Canada will continue to defend human rights in China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said after a top Chinese diplomat warned Ottawa against welcoming Hong Kong pro-democracy activists.
“We will stand up loudly and clearly for human rights, all around the world, whether it’s talking about the situation faced by the Uighurs, whether it’s talking about the very concerning situation in Hong Kong, whether it’s calling out China for its coercive diplomacy,” said Trudeau said on Friday.
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But he added: “We don’t look to escalate.”
China’s ambassador to Ottawa, Cong Peiwu, warned Canada on Thursday against granting asylum to Hong Kong activists, which he said could have consequences for the “health and security” for the 300,000 Canadians living in the theoretically autonomous Chinese territory.
The Canadian daily The Globe and Mail said Ottawa had recently granted asylum to a Hong Kong couple, which the Canadian government has neither confirmed nor denied.
In a sign of the rising tensions between the two countries, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne had earlier slammed the ambassador’s remarks as “totally unacceptable and disturbing.”
For his part, the new leader of the conservative opposition, Erin O’Toole, called on the Chinese diplomat “to fully retract his remarks and issue a public apology.”
“Should the ambassador fail to do so expeditiously, we expect the government to withdraw his credentials,” he said.
Relations between China and Canada have been icy since December 2018 when Canada, acting on a US warrant, arrested the chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, Meng Wanzhou.
Washington accused her of violating US sanctions against Iran and is pushing for her extradition.
Shortly after her arrest, China jailed a former Canadian diplomat, Michael Kovrig and a Canadian businessman, Michael Spavor, on charges of spying, an act widely seen in western capitals as an act of reprisal by Beijing.
In August this year, a Chinese court in Guangzhou also sentenced a Canadian national Xu Weihong to death for drug-related charges.
Last year, two other Canadians, Robert Lloyd Schellenberg and Fan Wei, were also sentenced to death in separate drug cases.
Canada has also stepped up political and diplomatic pressure on Beijing.
Earlier this month, a Canadian warship sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait, a voyage that comes at a time of separate military tension between China and Taiwan.
Canada’s navy has sailed through the Taiwan Strait before, including in September of last year.
China, which claims democratic Taiwan as its own territory, has stepped up its military activity around the island in the past few weeks, including sending fighter jets to cross the unofficial midway line, which acts as a buffer in the strait.