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The arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor brought Ottawa and Beijing’s relationship to a new low. But to reach that point, it took a half-century of repeated failures to learn a simple lesson: China is not to be underestimated

Supporters wave Chinese flags at Bao'an International Airport in Shenzhen, China, on Sept. 25 as they await the arrival of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Shortly after Ms. Meng's release from Canadian custody, two Canadian prisoners in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were also set free.NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Fen Osler Hampson is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University and President of the World Refugee & Migration Council.

Mike Blanchfield is the international affairs writer for The Canadian Press, based in Ottawa.

They are the co-authors of The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the US-China Cyber War, which will be published in November and from which this essay is adapted.

On December 14, 2015, black-clad Chinese police officers wearing white N95 respirators were gathered in front of a Beijing courthouse under an overcast, soot-soaked sky. Inside, the trial of Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was under way. Supporters and demonstrators had rallied to support Mr. Pu, while journalists, camera crews and diplomats from Western embassies joined them in the street to document their dissent. The Chinese police were having none of it. They broke into the crowd, shoving and pulling people out of their way. One officer pushed several people, punched one, and ripped a large television camera out of the hands of its operator. In the middle of the scuffles and hollering, BBC Beijing correspondent John Sudworth, whose camera operator was recording it all, narrated the scene: “This is a trial that’s all about free speech. And China was keeping journalists well away. But this was forceful even by China’s usual standards for press access.”

“Even diplomats, who had hoped to observe the court proceedings were pushed and hassled away,” says Mr. Sudworth. The Canadian embassy in Beijing was among those to dispatch two diplomats to witness the scene. A third diplomat was assigned to write a report on what they witnessed: his name was Michael Kovrig. Eight days later, relatively good news emerged from Mr. Pu’s trial. He was banned from his profession but handed a three-year suspended sentence.

Mr. Kovrig wrote a two-page memorandum that was circulated widely within the Canadian foreign ministry, and to colleagues across China, Hong Kong, and Geneva, the seat of the United Nations Human Rights Council. “Renowned human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang given suspended sentence, barred from practicing law,” Mr. Kovrig wrote in the subject line. The documents were stamped “SECRET” but were subsequently released under Canada’s access-to-information law. Mr. Kovrig’s dispatch analyzed the implications of Mr. Pu’s trial. The Beijing Intermediate Court had found Mr. Pu guilty of charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” His “alleged crimes,” as Mr. Kovrig detailed them, consisted of seven posts on the Chinese microblogging website Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, between July, 2011, and May, 2014. The posts totalled just 600 characters. “Pu,” wrote Mr. Kovrig, “was particularly critical of China’s ethnic policies against Uyghurs, writing in one post, ‘If you say Xinjiang belongs to China, then don’t treat it as a colony, don’t act as conquerors and plunderers. This is an absurd national policy.’ ” He had also “mocked Chairman Mao’s grandson Mao Xinyu and a senior National People’s Congress deputy and accused now-purged CPC security czar Zhou Yongkang of abusing human rights.” Mr. Pu admitted to his posts but insisted none warranted the charges that had been brought against him. His lawyer “also noted that he appreciated the support and attention that Canada and likeminded governments had given to the case.”

Mr. Kovrig’s memo was symptomatic of the Canadian government’s disjointed approach to Beijing. As front-line diplomats such as himself were documenting serious human rights cases in China, the government pursued its economic aspirations to increase trade, investment, and the mobility of people between the countries. Mr. Kovrig’s memo was filed little more than a month after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Turkey. That meeting was amiable and full of promise. Mr. Xi was pleased to know the son of the man who had helped pave the way for the West’s relations with the People’s Republic some 45 years earlier.

Two Trudeaus in two different Chinas: At left, Pierre Trudeau gets help with his chopsticks from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1973, and at right, Justin Trudeau shakes hands with President Xi Jinping at a G20 summit in Hangzhou in 2016.Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press; Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Pierre Trudeau’s establishment of Canadian diplomatic relations with China in October, 1970, and his memorable visit in 1973, in which he was granted an unexpected audience with chairman Mao Zedong, opened the floodgates for other Western countries to engage China. U.S. president Richard Nixon paid his own historic visit to China in 1972, paving the way for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations seven years later.

The elder Trudeau’s motives were partly a personal fascination with China, which he had travelled extensively in his youth, partly an ambition to bring the Chinese into the international family of nations, and partly a desire to expand Canada’s international trade opportunities and strike a foreign policy course independent of the U.S. Human rights were not high on his agenda.

In the 1980s, human rights concerns barely registered in Brian Mulroney’s pre-Tiananmen Square engagement with Beijing. The Progressive Conservatives under Mr. Mulroney enthusiastically pursued trade and people-to-people ties with the Chinese, disregarding at least publicly China’s totalitarian ways. Declassified cabinet documents show how the Progressive Conservative government had been eager and full of purpose as it set out to build economic bridges with China. On March 16, 1987, Mr. Mulroney and his cabinet met to consider a secret memo titled A Canadian Strategy for China. It laid out a clear economic goal: “How to capitalize on Canada’s fascination with China to seize opportunities created by its modernization drive and to position ourselves for the year 2000 when China will be a major world power with a GNP approaching $1-trillion.”

The document called for a “coordinated drive” to promote Canadian trade with China, laying out marching orders for ministers holding the portfolios of external affairs, trade, national defence, employment and immigration, and international development. They were to consult with the provinces, business, academics, and other China experts to get Canadian companies into China, and to get people moving between the countries in a series of exchanges spanning the arts, academia, sports and the media. The document also called for Canada to help expand defence relations with China, consult on security issues, and shepherd its new friend into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The Progressive Conservatives wanted to keep their grand China plan under the radar. While the strategy sought to “enhance Chinese awareness of Canada’s potential” as a trading and investment partner, it displayed little appetite for stimulating broad public discussion in Canada. “The impact of the China strategy will be localized to the segments of the Canadian society and media who have an inherent interest in developing and expanding the Canada/China relationship. Media in general will not be inclined to give more than passing reference to the issue,” it said. “There is a slight chance that Canada might be censured for promoting the commercial/economic/cultural aspects of the relationship while ignoring the question of human rights.”

Mr. Mulroney was no doubt mindful of that “slight chance.” A Globe and Mail news story of his trip to China in the spring of 1986 had been headlined, “Mulroney, Chinese Premier discusses human rights, clergy.” It reported that Mr. Mulroney had discussed an imprisoned Chinese clergyman in a meeting with premier Zhao Ziyang. The prime minister was forced to acknowledge at a press conference that the topic had arisen, but he offered no details of what was said. “Quiet diplomacy” was the mantra when it came to China’s sensitive issues. As far as Mr. Mulroney was concerned, the highlight of his trip had been a 70-minute meeting with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, which had echoes of Pierre Trudeau’s historic audience thirteen years earlier with chairman Mao. Mr. Mulroney said meeting Mr. Deng “was like meeting Churchill.”

At Beijing's Great Hall of the People in 1986, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping offers Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney a Panda brand cigarette that, as a reformed smoker, he refused.Reuters

Months later, the China strategy presented to the federal cabinet put forth a government plan to bypass the mainstream media as Canada pursued its trade ambitions with China: “There is little requirement to raise the awareness of Canadians to the importance of our relationship with China.” Communications were to be “tightly targeted to groups already involved in the China relationship,” particularly businesses, which would be urged to “take a fresh and realistic look at China.” It said the “communications tools of choice” were speeches by ministers and top officials “to prestige audiences,’’ with detailed briefings only to “specialized national media.” National television and other “mass audience tools” were to be mainly avoided. “The messages are sophisticated ones targeted by and large at sophisticated audiences.”

The internationally televised slaughter of innocent students by Chinese tanks and soldiers in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, put an end to the under-the-radar approach. The students had occupied the square calling for more democratic freedom, political reform, and an end to state corruption. Canada’s external affairs minister, Joe Clark, was one of the first Western foreign ministers to speak out against China’s abhorrent behaviour. Mr. Clark briefed Mr. Mulroney and his cabinet colleagues 48 hours after the massacre, which at the time was believed to have cost thousands of lives. Mr. Mulroney called for swift action on several fronts. His top instruction was to have Canada’s mission at the United Nations call for the matter to be referred to the UN Security Council. A series of cabinet meetings in the following weeks firmed up Canada’s actions, which included joining Britain and Australia to broadcast radio signals directly into China.

It wasn’t long before the Conservative government began coming to terms with the implications of the massacre. At a June 19 meeting of the cabinet committee on foreign and defence policy, the government discussed the need for Canada to balance a strong response to China’s vicious behaviour with the imperative of playing the long game with a country of strategic economic importance. “Essentially the question we need to ask is what sort of relationship does Canada want with the China that appears to be emerging from these tumultuous events,” Mr. Clark said in talking points for his presentation to the committee. “For example, how permanent is this reversal in the democratization process? Will another shoe drop?”

One thing was clear in Mr. Clark’s view: “The Canada-China relationship is on a fundamentally new footing.” What that meant was, “we are not accepting China’s international call for ‘business as usual.’ ” Still, he hoped Canada could find a way to renew some sort of constructive relationship with the Chinese, having invested the better part of two decades building a relationship. “I would hope that our approach will be conscious of the importance of the bilateral relationship, and indeed of the importance of preventing China from sliding back into international isolationism,” he said. “We do not have to accept the Chinese position on any part of the crisis but there will be advantages if it is clear that what we are doing is clearly Canadian and conscious of the special relationship that we have had with China . . .”

The following year, at a G7 summit in Houston, Mr. Mulroney and his counterparts agreed in their final communiqué that the “prospects for closer cooperation [with China] will be enhanced by renewed political and economic reform, particularly in the field of human rights.” In many respects, that marked the beginning of the end of the West’s diplomatic deep freeze with China over Tiananmen Square. Mr. Mulroney welcomed Premier Zhu to Canada three years later in hopes that engaging with someone who was seen as a reformer might spur reform in China. Such reform has yet to happen. Relatively normal economic relations were restored between China and Canada before Mr. Mulroney’s nine years in office ended in 1993.

Prime minister Jean Chrétien, middle, stands on the Great Wall in 1994 with premiers Catherine Callbeck (PEI), Clyde Wells (Newfoundland and Labrador), Roy Romanow (Saskatchewan), Bob Rae (Ontario), John Savage (Nova Scotia), Gary Filmon (Manitoba), Mike Harcourt (B.C.) and Frank McKenna (New Brunswick). Alberta's Ralph Klein was on the trip, but missed the wall; Jacques Parizeau of Quebec stayed home.Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

By the time Jean Chrétien’s Liberals came to power in 1993, Canada was very much back on its familiar path of economic engagement with China. Memories of Tiananmen Square had faded from public and official consciousness, and human rights barely warranted lip service. Canada became the first G7 country to host a visit from Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, part of an effort to build relationships with the “newer breed of Chinese leaders.”

Canadian journalists badgered Mr. Chrétien on China’s human rights record every time he visited the country -- six trips over the course of his 10 years in power -- but to little apparent effect. Mr. Chrétien’s first trip to China in November, 1994, was a major trade mission. He brought nine premiers and an entourage of senior business executives. They did not leave empty-handed. The marquee deal was a letter of intent signed between Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and its Chinese counterpart to sell two Candu reactors, worth between $1-billion and $1.5-billion. Other deals totalling in the hundreds of millions of dollars were also signed in the medical technology, forestry, petroleum, telecommunications and transport sectors. Among the benefitting Canadian companies were the Quebec-based powerhouses, Power Corp. and Bombardier Inc., which inked a deal to build passenger rail cars. Two lesser-known firms signed $135-million contracts to help build a telecommunications tower in Chengdu, Sichuan province, where a then 22-year-old Meng Wanzhou was residing. In a speech to students at Beijing University, Mr. Chrétien lauded the progress that had been made between the countries since Pierre Trudeau’s 1970 breakthrough, in which, he reminded his audience, he had served as a cabinet minister.

Reporters pushed Mr. Chrétien about whether he raised human rights in his meeting with premier Li Peng. Mr. Chrétien said he did, but the Chinese side said he did not. “The resulting furore saw one Canadian premier use Chinese security guards to avoid the press and another at first denied human rights had been raised and then recanted,” wrote Southam News correspondent Jonathan Manthorpe, who covered the visit.

When Mr. Chrétien bade farewell to China in October, 2003, less than two months before leaving politics, there were no premiers in tow, but the trip had the feel of a trade mission anyway. Mr. Chrétien was given a hero’s welcome with a full military parade outside the Great Hall of the People facing Tiananmen Square. Inside, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao told Mr. Chrétien: “You will stay forever a good friend, an old friend of China and the Chinese people.” Mr. Chrétien joked that he would soon be an unemployed politician, and that, “I will keep coming and visiting.” Before the trip ended, he officially opened the two new Candu reactor sites.

On Dec. 10, 2003, on his final day as Canada’s prime minister, Mr. Chrétien hosted Mr. Wen in Ottawa on a return visit. Mr. Chrétien gave Mr. Wen his own military parade, albeit a much more modest one, at the downtown Ottawa Cartier Drill Hall and fêted him with a gala dinner at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. The next morning, the prime minister visited governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and formally tendered his resignation.

Mr. Chrétien, standing with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, looks at his watch on Dec. 11, 2003, when asked how much time he had left as prime minister.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

During Mr. Chrétien’s tenure, there was an appearance of behind-the scenes engagement on human rights between Canada and China. Little, if anything, was accomplished. A review of 1997 federal Liberal government documents, including cabinet affairs, released under the federal access-to-information law, demonstrates one inescapable fact: The Chrétien government got played by Chinese officials who appeared to take advantage of the Liberal government’s renewed enthusiasm to engage.

The documents detailed a broad and ambitious agenda, at least from the Canadian side: “political and civil rights, including fundamental freedoms; religious freedoms; economic, social and cultural rights; women’s and children’s rights.” The major focus remained on reforming China’s justice system, including “practical training” for defence lawyers and “technical assistance to reform trial processes generally.” There was also a plan to provide “technical assistance to draft an evidence law” and an exploratory talk with China’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security Bureau to establish “an educational program for police and other legal personnel.”

The documents noted that Canada was already running a project through the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy that was aimed at changing China’s criminal procedure law to help strengthen the rights of accused people, focusing on the “presumption of innocence,” the right to contact a defence lawyer early in the legal process, and abolishing a system “which allows police to detain a person for up to three months without trial or right to contact a lawyer.” Canada also proposed to help strengthen Chinese police conduct by publishing a how-to booklet and holding an educational program for police on how legal changes “should affect their daily conduct.” Another suggestion was greater co-operation between the RCMP and China’s Public Safety Bureau “on ethics issues and conduct as well as other police activities.”

While all these plans were being drawn up, rank and file Canadian diplomats were dutifully highlighting emerging concerns about China’s human rights failings. On April 24, 1997, the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., alerted its missions in Beijing and Hong Kong to a joint report by Human Rights Watch/Asia and Hong Kong-based Human Rights in China that was due to be made public. A summary of the report said that changes to the Chinese criminal code “represent the culmination of a ten-year effort to strengthen authoritarian controls and have ominous implications for Hong Kong,” which was due to be handed over from British to Chinese control in little more than two months.

The report did nothing to dim the wide-eyed optimism and unabashed self-importance of the Chrétien government as it attempted to single-handedly reform China’s human rights record. In a bold move, it broke a six-year commitment by abandoning a joint international effort to co-sponsor a resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that would have been critical of China’s rights record.

The same day the new human rights warnings were being circulated between Canada’s diplomatic missions, Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy wrote to a leading U.S. congressman to explain why Canada had changed course on the international effort to condemn China’s human rights record. Benjamin A. Gilman, the chair of the House of Representatives committee on international relations, had written to Mr. Axworthy 10 days earlier asking about the decision. Mr. Axworthy’s letter refers to his visit to China a year earlier when he was able to get “unprecedented agreement on a whole package of initiatives” on human rights, including the creation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. “This committee will provide a formalized forum in which we can regularly address human rights concerns,” wrote Mr. Axworthy. “Furthermore, we have obtained agreement with the application of evidence and criminal law, the development of an adversarial trial system and a legal aid system, and the implementation of corrections reform. The package also includes cooperation in the area of religious freedom.”

Behind the scenes, a confidential cable from the Canadian embassy in Beijing provided a clue to the real reason Beijing was being so co-operative. The Chinese had agreed to take part in the Canadian human rights process in return for Canada withdrawing its support of the UN human rights statement with its allies in Geneva as it had done for the previous six years. The April 25 cable refers to a meeting the previous day between a Canadian diplomat and a senior Chinese official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Shen Yongxiang. They were discussing the “busy path ahead” in the wake of the UN human rights commission decision. In the block letter format of the day, the cable reads: “AFTER THANKING CDA FOR ITS DECISION NOT TO COSPONSOR A RESOLUTION AT GENEVA, SHEN TOOK THE OPPORTUNITY TO STRONGLY UNDERLINE THAT CHINA IS TAKING THE BILATERAL DIALOGUE AND ALL OTHER ACTIVITIES OUTLINED IN DFAIT BACKGROUNDER VERY SERIOUSLY.” Mr. Shen then confirmed that vice-minister Li would come to Canada in early June for the first joint committee meeting — but he wouldn’t be staying long. “THEN TALKS WOULD CONTINUE AFTER HIS DEPARTURE GIVEN THE BREVITY OF HIS STAY AND LONG LIST OF AGENDA ITEMS TO BE COVERED.”

The great fear of Canadian diplomats at the time was that their bold program to advance justice reform and human rights in China would be seen as “window dressing.” Once China had wheedled the vote it wanted out of Canada, persuading Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Axworthy to stand down from the multilateral effort to condemn its human rights record, these fears were realized. The Chinese had deftly manipulated the Canadians. International solidarity on human rights had been diminished as China skillfully redressed the window to suit its interest.

Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, visit Beijing's Forbidden City in 2009.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper and his Conservatives came to power in 2006 and immediately set a new tone to Canada’s international relations. Mr. Harper expressed disdain for China and spent his first three years in office snubbing the Chinese. Communism, in his view, was a historic evil. He derided those who considered the unseemly pursuit of the “almighty dollar” more important than principled opposition to China’s denial of political freedoms and human rights. Mr. Harper’s hard line eventually crumbled. It was one thing to rail against an economically insignificant totalitarian country such as Cuba, and quite another to give the world’s second-largest economy the cold shoulder. Canadian business leaders were apoplectic. And when Mr. Harper got around to visiting China in 2009, he received a stern public rebuke from China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, who noted this was the first meeting between a Chinese premier and Canadian prime minister in five years.

Mr. Harper changed his mind and joined the pursuit of the almighty dollar. He began speaking about the importance of building economic relations with China, and he eventually forged a new foreign investment protection agreement with Beijing in 2012, arguably the most substantive economic agreement between Canada and China in the 21st century. More importantly, as far as the public was concerned, he “capped” a visit to China in 2012, as the CBC noted, with “the long-sought loan of two giant pandas.”

Mr. Harper next reached for the fences, openly musing about one day achieving a free-trade agreement with China. With Mr. Harper’s conversion, the long-standing Canadian policy of doing business with the world’s fastest growing economy while giving short shrift to democratic reform and human rights became unanimous. Successive Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and Conservative governments salved their consciences by telling themselves and Canadians that greater trade, along with exchanges of students and tourists with China, would somehow nudge the People’s Republic toward greater democratic tendencies and freedom. This belief that free markets and democracy were natural complements of each other, and that over time China’s political and economic system would converge with the West, would prove to be mistaken.

Justin Trudeau, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and their daughter, Ella-Grace, are welcomed to Beijing in 2016.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The second-generation Trudeau government, beginning in 2015, followed the China template of its predecessors, adding a marked nostalgia for the senior Trudeau government’s daring (for the time) embrace of China, and the grand, if futile, reformist ambitions of the Mulroney and Chrétien years. But Justin Trudeau failed to factor in the significance of the rise of Xi Jinping as China’s new leader, a hardened authoritarian presiding over an iron-fisted totalitarian transformation of 21st-century China.

China’s rise under President Xi has been characterized by an underlying desire to unseat the United States as the world’s dominant economic and political power through a bold and forthright rejection of Western democratic values. Mr. Xi laid down his marker when he was sworn in as party president in 2012 and evoked, for the first time, the concept of the “China Dream.” Mr. Xi was clearly positioning China as a direct rival to the “American Dream.” In a follow-up speech, he declared, “we must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Spreading the Chinese spirit clearly meant extending China’s global influence, politically and economically. In 2013, Mr. Xi announced an ambitious new foreign policy centred around the Belt and Road initiative, a massive Eurasian infrastructure project estimated to cost between $50-billion and $100-billion per year, linking four billion people across several countries. This was a 21st-century updating of the classic Silk Road which facilitated westward expansion of China’s Han Dynasty starting in 206 BC. The new version proposed a land route combined with a vast Indian Ocean maritime route connecting East Africa and Europe. It would involve investment in some 70 countries and encompass a huge network of ports, energy pipelines, railways, superhighways, and other border crossings backed by new financing tools such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Development Bank.

The Belt and Road would massively expand China’s political and economic influence in what was widely viewed as a rewriting of the geopolitical landscape.

Like the Belt and Road strategy, Huawei and its telecommunications technology are part and parcel of Mr. Xi’s strategic vision, crucial to the future of China’s prestige, national identity, wealth and security. As a result, the war with the U.S. over 5G technology is not just another trade dispute. China is on what it considers a sacred mission to play the leading role in the future of the internet, a campaign that not only companies like Huawei, but the entire Chinese government and military, are engaged in.

Under Mr. Xi, China snubbed and manipulated the international rulebook to suit its grand ambition. He has jailed his political opponents in record numbers, shattering any façade of adhering to any Western notion of the rule of law, and perpetuated what many would come to label as genocide against the ethnic Muslim Uyghurs of China’s Xinjiang province. He has also mounted a systematic campaign to crush democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

A child walks past a screen showing Mr. Xi at a parking lot in Kashgar, Xinjiang, in 2018.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

In certain respects, Canada’s foreign ministry appreciated the implications of Mr. Xi’s rise and what its envoys were now dealing with in China. Among the warnings it had received was a dispatch from front-line diplomat Michael Kovrig. His December, 2015, note on the scene outside Pu Zhiqiang’s sham of a trial noted that the 50-year-old defendant, in addition to being a defender of the Uyghur minority, was a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He had been in detention since attending a May, 2014, gathering commemorating the 25th anniversary of that incident. Chinese authorities were determined “to silence Pu and restrict him from practicing law, and the actual allegations were merely a convenient excuse.”

Mr. Kovrig reflected on the sad state of Chinese legal reforms, the cause that had been so enthusiastically embraced by the Chrétien government a generation earlier. “Ironically, on Dec. 20 the CPC central committee and the state council general offices issued a joint opinion pledging to reform the system of qualifications for entering the legal profession,” Mr. Kovrig wrote, referencing a report by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. The new system created a new single unified exam for judges, prosecutors, lawyers and notaries that extended to other professions. “It also unifies legal training, defines the suspension and revoking of law licenses and is intended to ensure that people working in the legal system are ‘faithful to the Party, the country, the people and the law.’ ”

Global Affairs Canada further commented in a January, 2017, human rights report that while there had been some “positive developments” in China over the previous two years, “the overall trend for human rights continues in a decidedly negative direction.”

If those weren’t clues enough for the Trudeau government, China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, spelled out his country’s position in an interview with Canadian reporters. China and Canada had begun exploratory talks toward launching full-scale free trade negotiations. The sides saw the talks evolving differently: The Trudeau government still wanted to link human rights and good governance issues to any free-trade pact with China, priorities China firmly rejected in favour of a business-only deal. That the talks were going nowhere was already evident when Mr. Lu spoke. “I feel that in Canada, and especially its media, there seems to be some misunderstanding about China, which is detrimental to bilateral co-operation,” he said. Canadians “look down” on China and “don’t see any merit” in it. They don’t consider it a worthwhile trading partner, he continued, and view it as a country with no democracy, human rights or freedom.

Mr. Lu used the interview to drive a stake through the heart of that core assumption of Canadian policy engagement with China dating back to prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The axiom, followed by subsequent Liberal and Conservative leaders, was that if you traded and engaged economically and socially with China, exposure to Western democracy would over time expose its people to values of freedom and democracy and nudge an ancient Chinese society away from its totalitarian, authoritarian, one-party form of government. Canada wasn’t the only Western country that bought into this idea, and it wouldn’t be the only one disillusioned in the coming years.

Mr. Lu said his country saw no connection between the values of human rights and democracy and the hard interests of strong economic and trade ties. There would be no linking values to trade deals, he insisted, and any politician that believed otherwise was going to miss out on the chance for an all-encompassing trading relationship with China and its mighty economy. “Politicians should have the courage and responsibility to explain to people where the overall and fundamental interest of the country lies.”

Mr. Lu was not denying that many human rights and free-press watchdogs had criticized Mr. Xi and his party’s clampdown on media and political dissent. Rather than argue these points, he airily brushed them aside. He made it clear that anyone who wanted to engage with China had to accept its terms.

Lu Shaye, China's then ambassador to Canada, gives an interview in Ottawa in 2017.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

That warning was not enough to dissuade Prime Minister Trudeau and his inner circle from pursuing Canada’s problematic but time-honored, values-laden approach to China. Rather, the Trudeau Liberals tried to up the ante later in 2017 by pressing for a “progressive” free trade deal with China. A model for the agreement was the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States. The Canadian side had successfully pushed for the inclusion of a section to protect labour rights in Mexico. Both Canada and the U.S. desired to level the playing field in the auto industry, which had seen manufacturing plants close in their countries and move to Mexico where it was far cheaper to build cars because of paltry wages and few labour protections.

The Trudeau government was optimistic that it could succeed where Mr. Chrétien had failed in marrying trade and human rights in a deal with the Chinese. A month before Mr. Trudeau touched down in China in December, 2017 — his second visit as prime minister — Mr. Xi had himself written into the Chinese constitution alongside chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping at the gala meeting of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It marked the solidification of the “personality cult” of Mr. Xi in Chinese society, an attempt to elevate him to a status not seen since Mao.

In several rounds of preliminary discussion prior to his visit, Mr. Trudeau had made it clear he was keen to forge a comprehensive deal with China, rekindling many of the formal, joint mechanisms that had been in place during the Chrétien years (they had been largely dismantled by the Stephen Harper Conservatives). He also broached the notion of a free-trade deal with “progressive” elements, not seeming to realize, despite the warnings of its own diplomats, that workers’ rights, collective bargaining, and labour unions weren’t part of the Xi Jinping vision of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Nor had he heeded the public pronouncements of China’s ambassador to Canada, who made it clear four months before Mr. Trudeau’s trip that “non-trade” issues had no place in an economic agreement. “I have stated many times that we’re not afraid of discussing the issues, such as democracy and human rights,” said Mr. Lu. “FTA is FTA itself — we just don’t want to add too many non-economic or non-trade factors into it.”

In a move that stands as the culmination of five decades of Canadian leaders grossly overestimating their ability to bring change to China, failing to recognize that China is uninterested in embracing so-called Western values, and getting mercilessly played by Chinese leaders, Mr. Trudeau made his pitch regardless. It was met with deafening indifference. Premier Li Keqiang registered his government’s formal rejection of the Canadian proposal over dinner in Beijing early in Mr. Trudeau’s visit.

Mr. Trudeau dots the eyes of a lion mask at a 2017 ceremony at Guangzhou's Chen Clan Academy.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

On the final morning of his final day in China, Mr. Trudeau attended the Chen Clan Academy, an ancient temple in the southern city of Guangzhou. He was treated to a traditional performance of the “lion dance,” a percussive and athletic display by six skilled dancers in heavy and colourful masked costumes. Mr. Trudeau took part in an “eye dotting” ceremony prior to the performance, dabbing the eyes of one of the costumed lions with red paint. It was supposed to symbolize the awakening of the lion. The symbolism of this act and its relation to the Napoleonic prediction that an awakened China lion would shake the world was apparently lost on Team Trudeau.

They returned home without any commitment to commence free trade talks between Canada and China. Four months later, Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye told a group of Canadian journalists that the two countries had reached “extensive” consensus on a number of trade issues (he didn’t offer specifics) but added there “still remain some differences on the so-called progressive trade factors.” He left no doubt about his country’s position: “For the Chinese side, we have stressed many times . . . we really want so-called, non-trade-related factors or issues to not be included in the negotiation of an FTA.”

While Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were released two weeks ago, relations between Canada and China are broken, and a residue of bitterness and suspicion will undoubtedly cloud diplomatic relations for the foreseeable future. The Trudeau government will have tough choices to make on how to deal with China on trade, investment, security, and technology, including Huawei’s future in Canada.

The Americans, meanwhile, are pressuring Canada for a long-promised update of a China policy they see as muddled. President Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Canada, David L. Cohen, issued a warning in his late September Senate nomination hearing, “We are all waiting for Canada to release its framework for its overall China policy. . . . As ambassador, if I’m confirmed, it’s an appropriate role to be engaged in discussions and make sure that Canada’s policies reflect its words in terms of the treatment of China.”

Whatever path the Trudeau government takes, it should be abundantly clear after the arbitrary detention of two Canadian nationals in retaliation for what the Chinese viewed as a threat to their commercial and political objectives that the half-century-old approach of pushing China to adopt Western values, especially regarding human rights and legal reforms, has failed and will continue to fail.

Excerpt from ‘The Two Michaels’ by Mike Blanchfield and Fen Osler Hampson, which will be published in the English language in Canada by Sutherland House on November 17. Copyright © 2021 by Mike Blanchfield and Fen Osler Hampson. All rights reserved.

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