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China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi responds to a Canadian journalist's question during a press conference on June 1, 2016 in Ottawa.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

China's foreign ministry is trying to soften the angry remarks made by its leader in Canada, inviting journalists to cross the Pacific to see the country for themselves.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday called a Canadian reporter "full of prejudice against China and arrogance" for asking about the country's human-rights record.

Shaking a pen in anger, Mr. Wang called the question "totally unacceptable," saying the best judges of China's human rights are Chinese people themselves. "Please don't ask questions in such an irresponsible manner," he said.

His remarks in Ottawa made global headlines as a sign of China's unwillingness to brook any discussion of the way it treats its own people, a record that includes jailing critics, barring Muslims in certain areas from wearing beards and heavily censoring speech, particularly online.

Human Rights Watch calls China "an authoritarian state" that, under current President Xi Jinping, has "unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders."

Chinese leaders only rarely receive open questions from the press. When they do, they typically deflect them with platitudes about how China conducts its affairs according to its own laws. During a visit to Beijing by Stephen Harper in 2014, Premier Li Keqiang was asked about the detention of Kevin Garratt, a Canadian now indicted by China on spying charges. "China continues to build a country under the rule of law," Mr. Li said then, smiling.

Mr. Wang's outburst this week marked a striking departure, his anger underscoring China's refusal to accept criticism, particularly as its economic might gives it the ability to penalize other countries for speaking out against it.

That has led some countries to take unusual measures in voicing displeasure. Twice this year, Canada has participated in joint letters sent with other countries, including the United States and Germany, that laid out objections to Chinese policies on security and the regulation of foreign non-governmental organizations.

On Thursday, however, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying sought to strike a gentler tone, asking correspondents at a daily briefing to "ask yourself whether reporters are fair to China, whether you are objective and fair in your knowledge of China, whether you are accurately transmitting or describing China's current situation to readers, whether you are telling a correct story about China."

She suggested it would be good for "friends in the media to think about this issue," before extending an invitation.

"We also welcome more friends in the media to live and work in China, and use their own eyes and hearts to feel the development and progress China is making."

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