Frank dialogue

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is telling Chinese leaders they should not expect silence on human rights as the tradeoff for expanded economic ties.

A youngster plays around with a Canada and Chinese flag as he watches Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen visit the Canadian International School in Beijing

SHANGHAI, China — Prime Minister Stephen Harper is telling Chinese leaders they should not expect silence on human rights as the tradeoff for expanded economic ties.

The Canadian leader delivered his first and only major speech of his four-day visit Friday night in Shanghai, China’s glittering commercial centre that proclaims the country’s emergence as an economic power in towers of neon.

And he made it clear he believes the two countries have much to gain from a stronger economic partnership, especially in the energy sector.

Canada is an emerging energy superpower, the world’s seventh biggest oil producer, third largest natural gas producer and largest producer of uranium, he told a Canada-China audience of about 500 business leaders, many involved in bilateral trade.

And China, to continue fuelling its spectacular growth, will need stable sources of power that Canada can provide, he said.

Canadian firms can also help China adapt to cleaner technologies for the future green energy, the prime minister said.

At one point, Harper turned salesman expounding on the advantages of Chinese investment in Canada, including falling tax rates and low government debt.

This was quite a reversal for a leader of a party that a few years ago chafed at the idea of China buying into Canada’s resources sector.

“But just as trade is a two-way street, so too is dialogue,” he added.

“Our government believes and has always believed that a mutually-beneficial economic relationship is not incompatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental values like freedom, human rights and the rule of law.”

Harper went on to say that in the Canadian experience the two are inseparable, noting that 1.3 million Canadians of Chinese origin are thriving in the pluralistic society.

“And so, in relations between China and Canada, we will continue to raise issues of freedom and human rights, be a vocal advocate and an effective partner for human rights reform, just as we pursue the mutually beneficial economic relationship desired by both our countries.”

The section was greeted with silence from the crowd of businessmen, who had liberally applauded the mention of trade progress he had already achieved during the visit, calls against protectionism and an announcement Canada would open up four new trade consulates.

Former Conservative MP John Reynolds, now a businessman who said he spends three months a year in China, said the Chinese would not be put off by the comments.

“If you talk to business people they understand politics, they understand Canada is a friend, they understand we have resources they need and that we can do business both ways,” he said.

“Every country says that (about human rights). Fact is trade has not suffered and this visit will be like a rocket shot to everybody.”

He noted that during the supposed chill in relations, bilateral trade between the two countries has expanded by more than 10 per cent a year and continues to grow.

Still, Harper’s comments were a fresh reminder that his first visit here exposed a store of pent-up slights, real or imagined, that the Chinese government felt strongly enough to break diplomatic protocol over.

Harper has a lot of “repair work” to do on Canada’s relationship with China, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters during an appearance in Montreal Friday.

With an American economy that continues to struggle, China is more important than ever, Ignatieff added.

“We’ve all had a wake up call in Canada about how important China is and Mr Harper has taken a very long time to wake up,” he said.

“It’s perfectly obvious he should have there four years ago and we’ve lost ground and we’ve lost time so I hope we can make up the ground.”

NDP leader Jack Layton said it’s pretty hard for Harper to lecture China on human rights given the questions that have been raised over how his government has dealt with the Canadian military’s transfer of prisoners to Afghan authorities as well as Canada’s refusal to sign on to the U.N. declaration of human rights for aboriginals.

“I think you always have to be careful when you live in a glass house when it comes to throwing stones,” Layton told reporters in Winnipeg Friday.

The prime minister’s past frosty attitude toward China has been a main theme among the Chinese leadership since Harper’s plane touched down Wednesday afternoon, blowing into a diplomatic storm during his meeting with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on Thursday when Wen scolded Harper for waiting so long to visit.

In case the message was lost, Wen gave Chinese media and a TV station interviews after their meeting in which he was even more blunt in blaming the Harper government for the damaged relations that have occurred since 2006.

The list of complaints cited by official newspapers against the Harper Conservatives include Harper’s refusal to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his embrace of the Dalai Lama and support of Tibet, along with numerous criticisms of China’s treatment of its own people.

“We are reluctant to see Canada alienate us in recent years,” Wen was quoted as saying by the official China Daily. “That has hampered our trade and personal exchanges.

“The key is mutual respect, equality and taking care of each other’s core interests. I hope the visit can solve the problem of mutual trust.”

However, Wen says the Chinese government is ready to turn the page and the newspaper noted that Harper was making headway in trying to “warm up cool to icy ties.”

Earlier in the day, the prime minister visited the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing and held a short meeting with Wu Bangguo, regarded as the third most powerful person in the government.

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