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David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.

After more than a week of protests by outraged fans, the National Basketball Association seems to be emerging from its China crisis.

It all began with a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. The NBA was in damage-control mode within hours. Mr. Morey recanted; handmade signs supporting the protests and China’s oppressed Uyghurs were quietly hustled out of U.S. arenas; stars such as James Harden and Lebron James made China-friendly statements.

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For his part, league commissioner Adam Silver conducted the kind of penitential walk back that is now familiar to western chief executives in China – delivering reassuring public statements about respecting differences.

Protesters rally in support of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in Hong Kong on Oct. 15, 2019.

ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Staying ahead of the nationalistic mob is important. Video-game developer Blizzard recently moved with lightning speed to disqualify and suspend an e-sports gamer who, in an interview, blurted out, ”Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” – the rallying cry of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

For Beijing, economic power is the key to greater global influence. Hollywood studios now understand that the price of admission into China’s theatres is the injection of pro-China plot lines into their films. Struggling western media companies partner with China’s state-controlled press, obligingly circulating Chinese content. And airlines such as Air Canada, looking to access China’s vast tourism market, have been pressed to inaccurately list Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, as just another Chinese city.

The fires of nationalism are stoked and carefully controlled by the Chinese government, which uses the ensuing protests to put pressure on foreign companies to conform with Beijing’s policies, effectively exporting China’s repression to the west.

China uses economic blackmail on countries as well as on corporations. Blocking imports of Canadian canola is, for example, an important element in Beijing’s efforts to pressure Canada to release Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who currently faces extradition to the United States.

Of course, such interventions risk causing collateral damage at home in China. Chinese fans are rabid for NBA-level basketball, and Canadian canola sells in China because it’s better than the local alternative. But China’s tough-minded brand of state capitalism allows it to override local consumer demand – at least, usually long enough to obtain concessions from jittery foreign corporations and from governments far more sensitive to the political cost of market disruption.

This is leading to increasing interest in what some in the U.S. are calling “decoupling” – that is, replacing our across-the-board engagement with an idealized vision of China, and instead approaching the communist state as a formidable rising power that’s as much a competitor as it is a customer. Proponents of decoupling argue that focusing exclusively on deepening economic ties with China is backfiring precisely because Beijing so effectively weaponizes trade, turning market access into a dangerous dependency.

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But we’re not hearing much talk about decoupling here in Canada. Even after a year of brutal treatment by Beijing, the government seems wedded to the same comprehensive engagement strategy that corporations such as the NBA stubbornly embrace. We’ve even dispatched senior people to Beijing on what seem, bizarrely, like apology tours. In their visits to China, federal Small Business Minister Mary Ng and Canadian senator and Canada-China Legislative Association co-chair Joseph Day sounded an awful lot like Mr. Silver as they meekly offered Chinese audiences bromides about not letting small differences disrupt our fundamental friendship.

We do need to manage our messaging while Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor continue to languish in Chinese detention. But that doesn’t oblige us to say things that are foolish or untrue, or to put off serious thinking about a smart decoupling from a China that is, from abundant evidence, far from friendly. This isn’t about abandoning the relationship – it’s about ending a failed, anything-goes approach to engagement.

Fortunately, at least one western institution has resisted the impulse to kowtow. Last week, the satirical cartoon series South Park skewered the Chinese government’s blackmail tactics and its censorship threats. Beijing went on to ban viewing and even discussing of the show. Its creators responded with a mock apology: "Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the statement reads. “... Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now, China?”

Maybe Ottawa’s China experts need to watch a little less basketball and a little more South Park.

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