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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and daughter Ella-Grace arrive in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and daughter Ella-Grace arrive in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Trudeau touches on trade, human rights in call for ‘new era’ with China Add to ...

Justin Trudeau wants to remake Canada into a bridge between China and the world, a bid to take back the role fashioned by his father more than four decades ago.

Canada is “in a position to help China position itself in a very positive way on the world stage,” Mr. Trudeau said in Beijing, where he arrived on Tuesday afternoon for his fourth visit and first as Prime Minister.

Justin Trudeau says China should strengthen trade with Canada (CP Video)

“How can the relationship between China and Canada set a new tone, and a new era of positive collaboration, that is good for the citizens of both countries?” he asked a group of elite Chinese business leaders in a conversation with Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma.

An Internet livestream of the hour-long conversation attracted more than 9.3 million views.

Related: What Trudeau wants and risks with visit to China

Mr. Trudeau sought to leaven economic ambition with principle, saying Canada is eager for more trade but also hopeful for greater “opportunities for regular frank dialogue on issues like good governance, human rights and the rule of law.”

China would be well served to “ask for advice and take suggestions about how to be better for its citizens,” he said.

It was a sunny view of the role Canada might play in nudging Beijing – one hard to square with a country that under President Xi Jinping has intensified an internal crackdown on dissidents and spurned international opposition with a newly assertive foreign policy. It was only this June that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a Canadian reporter that she had “no right” to ask about China’s treatment of its people.

And a day before Mr. Trudeau arrived, China broadened its campaign against foreign influence, with a new guideline demanding that entertainment news not “express overt admiration for Western lifestyles.” Meanwhile, state media have recently warned about “foreign and hostile forces,” language used in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, new research from the University of Hong Kong has found.

However, Mr. Trudeau has made it his goal to “reset” the relationship with China on his weeklong trip.

It was his father who led Canada into restarting diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1970, a recognition that helped to ease China into a more integrated role in the global system – a role for which Pierre Trudeau remains fondly remembered.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ma, perhaps China’s best-known business figure, offered “special thanks” to the elder Mr. Trudeau. “Our task today is not to establish friendship and trust. Pierre Trudeau and his generation has already established this,” he said.

On Chinese social media, however, it was images of a youthful Mr. Trudeau walking onto a red carpet-draped tarmac in Beijing – dressed in a red tie, next to wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau in a vermilion dress – that caused a stir. “I thought for a second Tom Cruise became president,” one person wrote.

Celebrity will get Mr. Trudeau only so far in a country whose ambitions often clash with Canada’s, such as the desire by China’s business establishment to further integrate Canada into its economic orbit.

That conflict quickly rose to the surface as executives peppered the Prime Minister with questions about whether he would welcome their money in sensitive Canadian industries such as culture and agriculture – the latter from a company with negotiators currently in Canada trying to buy pig farms.

One even suggested making Chinese an official language in Canada. Do that, and “you will certainly be bigger than your father to a lot of Chinese people,” the man said.

Mr. Trudeau demurred. Improve the relationship, and there will be more avenues to invest in Canada, he said. But he was more interested in selling Canadian food and agri-food technology to China.

However, he did say Canada is “looking very favourably” at joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a China-led institution that has challenged the primacy of the World Bank. An announcement could come as soon as Wednesday.

As his father before him, Mr. Trudeau said, he was hoping to pass along a friendship and “openness toward China,” both to a new generation of Canadians and his daughter, Ella-Grace, who is accompanying him on the trip.

The contrast between the two leaders’ first official trips to China underscores the degree to which China has changed. In 1973, Pierre Trudeau walked off the plane and into meetings with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier and Mao Zedong’s right-hand man.

Justin Trudeau counterparts were Mr. Ma and the members of the China Entrepreneur Club, which may be the most exclusive of its kind anywhere. It is populated by the top ranks of the country’s billionaires, many of them totems of Chinese private enterprise success. Combined gross revenue at their 49 companies last year exceeded $550-billion, equivalent to nearly one-third the Canadian gross domestic product.

Meeting them gave Mr. Trudeau a chance to promote Canada before a crowd with significant economic power.

Still, it’s unclear how much the Prime Minister can achieve. With an increasingly skeptical population at home, including a business community not certain that free trade with China is in their best interests, expectations are low for a dramatic economic breakthrough during his week in the country.

The visit’s political agenda kicked off on Tuesday evening at a private dinner with Premier Li Keqiang inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, an unusually warm gesture. On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau also expects to meet Mr. Xi.

He is expected to press China to release missionary Kevin Garratt, who is accused of spying, and allow Canadian canola exports – a victory that, if it comes, would merely mean achieving the status quo.

Ottawa has signalled that it will also seek regular high-level meetings between the two countries, as well as an agreement to open new paths for large numbers of additional Chinese students and workers to come to Canada.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry suggested talks were going down to the wire.

“As we speak, the two sides are in close communication on preparatory work of this visit,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

China expects the Trudeau “visit will inject new impetus to the development of China-Canada strategic partnership,” Ms. Hua said.

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