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Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland co-hosted a conference on media freedom in London with her then British counterpart Jeremy Hunt. As an ex-journalist herself, Ms. Freeland expressed a deep commitment to ensuring those who exercise her former profession are able to do their job, free of intimidation, coercion or government interference.

“We need to fight for the complexity of democratic truth rather than the beguiling simplicity of authoritarian rhetoric,” she said then.

Few files facing Ms. Freeland in her current job are as complex as managing Canada’s strained relationship with China. In recent months, Canadians have witnessed a dangerous escalation in tensions as China shows, in no uncertain terms, to what lengths it will go when matters do not go its way. Its arbitrary detention of two Canadians in China – following the December arrest of telecoms giant Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on a U.S. extradition warrant in Vancouver – has opened plenty of Canadian eyes to Beijing’s disregard for the rule of law. China appears determined to make Canada suffer, if only as an example for the rest of the world.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which came to office blissfully naive about China’s darker side, the Meng affair has constituted a baptism of fire in realpolitik. It has been scrambling for months without any apparent China strategy, other than enlisting the United States and other allies to do our bidding for us and get the Liberals out of this mess.

Preferably before the October election. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has taken direct aim at Mr. Trudeau’s handling of this file, while foreign-policy experts have questioned whether senior staff at Global Affairs have enough “China competence” to deal with the Communist government in Beijing. The meltdown in relations has become a big domestic political problem for the Liberals, as Canada’s meat and canola farmers are shut out of the Chinese market.

Criticism of the Liberals’ handling of relations with China is entirely fair game. Canadians deserve a clear-eyed picture of the crisis that is unfolding and their government’s handling of it. Providing that picture is largely the media’s job, informed by China experts and former diplomats. That’s how it works in a democracy. And the Chinese should know that.

So the idea that a senior bureaucrat in Global Affairs would ask former Canadian ambassadors to China to contact the department in advance of making public comments about Canada-China relations should send a chill down the spines of all Canadians. Yet, that is what just happened with ex-China ambassador David Mulroney, through a call from associate deputy minister Paul Thoppil. Another former ambassador, Guy Saint-Jacques, got a similar call. Both ex-diplomats have been frequent commentators on the Canada-China file.

The request made by Mr. Thoppil, apparently at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office, appears unrelated to national security concerns or the fate of the two Canadians detained in China. Rather, according to Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Thoppil cited “this time of high tension” and the current “election environment” as the justification for his request.

“I have never heard of this happening before. Ever,” Carleton University foreign-policy expert Fen Hampson said. “I have occasionally heard from former diplomats that they were aware their public musings were not welcomed by officialdom, but they were never told to pre-clear their comments or public musings."

This was clearly an attempt by the Trudeau government to have two ex-ambassadors censor themselves. And it is highly unlikely that Mr. Thoppil would have taken such action without his boss, Ms. Freeland, knowing about it.

“This smacks of something you would expect to see in China or Cuba or Venezuela,” former Conservative foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay said, adding he never contemplated making such a request of ex-diplomats when he was in office, despite widespread criticism of his government. “We were criticized for muzzling scientists … but this is beyond the pale.”

University of British Columbia China expert Paul Evans said that, in the past, former diplomats generally exercised more discretion in commenting publicly on current government policy. But the old conventions have fallen by the wayside as former diplomats are sought out by the news media to shed light on foreign-policy developments. This may complicate the task of those currently in power, but it is silly to think this trend can or should be reversed.

“It’s not surprising that those in Ottawa managing the China file would want whole-of-country unity in confronting China,” Prof. Evans said. “And it’s equally obvious that some of the sharpest critics of government policy aren’t going to play along.”

Thank God for that. Canadian democracy is richer for it. And Canadians are better informed as a result. Ms. Freeland, of all people, should understand that.

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