Prime Minister Justin Trudeau avoided calling China a “dictatorship” in response to a reporter’s question during a press conference at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Nov. 17.
“Would you describe Xi Jinping as a dictator?” the reporter asked.
“Look, China’s a one-party state. I don’t think anyone would call it a democracy,” Mr. Trudeau answered.
The previous day, U.S. President Joe Biden called Mr. Xi “a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that is based on a form of government totally different than ours.”
During the meeting that preceded the comments, Mr. Biden obtained a Chinese commitment to stop the flow of fentanyl into the country and raised concerns about U.S. citizens barred from leaving China, military communication, and peace and stability around the Taiwan Strait.
Another reporter reminded Mr. Trudeau of his remark back in 2013, when he told a Toronto fundraising crowd there was “a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say, ‘we need to go green.'”
“Mr. Biden, the president of the United States, … also called him a dictator. Why won’t you call him that?” the reporter asked.
“We can get into all sorts of different definitions. The fact is, he’s not running a democracy. It’s an authoritarian state,” Mr. Trudeau replied.
The prime minister acknowledged during the press conference that Canada is having a “challenging time” in its relationship with China. The problem began after the 2018 detention of Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who were taken into custody in China after the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada.
Mr. Trudeau said while the countries had worked together on protecting nature and climate change, they will continue competing on issues such as trade and supply chains, areas where China has dominance.
“The other thing we’re going to do is continue to challenge China on areas we fundamentally disagree on, around democracy and human rights, around respect for the rule of law,” he said.
“It is a complex relationship with China but Canada will continue to both stay strong anchored in our values, and look for opportunities to contribute to economic growth and opportunities for Canadians.”
Mr. Trudeau was also asked why he did not have a formal meeting or conversation with Mr. Xi on the sidelines of the summit, aside from “saying hello to President Xi.”
“Actually, in addition to saying hello to President Xi, I talked about how we need to keep our officials and teams working together to try and create constructive dialogue around issues that matter to us individually, but also matter to the world,” Mr. Trudeau said.
A reporter also asked the prime minister if it was “too politically risky” to speak with Mr. Xi given an upcoming public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s elections. The Chinese regime is accused of meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, including funding certain political candidates and intimidating others.
Mr. Trudeau responded that Canada had been “very clear” for several years about its concerns around foreign interference. “We’re going to continue to do everything necessary to keep Canadians safe,” he said. “That’s something that people expect both of our diaspora communities but also of our democracy.”
“At the same time, we have to look for constructive ways to engage in the global economy, and China remains an important player.”