Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked on Friday if he would call Chinese President Xi Jinping a dictator, did not clearly answer the question.
“China’s a one-party state. I don’t think anyone would call it a democracy,” he said when asked point-blank by a Canadian journalist if Xi was a “dictator” during a closing media availability at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.
When pushed, Trudeau stated: “We can get into all sorts of different definitions. The fact is, he’s not running a democracy. It’s an authoritarian state.”
U.S. President Joe Biden had called Xi a dictator on Wednesday hours after meeting with him for several hours.
When pressed by a reporter to say whether he trusted Xi, Biden said he believed in trusting but verifying, and conceded that China’s leader is a dictator.
“He is a dictator in a sense,” Biden said.
That drew a stout response from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, who said, “Such a remark is extremely wrong and is irresponsible political manipulation.”
“It needs to be pointed out that there have always been people with ill intentions who try to sow discord and undermine the China-U.S. relations,” she said.
Biden called Xi a dictator in June, saying that Xi was embarrassed over the recent tensions surrounding a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had been shot down by the U.S. Air Force over the East Coast.
“That’s a great embarrassment for dictators. When they didn’t know what happened,” Biden said.
Xi, as Chinese president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, effectively holds more power than any other Chinese leader before him, having removed term limits and purged former rivals in the Chinese government in recent years.
Trudeau’s deferral comes amid strained relations between the two countries, with Canada undertaking a public inquiry into whether China interfered in past elections. The relationship between Ottawa and Beijing has been especially tense the country arrested Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the so-called “two Michaels,” after Vancouver police arrested Chinese national Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer.
Trudeau did not have a formal, scheduled discussion with Xi, which often happens between world leaders at summits like APEC.
In his closing comments Friday, Trudeau said the two greeted each other and discussed how to keep officials from both countries working together to create constructive dialogue.
“We’re going to continue to do everything necessary to keep Canadians safe,” he told reporters.
“That’s something the 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.”
Trudeau said Canada will work with China where it can and continue to challenge China when “we fundamentally disagree around democracy on human rights, around respect for the rule of law.”
— with files from The Associated Press.
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