As much as Canada’s freedom-loving Conservatives seem to hate Justin Trudeau, you’d think they would at least take his side when it came to a public dispute with a literal dictator. But as his recent showdown with Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed, the negative partisanship that seems to define Canadian politics in 2022 knows no bounds. Worse, it often blinds the people suffering from it to reality.
Xi’s regime, after all, is one that conservative pundits and politicians have routinely (and often quite fairly) criticized the Trudeau government for being too cozy with. More recently, they’ve demanded (again, fairly) an investigation into allegations of foreign interference by China in Canada’s democracy, which includes a “clandestine network” of at least 11 federal candidates running in the 2019 election. As Global reported last week, “the alleged election interference network included members from both the Liberal and Conservative parties, according to sources with knowledge of the briefs.”
And yet, when video surfaced of Xi and Trudeau squaring off on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Conservatives seemed to be practically rooting for the dictator. The ironically named “Canada Proud” said it looked like “an employee getting berated by his boss,” and asked “Why must Trudeau embarrass our country every time he goes out in public?”
The Toronto Sun splashed the event across its front page with the suggestion that “‘Little Potato’ Justin Trudeau needs to get tougher on the world stage after dressing down from China’s Xi.” And former Conservative MP Bob Saroya, who represented Markham-Unionville from 2015 to 2021, tweeted: “It is tough to see the PM run backstage after getting publicly humiliated by President Xi.”
But is that what really happened? As British comedian John Cleese tweeted, “I'm puzzled by the reporting of Xi's exchange with Trudeau. 'Xi scolds Trudeau'...What about 'Dictator complains to democratically elected leader’?”
Xi’s complaints, meanwhile, were about a “leak” of their conversation — one that took the form of a standard diplomatic readout that comes with every meeting between Canada’s prime minister and another world leader. “In Canada, we believe in a free and open and frank dialogue,” Trudeau told Xi. “We will continue to work constructively together, but there will be things that we will disagree on.”
And while there was much online talk about the apparent weakness in Trudeau’s body language, that’s not how those who follow him closely read it.
As the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt noted, “A close watch of the video shows Trudeau nodding politely until he realizes through the translator that he’s getting a scolding. The prime minister then fixes his gaze on Xi directly and moves closer to the Chinese leader — something Trudeau does often when he’s confronted or challenged.” As Delacourt wrote, Trudeau famously did that during his first official visit with U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2017.
You might think the Canadians who define themselves by their steadfast dedication to liberty and free markets would be rallying, however reluctantly, behind their democratically elected leader rather than a foreign dictator. But this obvious contradiction, one that places their partisan well ahead of their patriotic loyalties, is not new to politics.
During Trump’s presidential run in 2016, members of the Republican Party began to adjust their long-held views on Russia in accordance with their new leader’s curiously warm relationship with its leader. Where only 10 per cent of Republicans held a favourable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2014, that number had nearly quadrupled to 37 per cent by December 2016. By 2022, Putin was more popular among Republicans than Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the entire Democratic Party.
Pick your side carefully. The spat between Justin Trudeau and Xi Jinping is a clash between liberal democracy and authoritarian dictatorship. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver #cdnpoli #opinion
This is the very definition of putting party before country, and it obscures the fact that the real contest right now is between liberal democracies and authoritarian dictatorships. That’s playing out most obviously in Ukraine, but there are any number of other areas, from China’s growing military assertiveness and its designs on Taiwan to the supply chains for key minerals that will help drive the energy transition, where parochial partisanship is getting in the way of more important conversations.
Those conversations include what Canada’s relationship with China can and should look like in the years ahead. They should also include an analysis of the missteps that the Trudeau government has made on this file in the past, ones that revolve around its excessive optimism about China’s willingness to engage with the West and its values. As a smaller country with less financial and military clout, Canada can’t afford to be divided by reflexive partisanship on an issue like this — especially when hostile foreign powers like China and Russia will be only too happy to exploit that division.
Until Canada’s conservative movement is able to kick its addiction to hating Justin Trudeau, those important conversations are going to be difficult to have.
Conservatives are free, of course, to disagree with the government, to criticize its policies and dislike its personnel, just as Liberals and New Democrats will be when the tables are eventually turned. In some respects, that’s quite literally their job. But when the conflict is between liberal democracy and authoritarian dictatorship, we should all be able to rally behind the prime minister — no matter what his or her name might be.