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A journalist from one of the more normally boisterous outlets of the southern Chinese media, famed for its critical independence, put it to me bluntly. "We're being really careful what we say right now, because nobody knows how far this crackdown will go."

Then she told me a bunch of things that wouldn't have happened in her corner of China a year ago: sudden firings of critical writers, orders from on high to produce Beijing-friendly copy, fearful acts of self-censorship. In Hong Kong, worse things: five owners of a bookstore that carries critical political books simply disappeared this month. One showed up on mainland TV in what looked like a show-trial confession; the rest have not been seen. To at least some extent, all of China's 40 big cities are feeling it: Pressure from the capital to hew much closer to the national party line and keep any form of political dissent at bay.

As Canada's Liberal government prepares to negotiate a free-trade agreement it has pledged with China, it's worth asking ourselves the question the journalist put to me: "Where is Xi taking us?" If we're entering a pact that will link us more tightly with this most opaque of countries, just what sort of journey are we joining?

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Xi Jinping came into office in 2012 on a pledge to clean up a Chinese political and economic system pocked with corrupt officials, unproductive enterprises, billionaire kleptocrats and Potemkin-village banks. He has succeeded to an impressive extent, purging the worst of the corruption and replacing command-economy bloat with something closer to a real market (it promptly crashed, but that's capitalism).

At the same time, he has imposed a sort of one-party discipline and closed-shop culture not seen since the early 1990s: The Internet is locked down tight, hundreds of words are banned on social media, criticisms that were encouraged a few years ago now lead to imprisonment and coerced confessions (including for reporting on the stock-market collapse). China's heady economic freedom is dampened badly by its growing high-tech totalitarianism.

Which side of Mr. Xi will prevail? There are some well-connected Westerners who believe that this is just a phase. One such figure, the head of a major multinational corporation who has been a close confidant of the Chinese President since he was a minor regional official, insists, in private conversations, that Mr. Xi is simply setting the stage for a long-term Gorbachev-style reform that will lead to something like a liberal-democratic system: "He's playing a long game." He's not the only business figure I've heard say this: It's a dark irony that the most loyal defenders of the Communist Party of China's leaders these days are the captains of global capitalism.

A lot of other analysts have darker conclusions. In any case, great-man theories have their limits. Even if Mr. Xi's intentions are (eventually) noble, there's a lot of political, economic and societal reality that could bring out the worst, or something completely different. Even in a one-man state, not everything is under the control of that one man.

So what is Canada getting into bed with? That's another place where the great-man theories start to fall apart. A trade deal with China is not just a trade deal with Xi Jinping and his agenda: It is a bridge linking an entire country, its people and its organizations – including those that work against that agenda.

In Dongguan, a city just north of here, I talked to Bin Wei, who runs a company with 700 employees that helps Chinese people get visas and citizenship in foreign countries (Canada is the fourth most popular, after the U.S., Britain and Australia). He told me that the current economic and political situation is creating a boom in his trade: "There's so much insecurity and instability here, people are looking at ways to make links with other countries so they have a safe place to move their business and their lives." A lot of those people are bringing savings, investments, businesses and family futures over with them.

That's the sort of link to Canada that more open trade would encourage. Regardless which direction they're being taken by their leader, the Chinese are better off with a world that's open to them.

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