HONG KONG – When Justin Trudeau raised concerns directly with China’s political elite about their human-rights record, he says he also acknowledged that Canada isn’t perfect.
The prime minister shared more details Tuesday about his high-level talks last week with Beijing, sessions that included face time with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
Trudeau told a business luncheon in Hong Kong that he brought up his concerns in those meetings, ranging from consular cases, rule of law, governance and corruption.
“(I) talked about the challenges, but also talked about the fact that Canada is not immune to criticisms on human rights, either,” he said during an on-stage interview during the event, hosted by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
“The perspective that a lot of countries have is, ‘Well, you know, foreign countries or foreign observers shouldn’t be criticizing what are internal matters to us.”‘
He said he pointed out how a United Nations rapporteur put out a “scathing report” a few years ago on Canada’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples, of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls and other challenges.
Trudeau’s Hong Kong event came on the last day of his eight-day official visit to China, a trip that also included stops in Beijiing, Shanghai and Hangzhou for the Group of 20 leaders’ summit.
His primary goal of the visit was to strengthen commercial ties with the Chinese regime. He repeated his argument Tuesday that Ottawa’s connection to China was “hot and cold” when the Conservatives were in power.
With Canada struggling through an extended period of weak growth, the government sees expanding the relationship with China – the world’s second-largest economy – as a key to helping the economy.
But getting tighter with China poses challenges at home. Trudeau has had to address widespread concerns about the Chinese regime’s handling of human rights.
On Tuesday, his interviewer asked him how he balances the two.
She noted, for example, that public opinion polls have suggested Canadians are cool to the idea of pursuing free trade with the Asian superpower.
“I don’t know if I like the word balance because balance does make it sound like you’re making a trade off,” Trudeau replied.
“I don’t think you have to choose, I think you have to be very up front and frank about doing that in a very thoughtful, respectful way, but in a constructive way.”
His appearance Tuesday in Hong Kong followed a landmark election result in the southern Chinese city over the weekend that saw a group of young pro-democracy activists win seats in the local legislature.
The activists, who helped lead huge pro-democracy street protests two years ago, intend to change the rules on how the city is governed by China’s leaders. It could set off a fresh showdown with Beijing.
Asked how Canada might engage with China on behalf of Hong Kong, Trudeau was cautious.
“I’m going to use a line that I’ve been able to use a few times regarding our neighbours to the south: Canada will work with whoever gets elected and forms government in foreign jurisdictions,” he said.
Andrew Work, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s Harbour Times, said it is “hugely important” that Trudeau was in the city shortly after the election to see its vibrant democracy first hand.
“Canada is an influential nation with 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong,” said Work, a Canadian who has lived in the Chinese city for 20 years.
When it comes to working with China, this week Trudeau left the door open to allowing more investment from the country’s state-owned enterprises.
On Monday, he said he would listen if China raises its long-held concerns with him over Canada’s restrictions on investment by foreign, state-owned enterprises. He elaborated on the topic Tuesday.
“We need to draw in global investment as a way of being able to properly develop our resources in ways that are going to create a lot of jobs in Canada,” Trudeau said during the on-stage exchange with Bloomberg TV anchor Angie Lau.
“Yes, we have to think about it in terms of what are the benefits, what are the labour standards, what are the environmental impacts?. But I don’t think that anyone can imagine that we would do better by closing ourselves off from the world.”
Earlier Tuesday, Trudeau visited the mountainside Sai Wan War Cemetery to pay homage to Canadian soldiers who died after fighting to defend Hong Kong from a Japanese invasion during the Second World War.
There are 283 Canadians buried at the cemetery, 107 of whom were never identified.
Trudeau also met with billionaire businessman Li Ka-shing, chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings, to discuss investment opportunities at his cavernous office on the 70th floor of a Hong Kong tower.
The prime minister also held a meeting with Leung Chun-ying, chief executive of Hong Kong, at his residence.