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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Nov. 29, 2022.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke in support Tuesday of rare and widespread anti-government demonstrations across China, saying the Chinese “should be allowed to express themselves” and protest.

It’s his first comments on China since the Canadian government unveiled a new Indo-Pacific strategy that marks a shift in Ottawa’s approach toward Beijing, calling the Chinese state an “increasingly disruptive” power.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, the prime minister says “Canadians are watching closely” after rare street protests erupted in cities across China over the weekend.

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Protests flared in several cities in mainland China in recent days, in a wave of civil disobedience unprecedented since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago. Simmering discontent with COVID-19 prevention policies ignited into broader protests following a fire on Thursday in the western province of Xinjiang that killed 10 people, which some internet users said was worsened by partial lockdown measures. Officials have denied that.

Mr. Trudeau, who was admonished by Mr. Xi at the recent G20 summit in Bali, said Canada intends to defend human rights. “We’re going to continue to ensure that China knows we’ll stand up for human rights, we’ll stand with people who are expressing themselves,” he said. “We also need to make sure that China and places around the world are respecting journalists and their ability to do their job. We’ll continue to make that very clear.”

The Chinese embassy in Canada did not respond immediately to a request for comment but on Monday Beijing’s ambassador to Canada lashed out at criticism of his country.

Speaking to a University of Ottawa crowd, Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party will always “firmly oppose interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretense of the so-called democratic and human rights issues.” University officials refused to allow media to film the event.

With a report from Reuters.

More to come.