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You would think that when the 500th day of China’s cruel detention of two Canadians was approaching this week, the embassy here in Ottawa would be careful to keep its mouth shut. But no.

The embassy picked this week as a good time to attack a Canadian think-tank, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, for publishing an open letter arguing that a Chinese cover-up fuelled a global pandemic. The embassy’s statement argued darkly that MLI must have an ulterior motive, using terms that suggested the think-tank’s words are some kind of national affront.

Then the embassy decided to take aim at a relatively mild criticism from Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne that the arrests of Hong Kong democracy advocates deserve scrutiny.

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That statement rebuked Mr. Champagne’s Canadian complaint as a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs” and urged the Canadian government – I kid you not – to “abide by the basic norms governing international relations.”

This was the embassy of the country that engaged in the hostage-taking of two Canadians when it scooped up Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman, as retribution for the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. Basic norms indeed.

Ms. Meng, let’s recall, is under house arrest at her posh Vancouver home, contesting her extradition in court while Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor are denied visits in a Chinese jail.

Maybe the Chinese embassy didn’t notice that their strong-arm statements would roughly coincide with the 500 days. But we should.

The world has a big China problem now.

China is getting a lot more aggressive about shutting down critics around the globe just as questions arise about whether they hid information in a pandemic.

It’s not the most pressing problem facing Canada right now: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is right that coping with COVID-19 is the urgent task. But the reason Canada is tiptoeing around the question – well, that’s part of the problem we will have to deal with later.

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And it should go without saying that whatever happened in China, it’s not the basis for dark, conspiracy-minded claptrap like the accusations of disloyalty levelled at Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, by Conservative MP and fringe leadership candidate Derek Sloan.

Mr. Sloan stretched another allegation – that China may have used its influence in the World Health Organization to play down the initial outbreak, and national public health officers such as Dr. Tam should have been more skeptical of the WHO – into an accusation so deceitful it would make the Chinese embassy proud.

Mr. Sloan’s accusation also gets things upside down. It’s not about a Canadian conspiracy. It’s about how we handle China’s influence.

We don’t know precisely what happened in China in the early days of COVID-19, but we know some whistle-blowers were stifled and, for whatever reason, officials waited for days to tell the world after learning they faced a serious epidemic. It’s still hard to tell how much was screw-up or cover-up.

The implications are huge. For years, even while Western governments distrusted Beijing, they thought there could be co-operation on shared interests such as global public health.

If that’s not so, it’s something bigger than Canada alone, or other countries like it, can handle.

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Mr. Trudeau has until recently been reluctant to call for an investigation into what happened in China. But then the federal government was, like hundreds of customers, trying to secure masks and other personal protective equipment from there, too.

Even outside of a pandemic, the idea that Canada has to talk tougher to China runs into the fact that farmers and businesses want to export to that massive market. Plus Beijing now locks up bystanders for leverage. Countries such as Canada can do business with China but they need allies in dealing with its intimidation.

Look at this week’s embassy statements. As PR, they backfired. Macdonald-Laurier Institute senior fellow Shuvaloy Majumdar took to Twitter to thank the embassy for drawing scrutiny to “the Communist Party’s intimidation of its own people and its continued abuse abroad.”

But as Mr. Majumdar noted in an interview, this wasn’t a democratic government arguing with civil society. It was a repressive government with a “record of deploying power and projecting disinformation into foreign theatres” dashing off a missive with threatening undertones.

That’s the point, isn’t it? The Chinese embassy made it clear this week what they’re trying to tell us: Shut up.

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