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Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to Washington (1989-1993) and was directly involved in negotiating the free-trade agreement with the United States. Fen Osler Hampson is Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada.


When power clashes with principle, power usually prevails and when arrogance clashes with good manners, arrogance often triumphs, at least temporarily.

Both were on vivid display at a press conference in Ottawa last week when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi berated a reporter, Amanda Connolly, for questioning China's human-rights record, notably the treatment of Hong Kong booksellers and the lengthy detention of an erstwhile Canadian coffee-shop owner, Kevin Garratt, who has languished in a Chinese jail for more than two years because of yet-unspecified charges of "espionage."

Mr. Wang erupted undiplomatically, ignored the particulars of the reporter's question and lambasted her for "prejudice and ignorance."

"This is totally unacceptable. Have you ever been to China? Please do not ask questions in such an irresponsible manner," he scolded. His aggressive manner suggested that he may have been trained by Donald Trump. Our own Foreign Minister, Stéphane Dion, looked stunned by Mr. Wang's outburst.

As baffling as Mr. Wang's tirade was, we have seen this kind of behaviour before. In 2011, China's previous foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, lost his cool at an ASEAN meeting and launched into a 30-minute tirade where he not only openly criticized his Vietnamese hosts, but also declared that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact." Canada may well be viewed as a small country by China, given that the recent tirade was delivered by their "junior" Foreign Minister, not Mr. Yang, who is now State Councillor, the country's top diplomat with responsibilities for China's overall diplomacy.

The incident in Ottawa also evoked memories of behaviour by Chinese officials planning President Xi Jinping's visit to London last year. The Queen was recently overheard talking about that visit with the Metropolitan Police commander in charge of security for the visit, recalling that the Chinese officials "were very rude to our ambassador" (referring to Barbara Woodward, Britain's first female ambassador to China).

British and Chinese officials quickly recovered matters with assurances that the "golden era" of China-U.K. relations was intact. Similarly, in Ottawa, representatives of both governments acted as if the press-conference exchange had not happened. Mr. Wang said he believed Beijing and Ottawa are headed for a "golden era" in relations. So at least the precious metal is a more consistent metaphor for relations than vexing differences over human rights or rudeness.

Both episodes and Mr. Wang's high-handed demand for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signal a major shift in the global power balance. China is very much in the ascendancy these days, as is its sense of self-importance.

Long gone are the days of Deng Xiaoping whose guiding principle of Chinese foreign policy in the 1980s was to "observe things serenely, respond and manage things calmly, hold our ground firmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, accomplish our objectives." China's behaviour today harks back centuries, to a time when Beijing looked on all outsiders essentially as tributaries obliged to pay homage to the Middle Kingdom.

We are beginning to see more 21st-century vestiges of the same sense of superiority. "Do you know," Mr. Wang pointedly asked the Canadian reporter, "that China is now the second-largest economy in the world?" Yes, we do know, minister, and presumably we had better get used to the swagger that goes with it. (Mr. Trump has swagger and bluster, too, and his attitude regarding the media is quite similar to that of Mr. Wang. Should the two ever come together in a press conference, it could be quite a show.)

The power imbalance with China and its accompanying swagger demands dexterity and diplomacy, not subservience. In the face of hectoring by representatives of authoritarian regimes, freedoms that are fundamental in countries such as Canada – whether for beleaguered booksellers in Hong Kong or coffee-shop operators in northern China – need to be asserted firmly and consistently, both in public and in private. That is the most "responsible conviction" of all.