TORONTO (AP) — The diplomatic spat between Canada and China grew more heated on Monday as Beijing denounced press criticism of its ambassador to Ottawa, only to have Canada’s deputy prime minister and opposition leader echo the criticism.
The exchange comes at a moment when ties between the countries are at their lowest point in years, largely due to China’ outrage over Canada’s detention of a top executive of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and the subsequent arrest of two Canadians.
The new friction arose when China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, branded pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as violent criminals and said if Canada grants them asylum it would amount to interference in China’s internal affairs.
“If the Canadian side really cares about the stability and the prosperity in Hong Kong, and really cares about the good health and safety of those 300,000 Canadian passport-holders in Hong Kong, and the large number of Canadian companies operating in Hong Kong SAR, you should support those efforts to fight violent crimes,” Cong said in a video news conference from the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa.
Asked if his remarks amounted to a threat, Cong replied, “That is your interpretation.”
Canada’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland said in Parliament on Monday that the ambassador’s comments “are not in any way in keeping with the spirit of appropriate diplomatic countries between two countries.”
Freeland said Canada will speak out for human rights in China and said Canada will support its citizens living in Hong Kong. “Let me also reassure the 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong that a Canadian is a Canadian and we will stand with them.” Freeland said.
Her statements came hours after Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters that his government had complained to Canada over press criticism of Cong’s remarks. He said Canadian leaders “did not verify, but also condoned the anti-China comments spreading across the nation and made groundless accusations against China.”
He didn’t specify the media criticism, but the Toronto Sun on Saturday published an editorial calling on Cong to apologize, adding. “If he won’t apologize and retract his threats, boot him back to Beijing.”
Meanwhile, Erin O’Toole, the leader of Canada’s main opposition Conservative party, said Monday that Cong had threatened Canadians in Hong Kong and called on the envoy to either apologize or leave.
Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a group that advocates for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, called Cong’s comment a “direct threat” to all Canadians.
“It should not be lost on Canadians living in Hong Kong or China, they could be next. Ambassador Cong suggested so himself,” Wong said.
Protests against the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments swelled last year, and Beijing clamped down on expressions of anti-government sentiment in the city with a new national security law that took effect June 30.
The law outlaws subversive, secessionist and terrorist activity, as well as collusion with foreign powers to interfere in the city’s internal affairs. The U.S., Britain and Canada accuse China of infringing on the city’s freedoms.
Cong also rejected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that China is engaging in coercive diplomacy by imprisoning two Canadian men in retaliation for the arrest of a Chinese Huawei executive on an American extradition warrant. The executive, Meng Wanzhou, is living under house arrest in Vancouver while her case wends through a British Columbia court.
In December 2018, China imprisoned two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and charged them with undermining China’s national security. Convicted Canadian drug smuggler Robert Schellenberg was also sentenced to death in a sudden retrial shortly after Meng’s arrest.