His comment comes as China grapples with protests across the country in response to Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy — protests that mark the largest display of anti-government sentiment since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which ended in a massacre.
Global News asked the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) about his comments, and specifically to clarify whether Trudeau was referring to all those in China who disagree with the current government, or just those protesting in the country-wide demonstrations taking place currently.
A PMO spokesperson responded that the office had “nothing further” to say on the topic.
The prime minister made the comment at a Reuters NEXT event on Wednesday morning, when a host asked Trudeau about the West’s current relationship with China.
“I think there are various degrees of engagement across the West. There’s not one single approach, but there is a consistency and understanding that China is an increasingly important global economic power, but it’s also an increasingly challenging or disruptive global economic power, and we have to be thoughtful about how we engage in commercial and economic ties that benefit our citizens,” he said.
Trudeau added that engagement needs to show a “consistent” approach “that we’re going to stand up for our values, for our principles, for the things that our citizens in the West expect us to stand for — not just for our own purposes, but to highlight to people in China who disagree with the regime that there are other ways of doing things and there is a better future, possibly, ahead.”
The statement indicates a “very strong position” taken by the prime minister, according to Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China.
“I don’t recall him being that forceful and it is a long way from his position towards China when he came to power in 2015,” Saint-Jacques told Global News over email when asked for his reaction to the remark.
“Of course, China will claim that he is interfering in its domestic affairs. While it may not help to restore some dialogue between the two countries, at the same time, if you believe in democracy, this is the kind of stand you have to take.”
As protests continue across the country, some demonstrators have begun to call for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s resignation. The vocal opposition comes just weeks after Xi secured an unprecedented third term as leader, after the Chinese president scrapped the presidential two-term limit in 2018.
The latest protests in China are a response to Beijing’s continued use of a “zero-COVID” strategy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a strict policy that aims to isolate every infected person to limit the spread of the virus.
As a result, millions of Chinese citizens have continued to face broad quarantine orders, mandatory testing and severe restrictions, all of which are the target of growing protests across the country.
The protests have emerged in at least eight major cities in China as well as on several school campuses, and have appeared to grow following a fire in a residential high-rise building in the city of Urumqi last Thursday.
The blaze killed 10 people, and as videos of the incident tore through social media, accusations grew that lockdowns played a role in the fatal fire.
Many of Urumqi’s four million residents have been under some of China’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days. Chinese officials have denied COVID-19 measures hampered escape and rescue efforts.
But during Xinjiang’s lockdown, some residents elsewhere in the city have had their doors chained physically shut, including one who spoke to The Associated Press who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
The pressure from the protests led authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region to open up some neighbourhoods in the capital of Urumqi on Saturday, after residents held extraordinary late-night demonstrations against a “zero-COVID” lockdown in the city that has lasted more than three months.
As protests continue across China, Trudeau said on Tuesday that Canadians “are watching very closely.”
“Obviously, everyone in China should be allowed to express themselves, should be allowed to share their perspectives and indeed, protest,” he said on Tuesday.
“We’re going to continue to ensure that China knows we’ll stand up for human rights, we’ll stand with people who are expressing themselves.”
— with files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea, The Associated Press and Reuters