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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen tour the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, on Feb. 8, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen tour the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, on Feb. 8, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A 'golden period' for trade with China, but it's certainly not a friendship Add to ...

When friends have a falling out, they can only fully make up after both sides acknowledge that they made mistakes that contributed to the split.

In the Canada-China relationship, which has this week been referred to as “flowering” in the Chinese media and in a “golden period” by Canada’s ambassador to Beijing, there is apparently only one side with a wrong to admit.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper was naughty, the narrative goes. He loudly criticized China’s human-rights record. He allowed parliament to bestow honourary citizenship on the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a “splittist” and supporter of terrorism. Mr. Harper also dared take a pass on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics here, an absence that was interpreted as another snub.

Now, Mr. Harper is seen as having repented. He has toned down all that talk about the need for China to treat its people with respect, and embraced the “almighty dollar” (or rather the informally pegged yuan) that he once shunned. This week he’s making his second visit to Beijing since December 2009.

The Chinese media this week has been celebrating that reversal. “The warming Sino-Canadian relations have benefited from the Harper government’s abandoning of its prejudice against China, and its return to the policy of friendship toward China,” reads an editorial that appeared Wednesday in the state-run China Daily newspaper.

The Global Times, a stridently nationalist newspaper affiliated with the ruling Communist Party, played down Mr. Harper’s policy shift. It said the Prime Minister has simply come to the same conclusion the rest of the world is reaching – that China is too big and too important to talk down to anymore.

“Unlike in the past, [Canada]realizes the importance of paying due attention to China, the second largest economy in the world. This is very normal,” Zhou Rongyao, director of Canadian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted as saying. So Canada has fixed its China policy. And China? Well, there is apparently nothing to undo.

Acknowledging that Mr. Harper’s initial criticisms had merit (and were actually tame for a leader who has sent Canadian servicemen into action in the name of “democracy” in Afghanistan and Libya) would cross lines that can’t be crossed here, lest the whole system – authoritarianism, backed by the threat and use of violence against those who disagree – be called into question.

Allowing that the Dalai Lama’s peaceful pursuit of autonomy for Tibetans is even comparable to how Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi became honourary Canadians is similarly anathema to a Communist Party that has recently stepped up repression in Tibet. An editorial distributed by the official Xinhua newswire just before Mr. Harper landed in Beijing made clear that the new Canada-China relationship will proceed only so long as Mr. Harper zips his mouth.

“For the train of bilateral ties to go forward unhindered, a core precondition is that the two sides have to always treat each other with respect, accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns and appropriately handle sensitive issues,” it reads. “Core interests” is Chinese official-speak for Tibet and Taiwan, while “sensitive issues” frequently refers to China’s treatment of its dissidents. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel learned on her own visit last week that “appropriate handling” will be left up to the Chinese authorities, who prevented a human-rights lawyer from meeting her, and cancelled a planned visit to the office of an outspoken Guangzhou newspaper.)

So Canada and China can exchange official visits, oil and investment. But we shan’t speak out loud of anything else.

A “golden period” for trade, maybe. But it’s certainly not a friendship.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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