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Governor-General Julie Payette receives a letter of credential from China's newly appointed ambassador, Cong Peiwu, during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 1, 2019.

PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

The Governor-General waded into international relations on Friday, telling newly appointed Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu that she hopes Ottawa and Beijing can use the 50th anniversary of bilateral relations in 2020 to “bridge any divide” between the two countries.

Julie Payette made no mention of two Canadians who are locked up in China in apparent retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of a Chinese high-tech executive last December on a U.S. extradition request. Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor remain detained in what critics call a case of “hostage diplomacy” by Beijing.

Mr. Cong visited Rideau Hall, the governor-general’s residence, to present his credentials as China’s new ambassador to Canada.

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After the ceremony, Ms. Payette welcomed him to Ottawa. She noted next October will be half a century since former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s government suspended diplomatic relations with Taiwan and instead recognized the People’s Republic of China.

“Next year in 2020, Canada and China as you know will celebrate 50 years of bilateral relations. And I think we all agree that we need to use this milestone to bridge any divide, to further the things we have in common and to work on all these very pressing global and social issues that we have in common,” Ms. Payette said.

"It’s a relationship that, like any relationship, requires working on. And we look forward to working with you especially in advancing this.”

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Ms. Payette’s comments obscure important facts concerning the disagreements between Canada and China. And they help create the impression both sides have something to apologize for, when in fact, he says, Canada does not.

China is an authoritarian surveillance state that interferes in Canadian affairs and its disregard for human rights means that the relationship will almost always be fraught with disagreement, Mr. Mulroney said. He noted Canada’s serious concern over the internment of an estimated one million Uyghur Muslims in Chinese “re-education camps” and the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong.

“It’s wrong to pretend that China is a country like any other and that it’s our friend. It doesn’t mean we have to be combative or confrontational. I think China actually respects countries that show some backbone,” he said.

“It’s not clear in what she said that critical to getting back on track in 2020 would be release of our Canadians and a complete turnaround in Xinjiang – where the Chinese are erasing Uyghur culture and religion – and not interfering in Hong Kong,” he said.

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Philippe Lagassé, a professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said he is not worried by Ms. Payette’s comments.

“I think these comments are sufficiently boilerplate and high level that they should not be a cause for concern,” he said. “They’re also aspirational rather than focused on a particular problem or policy."

Conservative MP Peter Kent said it’s not Ms. Payette’s job to comment on bilateral relations. “That’s the responsibility of the government.”

Mr. Cong served until recently as director-general of the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs, which is responsible not only for the United States and Canada but also countries including Australia and New Zealand.

He has worked as a diplomat in Canada earlier in his career. Mr. Cong was posted to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa in the early 2000s.

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