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Globe editorial: How much China has changed, and how much it hasn’t

Since 1970, when an earlier Trudeau government first established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, many things have changed in the world's most populous country. Back then, China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, a period of purge and persecution in which hundreds of thousands and possibly millions died. Despite the way that many in the West romanticized that China, the country was poor, backward, lawless and without human rights, and run by men whose only expertise was in increasing the suffering of their own citizens.

Today's China is not that China. In the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that he was never allowed to give, the late dissident Liu Xiaobo said as much, pointing out that he was part of the Class of '77 – the first group of students able to sit college examinations and attend university, after the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

Mr. Liu believed China had progressed. But he became a target of the authorities because he wanted it to progress more – to become a democracy, to tolerate free speech and freedom of conscience, to respect private property and to operate according to the rule of law. He spent years behind bars because the leaders of China are not only uninterested in such talk, they are deeply threatened by it.

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That is why negotiating a free trade and investment deal with Beijing can't be thought of as more or less the same as doing a trade deal with Brussels. It isn't.

Consider the example of technologically-inclined Chinese businesses, which have been in a decidedly acquisitive mood in Canada and elsewhere.

State financial backing is a congenital characteristic for many Chinese businesses, which might not be a problem if the government in question didn't involve itself in things like large-scale industrial espionage and repressing dissent, and did not have the extra-legal power to make problematic executives disappear.

Chinese officials are of course well tired of lectures from the West on those topics. China's new envoy to Canada, Lu Shaye, recently took a swipe at politicians who "bow before media." In Beijing's view the rights question is an externality, distinct from the agenda of trade and allowing greater Chinese investment in Canada.

But is it possible to entirely separate them?

Up to now, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's approach has mostly been to prioritize the business case; in at least one instance, the proposed takeover of defence contractor Norsat, his government has done so without the benefit of a comprehensive security review.

It's not hard to understand the motives.

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According to the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, this country did roughly $86 billion in bilateral trade with China in 2016. That sounds like a big number – but it's still dwarfed by trade with our main partner, the United States.

And our trade deficit with China is nearly $45 billion. Ottawa correctly sees huge potential in China.

And China, because of massive trade surpluses, has a lot of cash it mus invest somewhere. The Trudeau government wants to welcome more and more of that investment to Canada.

Though Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland barely mentioned China in a landmark foreign policy speech before the Commons last June, she did make reference to intensifying "our efforts to diversify Canadian trade worldwide... with the Canada-EU Trade Agreement as our template."

On that score, China is not exactly a seamless fit. An internal report by officials in Ms. Freeland's department recently obtained by The Canadian Press concluded "the overall trend for human rights continues in a decidedly negative direction." No kidding.

In 2014, the regime quashed the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong. The semi-autonomous former British colony twas handed back to China in 1997, but is supposed to continue to live under a distinct legal and constitutional system.

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More recently, Hong Kong's high court – interpreting a law amended by Beijing amid considerable controversy after the 2014 protests – disqualified four pro-independence legislators because they had displayed insufficient fealty to the mainland Chinese government, when taking their oaths of office.

Coincidentally, the July 14 decision means the pro-democracy forces on Hong Kong's semi-democratic legislative council no longer have a veto on major decisions. That has raised concerns that China will break its promise to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy, and seek to restrict freedoms even further.

The high court's ruling came just a day after it was announced that Mr. Liu, the jailed dissident and Nobel laureate, had died of cancer while in government custody. Mr. Liu's crime was agitating for an end to single-party rule in a manifesto known as Charter 08.

He was swiftly cremated and his ashes scattered at sea, forestalling any possibility of a burial shrine where his supporters could gather. Groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan – those parts of China where free speech is very much legal – held protests. In China proper, the government, which runs the world's most complex system for censoring electronic communications, has blocked all news and discussion of the issue.

Canada does not need to treat the People's Republic of China like an enemy or a pariah state. But Canadians have to be honest about who we're doing business with. The Beijing regime, for all the advances it has made, is not a democracy or a rule-of-law society. To ignore that fact, or to try to pretend it doesn't matter, would be willful blindness.

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