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In this picture taken on June 16, 2020, media tycoon Jimmy Lai poses at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong.ANTHONY WALLACE/Getty Images

When lawyers representing Jimmy Lai, the British businessman who founded the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily – and who now sits in a Hong Kong prison cell as a result – met earlier this month with The Globe’s editorial board, the words “ludicrous” and “absurd” came up several times.

The lawyers provided updates on the widespread international calls for Mr. Lai’s release – by the United States and British governments, but shamefully not by Canada’s – and on his unfolding trial. Opening arguments began in December and offered a revealing window into the prosecution’s case, said Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Jonathan Price, two human-rights lawyers practising with the British firm Doughty Street Chambers. “In essence, this is a trial about conspiracy to commit journalism,” Ms. Gallagher said.

One claim from the prosecution is that Mr. Lai requested that a staff member ask Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong before the handover to China in 1997, to write an op-ed. A newspaper publisher asking an international news figure to write a column is so mundane that it feels like you’re missing the point, Ms. Gallagher said.

“So many of the allegations are really quite ludicrous,” she concluded.

Other odd bits have been presented as damning accusations, drawn out by courtroom stagecraft. Mr. Lai has been alleged to have – gasp! – favoured democracy and the rule of law, Mr. Price said.

That tone – belligerent, unencumbered by a reality that outsiders might recognize – is familiar from China’s other representations to the world, including frequent hectoring from its diplomats in Canada.

In March, 2023, after The Globe had reported on China’s attempts to interfere in Canadian elections, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa accused Canadian politicians and the media of “hyping up” what it dismissed as “pure slander and total nonsense.”

Two months later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earned a scolding when he said China used “slave labour” to produce cheap lithium, a statement that the embassy branded as dishonest and malicious.

The tone is always the same: scolding and haughty, supremely confident despite obvious dishonesty or manipulation, in the apparent belief that saying something makes it true.

Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, says the intended audience for these statements is a domestic Chinese one, not the citizens or government of the country in which diplomats are working. “Xi Jinping, his view is that China is back, that the time of humiliation is over, that China is ready to take its rightful place in the world,” he said. “If countries want to deal with China, they should agree to the idea of mutual respect. And by that China means that you are not supposed to interfere in their issues that they consider internal.”

But none of this means that China disregards the world’s perceptions – quite the opposite, as Mr. Lai’s lawyers explained. China frequently declares that it doesn’t care what the United Nations or world at large thinks, Ms. Gallagher said, yet the country’s actions make it obvious that’s not true. Beijing recently sent huge delegations to UN human-rights meetings in Geneva and the World Economic Forum, along with similarly ambitious formal visits to individual countries.

“Every time we’re asked, ‘Does China care what the international community thinks?’, well, the answer is yes,” said Ms. Gallagher.

That leads to two conclusions. Canada can influence China – but any such influence will be through asserting its own interests, plainly and directly, rather than the soft-pedalling of recent years. Canada must discard any remaining naiveté it has about China, and act like it.

Dominic Barton, another former Canadian ambassador to China – though he gazes at the country through much rosier lenses than Mr. Saint-Jacques – offered a master class in how not to do that just last week, when he told a business audience in London that China will be “a source of new ways of thinking that can benefit us all.”

Enough of such blinkers. New ways of thinking about China are indeed needed – although not in the way that Mr. Barton perhaps intends.

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