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On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rebuked the Canadian government, saying it 'has made irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs repeatedly and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.'

Moe Doiron/Reuters

Chinese authorities are taking aim at Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, singling her out by name in an unusually personal rebuke to her comments about Hong Kong.

Ms. Freeland was criticized for a joint statement she made with the European Union on Saturday on the mass protests in Hong Kong. In comments reported by state television on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Canada “has made irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs repeatedly, and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.”

The targeted response from Beijing further highlights the breadth of the rift that has developed between Canada and China after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and the subsequent arrests in China of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

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But it also adds a fresh perspective on difficult decisions for Canadian leadership, who have faced demands both to adopt a tougher position toward Beijing in support of demonstrators in Hong Kong, and to restore calm to relations with the world’s second-largest economy, which has visited serious economic consequences on Canada in recent months.

Farmers, in particular, have suffered because of the deteriorating relationship, with China refusing to buy some key agricultural exports from Canada. Adding to the strain are continuing mass protests in Hong Kong, where about 300,000 people hold Canadian citizenship.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that the global community must recognize that China is “a growing power and increasingly assertive toward its place in the international order.”

“But make no mistake: We will always defend Canadians and Canadian interests. We have a long history of dealing directly and successfully with larger partners. We do not escalate, but we do not back down,” he said in a speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

"He spoke after Mr. Geng’s critical remarks were aired by Xinwen Lianbo, the nightly newscast by China Central Television, which directed a withering gaze at Ms. Freeland.

On Saturday, Ms. Freeland released a joint statement with European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini in which they spoke out against “unacceptable violent incidents” in Hong Kong.

Xinwen Lianbo did not discuss the content of the statement, but named Ms. Freeland in its report, saying it “is the third time since May of this year that she has issued a declaration on Hong Kong.”

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China, the program said, “solemnly demands that the Canadian side be cautious in matters such as Hong Kong.” Xinwen Lianbo is the country’s most influential information platform, with an estimated viewership that can exceed 130 million. Neither the program nor the Foreign Ministry made any mention of Ms. Mogherini or the European Union.

It’s a telling omission, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, who is also an adviser to the State Council of China, the country’s cabinet. To “openly criticize an iconic diplomatic figure in another country” is “rare and unexpected,” Prof. Shi said – but so are other Chinese actions in recent months.

Open criticism in the Xinwen Lianbo report “is a warning,” said Su Hao, a professor in the School of Diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University.

“It’s very rare for Chinese news anchors to do something like this, though of course their task is to serve as a channel for Chinese top officials to give voice to their stance and opinion. We can consider it a reflection of the scale of China’s anger.”

Canadian outspokenness on Hong Kong has also raised worries for those advocating for people caught up in the Chinese legal system in the midst of frictions between Ottawa and Beijing. “I am concerned about how my Canadian client’s interests could be harmed,” said Zhang Dongshuo, a Chinese lawyer who represents Robert Schellenberg, one of the Canadians sentenced to death. “I think there will be a negative impact.”

There are few signs of such ambivalence from Beijing, however.

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“The government of the People’s Republic of China appears to be sending a strong signal of severe dissatisfaction and disappointment with the Trudeau government in general,” said Charles Burton, a Brock University scholar who studies Chinese politics. Direct criticism of a senior Canadian leader may also indicate a strategic calculation by Chinese leadership, he said.

The response from Ottawa has been more muted.

Mr. Trudeau began the portion of his speech on China Wednesday by saying Canada has deep ties to its people, and that “we recognize real economic opportunities for Canadians.”

He then said the countries have had their share of disagreements, adding, “we know well that China has a political system and core values that differ from ours.”

Mr. Trudeau said the federal government is monitoring developments in Hong Kong closely. The government has also been working “tirelessly," he said, to secure the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has criticized Mr. Trudeau for not being tough enough on this file, saying he has been “bullied” by China.

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Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney raised the contrast between the Prime Minister’s comments on China and the “appropriately blunt” tone he took on Russia in the same speech to the council. (Mr. Trudeau said Canada would oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea at every turn).

“It is therefore quite jarring to come upon the China section, which opens with bizarrely warm and friendly sentiments, talks about economic opportunities rather than China’s actual economic blackmail of Canada,” said Mr. Mulroney, adding that the speech was “silent” on China’s mass detention of its Uyghur people, a largely Muslim ethnic group.

“Equally strange is the Prime Minister’s treatment of Hong Kong as a potential consular crisis for our 300,000 Canadians there – which it certainly is – but without also referring to the promises Canada and others made in 1997 to support and respect Hong Kong’s autonomy, something China has steadily undermined.”

Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former foreign-policy adviser to the Prime Minister, said the speech invites the audience to “draw a connection between how [Mr. Trudeau] has dealt with Trump and how he’s responding to China’s bullying.”

With a report from Alexandra Li

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