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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

FRANK CHING

Diplomacy for business, diplomacy for rights Add to ...

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper first went to Beijing in 2009, having skipped the previous year’s Olympics, he was mildly chastised by Premier Wen Jiabao, who told him that his visit “should have taken place earlier.”

This time, there wasn’t the slightest hint of a rebuke as the Canadian leader made his second official visit to China.

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Instead, the red carpet was rolled out. Mr. Harper was received by the Premier (his official host), by President Hu Jintao and by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to become premier next year.

Mr. Harper evidently understands that personal diplomacy is important for good relations with China. He sought to prepare Canada for the next generation of Chinese leaders by meeting up-and-coming officials in the provinces.

In a speech to business leaders in Guangzhou, the Prime Minister described the goal of his trip: “We want to sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy. It’s that simple.”

Given that goal, the trip was very clearly a success. Mr. Wen told him that China is “ready to expand imports of energy and resource products from Canada” and to enhance co-operation in other areas, including the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Mr. Harper has made no secret of his desire to diversify Canada’s export markets so as not to be so dependent on the United States, which currently buys 99 per cent of Canada’s energy exports.

This fits well with China’s desire to diversify its sources of energy away from areas of volatility, such as the Middle East. Where energy is concerned, China is eager to buy and Canada is interested in selling.

Mr. Harper’s trip to China took place after the White House rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have taken oil from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. While that decision may well eventually be reversed, it highlights Canada’s vulnerability to the vagaries of U.S. politics – and economics.

It’s high time that Canada looked beyond the United States and made decisions in its own interests rather than those of its neighbour. Mr. Harper’s trip to China is a big step in the right direction.

Much has been made by the media of the Prime Minister’s low-key approach to human rights while in China.

Mr. Harper was asked by a reporter about Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and Husseyin Celil, a Uyghur imam who is a naturalized Canadian citizen sentenced to life imprisonment on terrorism-related charges.

The Prime Minister responded: “In terms of the two individuals you mentioned, Canada is clearly on the record publicly over the past few years, what it is we want to see. I can assure you we have raised all of those same concerns and same demands on this trip as well.”

Mr. Harper explained that he raised human-rights issues behind closed doors because “I make it my habit when I’m in another country not to say anything publicly critical of that country.”

That is probably a good policy. Poking one’s host in the eye is not considered good manners in any society.

But Canada must stand up for the rights of its own citizens.

In this regard, it is unclear what Mr. Harper demanded for Mr. Celil, who was arrested while visiting Uzbekistan in 2006 and then extradited to China.

The official China Daily, in an editorial welcoming Mr. Harper, said: “Differences aside, there is no conflict of fundamental interests between China and Canada.”

While China prefers to set aside differences to develop a relationship, Canada should make it clear that upholding the rights of its citizens abroad is a fundamental responsibility of its government. As the number of Chinese Canadians continues to grow, there are bound to be other cases.

China does not recognize Mr. Celil’s Canadian nationality. Canada should ask for his release or, at the least, for his right to receive consular visits.

Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1

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