Last week, many of the roughly 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong were delightedly filling social media feeds with updates on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s arrival in the SAR, with a fervour matching that of any major Hollywood celebrity’s visit.
And why not; aside from his well-documented good looks and charisma, the ambitious young politician is already known for his determination in dragging Canadian parliament into the 21st century on themes like diversity, gender equality, and climate change.
The Prime Minister kicked off his visit with a visit to the Sai Wan War Cemetery, in Chai Wan, where he honoured the 283 Canadian soldiers buried there, many of them unnamed, who lost their lives defending Hong Kong during World War II.
Later on, he took the stage at a luncheon held by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, in his sole public appearance during the short stay in the SAR. At the luncheon he gave a short keynote speech, followed by a candid fireside chat with Bloomberg anchor Angie Lau.
Trudeau succinctly highlighted the fundament of his visit to China: “What we want to build, on behalf of 36M Canadians, is a relationship that endures.” He went on to mention the importance of responsible trade and development, noting the need to pursue “relationships that satisfy not only your own interests, but the needs of the entire planet.”
Lau opened the interview with a “politically charged question that could cause division throughout the nation” – asking the PM about his favourite hockey team. After confirming it to be the Montreal Canadiens (with some light ribbing of the reporter for her own home team, the Toronto Maple Leafs), the interview turned to more serious topics.
On the Canadian political relationship with China, Trudeau framed it as a long term vision, aiming for a “stable, predictable, deeper relationship, rather than the hot-cold of the previous [Canadian] administration,” and noted the importance of being “open, constructive, and consistent in our intentions with other nations; that's what people expect, and hope for, from Canada.”
When asked about the challenge of raising topics such as human rights with China whilst signing economic deals with them, the PM acknowledged that it was a tricky area: “I think you have to be very up front and frank about doing that, in a thoughtful and respectful way, but in a constructive way.”
He confirmed that he had raised human rights, among a range of other issues, with Chinese president Xi Jinping during the trip, and suggested that human rights and economic interests weren’t mutually exclusive topics requiring to be ‘balanced’ with each other or ‘traded off’: "It's not like I'm going to pull back a bit on human rights in order to do that. I don't think we have to choose.”
He also reminded the audience that Canada itself is "not immune to criticism on human rights", citing a UN report a few years ago that slammed Canada’s treatment of its indigenous peoples – an area where he recognised that “we still have work to do.”
That sad, Mr. Trudeau also noted that “part of Canada's identity and appeal is our openness, inclusion, diversity…” adding that he was “excited to demonstrate to the world the tremendous strength of our values.”
He also laid clear his intent to open up foreign investment in Canadian natural resources, saying, "Yes, we have to think about it in terms of ‘what are the benefits, what are the labour standards, what are the environmental impacts’… but I don't think that anyone can imagine that we would do better by closing ourselves off from the world."
When asked about his thoughts on the Hong Kong election that had passed just two days before, the PM was reticent, pulling out “a line that I’ve been able to use a few times regarding our neighbours to the south,” referring to the American elections and dubious candidacy; “Canada will work with whoever gets elected and forms government in foreign jurisdictions.”
The visit, which also included meetings with Chief Executive CY Leung and high-profile business tycoon Li Ka-shing, marked the last stop in an 8-day trip centered around his attendance at the G20 summit in Hangzhou and diplomatic discussions in Beijing.