HONG KONG — China sought to play down a diplomatic dispute with Canada on Thursday after video emerged of President Xi Jinping rebuking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over alleged leaks, offering a candid insight into a tense interaction between world leaders.
The frosty exchange, in which Xi complained that details of a conversation with Trudeau had been leaked, was shared widely on social media after the media pool captured it on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit of leading industrial and emerging nations on the Indonesian island of Bali.
The video highlighted tense relations between the two countries and provided a rare glimpse into the personal style of Xi, whose image is carefully managed by Beijing.
It shows Xi rebuking Trudeau over alleged leaks from a 10-minute conversation the two leaders had Tuesday, their first meeting in more than three years.
“Everything we discussed has been leaked to the paper. That’s not appropriate,” a smiling Xi told Trudeau through a translator. “And that’s not the way the conversation was conducted.
“If there is sincerity, we can communicate well with mutual respect,” he continued. “Otherwise the outcome will not be easy to tell.”
Trudeau responded: “In Canada, we believe in free and open and frank dialogue, and that is what we will continue to have. We will continue to look to work constructively together, but there will be things we will disagree on.”
“Let’s create the conditions first,” Xi replied before shaking Trudeau’s hand and walking away.
Xi’s annoyance appeared to stem from news reports that Trudeau had raised “serious concerns” about suspected Chinese interference in Canadian affairs in their conversation Tuesday. The reports were attributed to anonymous Canadian government sources and have not been verified by NBC News.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the video showed a “normal” conversation between the two leaders.
“I don’t think it should be interpreted as President Xi criticizing anyone or accusing anyone,” she said at a regular news briefing Thursday.
Mao said that China never interferes in other countries’ internal affairs and that it was up to Canada to improve relations.
“Honest dialogue is not a problem for China, but we want that honest dialogue to be based on equality and mutual respect rather than condescending accusatory dialogue,” she said.
Asked about the video at a news conference in Bali on Wednesday, Trudeau confirmed that he had raised the question of foreign interference with Xi.
“Not every conversation is always going to be easy, but it’s extremely important that we continue to stand up for the things that are important for Canadians,” he said. “This is something we always do, and we will continue to.”
Trudeau sidestepped a question about whether the confrontation was a “power play” by Xi.
Xi appears to be expressing “total contempt” for Trudeau in the video, said Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think tank in Ottawa.
Trudeau “is desperately trying to be taken seriously by this man who won’t even look at him,” he said. Xi “keeps turning away from him. The body language is just terrible.”
But Trudeau was most likely speaking to a broader audience than just Xi, Crowley said, as he faces pressure to adopt a tougher line on China from anxious voters at home, as well as in the U.S. and other liberal democracies. “I don’t think it was a great success for Trudeau, certainly in terms of domestic public opinion, but I’m sure it was noticed in Washington,” he said.
Tensions between Canada and China have grown recently over accusations that Beijing interfered in Canada’s 2019 election. Last week, Trudeau said China and other state actors were playing “aggressive games” to undermine democratic institutions, while Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly described China as an “increasingly disruptive global power.”
While Trudeau and Xi were at the G-20 summit, an employee at Hydro-Québec, Canada’s largest electricity producer, was arrested on suspicion of spying for China. Early this month, the Canadian government ordered three Chinese companies to divest from critical minerals in the country, citing national security concerns.
Canadian police are also investigating allegations that Chinese officials have set up secret “police stations” in the Toronto area as part of an operation against Chinese dissidents overseas. Beijing says the foreign outposts are service centers that help Chinese nationals living abroad renew their driver’s licenses, among other things.
Among the most damaging blows to Canada-China relations in recent years was the arrest in China of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in 2018 after Canadian officials arrested Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities seeking her extradition. Kovrig and Spavor were detained for more than 1,000 days on spying charges before they were released in September 2021, just as Meng was allowed to return to China.
Although Xi had bilateral meetings at the G-20 summit with President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, he did not have such a meeting with Trudeau.