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Canadian ambassador criticizes Chinese President during Trudeau trip

Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, right, shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following a joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/AP

China's treatment of its own people has regressed under Xi Jinping, Canada's ambassador to China said, hours after Justin Trudeau completed a meeting with the Chinese President and his top deputy.

"In the last three years we have seen, I think, things going backward, unfortunately," Guy Saint-Jacques told Canadian reporters at a briefing Wednesday night. "And that's why Canada has used opportunities to express its views to China."

Human-rights advocates and China observers have used much stronger language to describe how Mr. Xi is changing the country, but it is unusual to hear such a blunt assessment from a top-level diplomat, particularly during a high-profile political visit.

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Related: Trudeau in China: Focus shifts to human rights after ambassador's rebuke to Beijing

Open discussion of Chinese regression on human rights comes at a sensitive time, as Mr. Trudeau seeks a renewed relationship with China to smooth a path for Canadian trade.

Mr. Trudeau publicly mentioned human rights in an address to business leaders, although he was cautious to not cause China public embarrassment when speaking beside its political leadership.

But with Mr. Trudeau in China, the country has employed its state media to openly rebuke critics. The "so-called human-rights issue stems from the West's long-standing prejudice and arrogance against China," the Xinhua news agency wrote in an unusually stern English-language commentary on Tuesday, in which it pointed to Canada's own problems.

"Some indigenous people in Canada still live in miserable conditions," Xinhua wrote in the unsigned editorial, calling Canadian concerns over Chinese human rights "groundless."

"It is penny wise and pound foolish to spoil China-Canada ties with these domestic concerns in Canada," Xinhua wrote, noting that China guaranteed human rights in its constitution in 2004, "and has promised harder efforts in the future."

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, meanwhile, argued that "it's normal that we have differences, because we are countries with different backgrounds."

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Under Mr. Xi, China has cracked down on dissidents, minority groups, news media and academics in a way not seen in years.

Human-rights lawyers, and at least one foreign aid worker, have been detained and paraded on state media for forced confessions. Booksellers have disappeared from Hong Kong and Thailand and re-emerged in the mainland, raising accusations that China is reaching across borders to silence dissent.

Chinese authorities have declared war on "Western values" in news media, entertainment programming and universities, while state media have denounced "foreign and hostile forces."

The Canadian ambassador's comments reflect those widely acknowledged changes under Mr. Xi, who has sought to protect and enhance the primacy of the Communist Party in China.

"If you take a long-term approach, we have to recognize that China has made quite a bit of progress, especially on the economic rights front," said Mr. Saint-Jacques, who is scheduled to leave his post in Beijing in October.

The Canadian ambassador also directly contradicted the Chinese Premier on free trade. Mr. Li on Wednesday proclaimed agreement on the "need to launch at an early date" feasibility studies. But Mr. Saint-Jacques said "there's no agreement to proceed with exploratory talks at this point, and the two sides are still far from" sitting down for formal discussions on the matter.

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For Beijing, "it's not particularly welcome when anyone makes what China would regard as critical comments about what it would regard as its internal affairs," said David Firestein, a senior vice-president with EastWest Institute, a New York city-based foreign-policy think tank that specializes in building trust between international powers. Mr. Firestein spent five years in Beijing as a U.S. diplomat.

But, he said, "the comment itself is in line with what many diplomatic officials have observed in recent years," and it's doubtful it will hurt Sino-Canadian ties.

"It will anger some people, but not everyone," said Tang Xiaosong, director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. "Human rights is not a taboo in China."

And, he added, such a comment would be expected by the Chinese side, which understands the political imperative among Canadian leaders that "human rights must be mentioned every time."

Mr. Trudeau said on Wednesday that the China and Canada should have "frank and open" discussion about "concerns, questions and issues." On Tuesday, he called on China to "ask for advice and take suggestions about how to be better for its citizens."

Canadians are evenly split on the need to promote trade versus human rights with China and Mr. Trudeau has faced calls at home to take a much stronger tone with the country.

In an open letter to Mr. Trudeau sent last week, the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China urged a "determined effort" to raise human-rights issue. The coalition, made up of 15 organizations, said the trip comes at a critical time as China faces serious human-rights challenges across the country.

Mr. Trudeau's father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, still commands great affection in China, noted Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said at a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.

"They will be listening with a different kind of interest perhaps than they have been in the last few years. That gives a new opening that wasn't there before," he said.

Mr. Neve said a trade relationship between the two countries cannot ignore the issue of human rights.

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