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Globe editorial: Does Justin Trudeau get China?

Canada has never had to deal with a problem quite like China. Managing its rise, and our relationship with this superpower that is both aggressively capitalistic and unapologetically anti-democratic, will be one of Canada's biggest challenges in the years to come.

Does Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government understand this? Does it get that China is not just an economic opportunity, but also a threat to the world order this country helped build, and under which we have long prospered? China is cast as the glittering business case at the top of every Davos PowerPoint presentation and the pot of gold at the end of every Team Canada trade mission rainbow, but the reality of China is a bit more complicated.

Throughout our history, our closest allies and trading partners have been nations with whom we largely agree about how the world works, and how it should work. With Great Britain, the United States, the European Union and post-war Japan, we have long shared a common culture of democracy and the rule of law. We fought two World Wars and a Cold War against opposing views. But in the early 21st century, things are different.

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The week, the Global Times, an arm of the People's Daily and owned by the ruling Communist Party of China, called this editorial page "irritating and ridiculous" after we described China as an "absolute dictatorship." But the Communist Party of China is, absolutely, a dictatorship. There's no free press, no free speech, no rule of law and no elected government. The CPC regime will tell you this is what the Chinese people want.

But Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which are considerably more prosperous than mainland China, operate under very different systems. Hong Kong still has a high degree of freedom and rule of law, and Taiwan is democratic. There's no guarantee the CPC will rule forever.

But for now, and likely for a long time to come, Canada must get along with the unelected, unaccountable dictatorship of the hard men of Beijing. They rule over 1.3-billion people. They preside over the world's second largest economy, soon to be the largest. Their level of control over that economy's is high, as their personal financial stake in its businesses. They run an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Some Canadians may be sentimental about Norman Bethune; they are not. These men (and the governing Politburo Standing Committee's seven members are all men) are not our pals.

But neither should Canada set out to make them our enemies. Ottawa has no choice but to try to get along with them as best it can, neither antagonizing them unnecessarily not bending to their will; neither picking fights with them nor shying away from defending Canada's values and interests.

Which bring us back to the question raised and left unanswered by Mr. Trudeau latest Chinese adventure: Does he get who he's dealing with?

It was assumed that he was going to China to kick off talks on a free trade deal; instead, he found himself left at the altar, with his International Trade minister sent back to try to reschedule a wedding. We and the Global Times can agree on this much: Beijing just put on an impressive demonstration of negotiation martial arts.

Canadians still don't know precisely what the Trudeau government was seeking this week, or what it wants for the future. We do not know what it hopes to get out of a so-called free trade agreement with China. For the Chinese, it's not so much about trade – their exports here mostly move freely already – but about issues like giving state-owned enterprises the freedom to invest unhindered in Canada.

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We also don't know how serious the Trudeau government is about its talk of insisting on clauses on environment, labour standards and gender parity in all trade agreements.

The words play well with a key Liberal constituency, but is there substance behind the politics? Is this a pantomime for Canadian voters? A way to score domestic points with trade negotiations that, like NAFTA, appear headed for failure?

When doing international diplomacy, a government can't always publicly say what it means, or mean what it says, lest it give away the game to those on the other side of the table. But Canada being a democracy and all, Canadians deserve to know what their government is up to with China.

They deserve to know whether the government is as naive as it appears – or whether what happened to Mr. Trudeau in China this week shows that he is trying to avoid getting too far into bed with Beijing, without provoking the ire of an easily offended partner.

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