada’s moralizing has all but dried up – right at the time, coincidentally, when it is desperately warranted.

The months-long conflict between the People’s Republic of China and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong recently reached another violent peak. On Sunday, Hong Kong Polytechnic University became ground zero for a prolonged standoff, where police deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons against protesters, who responded in kind with Molotov cocktails and bows and arrows. Hundreds of students were caught in limbo, trapped behind barricades on the university’s campus.

It was yet another scene of oppressive state violence, characteristic of a country that seems to have hardly progressed in the 30 years since its most infamous display of egregious authoritarian violence. With the desperate pleas of protesters and violent images now flooding our media and social media feeds, it’s easy to look back and wonder: Why did Canada ever want to deepen ties with this place?

Hong Kong has been in turmoil since June, when the Chinese government proposed legislation that would have allowed people from Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China to face charges. The legislation has since been withdrawn, but the protests over wider issues of freedom, democracy and rights set out in Hong Kong’s Basic Law have continued.

The latent effect of these violent clashes has been renewed international attention on the other authoritarian actions of the Chinese state, including its repressive social credit system, which ranks citizens based on behavioural measures (a handy way to keep political dissidents in check), as well as its heinous treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority, who have been subject to mass surveillance, torture and detention in what China calls re-education camps.

These are not new activities for the Chinese government; indeed, the framework for China’s social credit system was initiated in 2014, and Human Rights Watch and similar organizations have been chronicling abuses against Uyghurs for years. But there’s something about an armoured car driving toward student protesters that makes the world take a closer look at who, exactly, is driving the vehicle.

For all of the Canadian government’s past enthusiasm for preaching progressive values abroad, it has been conspicuously reserved in responding to the recent violence in Hong Kong. The government has issued a statement expressing “concern,” and another calling for de-escalation, but nothing more robust in terms of words, sanctions or other actions. There are, of course, very good reasons for that: China still has the two Canadians it detained on bogus charges in response to the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last December.

And China’s retaliatory economic measures – a four-month suspension on imports of Canadian beef and pork, along with its drastic reductions of canola imports – struck an enormous financial blow to Canadian industry.

Canada’s trepidation is thus no mystery: We know, and China knows, that we depend far more on China than the other way around. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably to Canada’s benefit that our “progressive trade agenda” of 2017 did not take hold. Canada needs fewer ties to China, not more, and Canada was never going to export its progressive values anyway.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton floated the idea of democracy-through-trade nearly 20 years ago when he made the case for China’s membership in the World Trade Organization. “The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people,” he said in a speech at the time. “And when individuals have the power, not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.”

Needless to say, this vision did not materialize. Indeed, if anything, repression at the hands of the Chinese state is only amplified as it wields authoritarian pressure domestically, and economic might abroad. Canada, meanwhile, is left in an impossible spot, with few levers through which to apply any meaningful diplomatic pressure on its own.

But the shift in approach over a rather short time is nevertheless striking. Two years ago, we were lecturing the Chinese about fair labour practices. Today, we can’t muster more than a squeak about violent human rights abuses, lest we provoke further economic retaliation or retribution against Canadians living in Hong Kong. If Canada will not, or cannot, take a stand when it actually matters, it means little for our government to lecture when it doesn’t.

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