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To win with Beijing, Trudeau must play both softball and hardball

The hard men who lead the Communist Party of China are really not so difficult to understand. They are not romantics. They are not sentimentalists. And they are not self-deluding.

Some Canadians may fetishize Dr. Norman Bethune, the surgeon memorialized by one of history's greatest mass murderers; the Beijing leadership does not. You may think that Canada's recognition of the People's Republic way back in 1970 is still a big deal, entitling us to special favours; they couldn't care less. They are focused on their current power, their future interests and the almighty bottom line.

Communism may have fallen elsewhere, but the CPC kept power through the barrel of the gun in Tiananmen in 1989, and maintains it through steady economic growth, combined with subtle but clear acts of political repression and control.

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They tolerate some freedom of speech, but not criticism of the regime or advocacy of democratic rights. Smartphones and the Internet are ubiquitous, but websites from Google to Facebook are censored. Dissidents are silenced and jailed. They have a lot of law on paper, but are not governed by the rule of law. And on the international stage, actions from bending trade rules to land grabs in the South China Sea are making the neighbours increasingly nervous.

But China is also a rising superpower, the world's second-biggest economy and Canada's number two trading partner. That's why Canada must engage with China and its leaders, and why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is beginning a week-long visit on August 30.

In an ideal world, the Beijing leadership would not be Canada's second-most-important relationship. But they are, a fact that can be neither changed nor ignored. Ottawa has to figure out how to manage this relationship – for Canada's benefit.

The question is, does the Trudeau government, and the Prime Minister in particular, appreciate who they are dealing with? We are about to find out.

Earlier this year, the government sounded enthralled by the opportunity of concluding a free-trade deal with China. It did not appear to be sufficiently aware of the potential dangers and downsides, or of why it would be of such interest to a country that already enjoys a huge trade surplus with Canada. International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has since been more circumspect. That's not a bad thing.

So how should Mr. Trudeau manage his China visit, and the ongoing relationship?

Be patient. Don't be so quick to say "Yes": The PM doesn't have to go out of his way to criticize the Chinese leadership. He doesn't even have to say "no" to China. (Diplomacy is sometimes the art of never giving a clear answer.) But the Liberal government has to think long and hard about when and where it should say "yes."

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For example, while China would be happy to reach a trade deal, Ottawa has to figure out if that would benefit Canada, and whether it would be possible to get the other side to fully live up to its terms.

The current canola situation, with China threatening to block one of Canada's largest exports in what appears to be a bid to gain negotiating leverage in other areas, is telling. So is the continued detention of Kevin Garratt on trumped-up espionage charges, laid after Ottawa caught China engaging in actual spying in Canada.

Canada has a history of favouring multilateral forums and agreements, as a way of not ending up at a disadvantage when dealing one-on-one with a larger partner. In considering a trade deal with China, that old impulse may be the right one.

And then there is Beijing's wish to see an end to rules preventing Chinese state-owned enterprises from buying some assets in the Canadian oil patch. Are these rules in Canada's interest? To what extent should Canada make concessions? In a world currently awash in investment capital, must Canada make any concession at all?

Figure out what Canada wants: Canada is always going to be the less powerful partner in the relationship, but most of what happens next is still up to us.

China would clearly like to see one or multiple energy pipelines built to the Canada's Pacific coast. But that decision is for Canadians to make. If pipelines are to be built, it should only be because they're in Canada's interest, not as a favour to Beijing.

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And much of what Canada wants out of the relationship is not entirely or even mostly about the Chinese government. For example, Canada aims to strengthen two unique export industries, where instead of products going overseas, the buyers come here: education and tourism.

Canada wants more foreign students, and Chinese students are already by far the largest group, with enormous potential for further growth. Canada also wants more tourists – and China, the third-largest source of visitors to Canada, will soon be number two, behind the United States.

There are big opportunities in both of those areas, and for them to come to fruition, good relations with Beijing are necessary. But the game here is mostly about appealing directly to China's middle class, and pitching Canada as an attractive destination, especially to young people. Mr. Trudeau is particularly well-equipped for that job.

It's not just about governments: Western social media is heavily censored in China. But Chinese social media, though it has banned topics, is very active. Mr. Trudeau will get noticed simply for being and acting like himself while in China. And if he talks about Canada's virtues, as a destination and aspiration for Chinese people, he will get traction.

Mr. Trudeau doesn't have to offend his hosts in Beijing. But he can also try to reach beyond them.

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