Beijing's ruling Communist Party has used one of its main newspapers to deliver an angry salvo at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, calling him "arrogant and biased" for opposing a trade deal between China and Canada.
The Official Opposition Leader announced on Sunday that his party would oppose Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's effort to negotiate a free-trade accord with the world's second-biggest economy, citing concerns about human rights, labour standards and the fact the Chinese economy is dominated by state-owned companies. Canadian and U.S. intelligence agencies have warned these enterprises act in the interests of China's Communist Party.
"Giving China preferential access to the Canadian market would threaten the jobs of workers and businesses in this country," Mr. Scheer said.
On Monday, the Chinese newspaper Global Times, a stridently nationalist media outlet owned by the Communist Party, published an article saying Mr. Scheer is demonstrating "faulty logic and blindness" to the benefits of a bilateral trade pact.
"The opposition leader's statement shows nothing but his arrogant and biased attitude toward China," according to the article written by Global Times journalist Wang Jiamei. "Scheer's logic is beguiling but wrong."
The columnist said it was unfair of Mr. Scheer to compare Canadian labour, environmental and human rights standards to China, which he said remains a developing country.
"If Canada requires a potential FTA [free-trade-agreement] partner country to have the same ideology and labour standards as itself, then it should probably only look at Western countries," he said. "Few developing countries could meet Mr. Scheer's standards for a level playing field."
Citing two corporate lobby groups in Canada, Mr. Wang pointed to the increase in business Australia and New Zealand enjoyed after they concluded free-trade deals with China. Canada's economy would similarly prosper if a trade deal was negotiated, he predicted.
"A China-Canada free-trade agreement would increase Canada's GDP by 7.8 billion Canadian dollars, … boost its exports by 7.7 billion Canadian dollars and add 25,000 jobs by 2030, according to a 2016 white paper released by the Canada-China Business Council and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives," he wrote.
Jack Jia, publisher of Chinese News in Toronto, said he believes the Global Times article is aimed in part at ethnic Chinese in Canada.
"They want to tell Chinese Canadians, 'We don't like this guy. Don't get along with this guy,'" Mr. Jia said.
Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Peter Kent said Mr. Scheer is merely alerting Canadians to what the Official Opposition sees as the potential pitfalls of negotiating free trade with China, from turning a blind eye to Chinese acquisition of sensitive military technology to ignoring human rights abuses.
"The Chinese government has given every impression that it is successfully bullying the Liberals into getting what they want and the Liberals seem to be accepting it," the MP said.
He noted the Liberals have muted their criticism of China's human rights record ever since Beijing's new envoy to Canada, Lu Shaye, warned that his country would not allow the issue to be part of any free-trade talks.
David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the Global Times has a mandate to attack overseas critics.
"This is par for the course for the Global Times, which is given fairly free rein to go after foreign governments and foreign officials who are seen to be anti-China," Mr. Mulroney said in an interview.
"China is much more comfortable attacking Canadian Conservatives, whom it considers pretty much irrevocably unfriendly than Liberals, who are seen as old friends."
Beijing has been advancing the position for some time that it is profitable for Western countries like Canada to trade with China. Mr. Mulroney said Canadians should not lose sight of what is going on inside the country.
"The biggest story out of China today is that Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo appears to be dying of cancer. He has been released from official confinement but will almost certainly die a prisoner of the state, something that last happened to a Nobel laureate in Nazi Germany in the 1930s," Mr. Mulroney said. "It's getting hard to normalize relations with an increasingly abnormal China."
The Liberal government is in exploratory talks with Beijing over whether the two sides can negotiate a broad trade deal.
Mr. Scheer is accusing the Liberal government of wanting to "appease" China, pointing to controversial Chinese investments – including Hytera Communications Corp.'s acquisition of Vancouver satellite-maker Norsat International Inc. He said the Trudeau cabinet's approval of the deal – without a comprehensive national security review – is an example of a troubling pattern in which Ottawa appears to be overly eager to win Beijing's favour.
"What I'm worried about is that these are steps that the Liberals are doing to appease the Chinese government before free-trade negotiations even start," he told CTV's Question Period in an interview that aired last Sunday.
"To put Canadian manufacturers and workers at a disadvantage to Chinese competition that don't have to play by the same playing rules, that's not in Canada's best interests," he said.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday placed China on its global list of the worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labour.
A report from the State Department said China convicted fewer sex and labour traffickers in the 12 months ended on March 31 than in the previous year, forcibly repatriated North Koreans without screening them for indicators of trafficking, and handled most forced labour cases as administrative issues rather than criminal prosecutions.
With reports from Xiao Xu in Vancouver, Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing and Reuters