Prime Minister Stephen Harper shot back yesterday in Canada's diplomatic spat with China, saying he won't "sell out" on human rights even if it means sacrificing a meeting with the Chinese President that could be good for business.
Mr. Harper said improving trade with the world's fastest-growing economy can't be allowed to overshadow concerns about China's human-rights record, which he acknowledged his government has been more aggressive in challenging.
"I don't think we've done anything unusual other than the vigorous promotion of Canadian values and interests," he told reporters flying with him to Vietnam.
"I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide. We do that, but I don't think Canadians want us to sell out our values, our beliefs in democracy, freedom and human rights. They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar."
Officials in Canada and China had been trying for some time to arrange a one-on-one meeting of Mr. Harper and Chinese President Hu Jintao. But this week the Chinese said they had no time for talks on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, which opens in Hanoi on Saturday. Mr. Harper expressed irritation on the matter yesterday, saying it was the Chinese who originally asked for the meeting.
"This is not the only incident of the Chinese demanding or asking for a meeting and declining when it's accepted, and it's a pattern that kind of perplexes us," he said.
Canadian officials said yesterday that the Chinese declined the meeting after the Prime Minister's Office said it would have to include a discussion of all bilateral issues.
"We are going to be very frank about those things and we will not accept any conditions on having discussions," Mr. Harper said.
The Prime Minister made a point of referring to Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in China and denied access to Canadian diplomats. Mr. Celil is a member of the Uighur people, a Muslim, Turkic-language minority group whose demand for independence has long incurred the wrath of the Chinese authorities. He was arrested in Uzbekistan while visiting his wife's family in March and was extradited to China three months later.
"When a Canadian citizen is taken from a third country and imprisoned in China, this is a serious concern to this country," Mr. Harper said. "We have an obligation. We were very critical of past governments for not vocally defending the interests of Canadian citizens who were mistreated abroad."
Liberal MP Keith Martin said he didn't buy the idea that China cancelled the meeting because it didn't want to hear Mr. Harper talk about human rights. Mr. Harper and the Conservatives have gone out of their way to snub the Chinese since coming to office, the Liberal foreign affairs critic said.
Citing his own experience in government speaking with senior Chinese diplomats, Dr. Martin said: "The Chinese will talk about human rights if you do it in a respectful way.
"There is a way to engage the Chinese leadership on both economic and human-rights issues, but throwing stones from afar is not the right way," he said in an interview.
Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn said he raised human-rights issues with senior Chinese officials this week, including his government's concerns about Mr. Celil.
"It's an important issue for our government," Mr. Lunn told reporters in Beijing yesterday near the end of his three-day visit. "We raised the Celil case. We expressed that it's important that we receive consular access, although we're not trying to judge the outcome. This is a Canadian citizen, and we believe that we should have consular access."
Representatives for the Prime Minister said yesterday they still hoped that he and Mr. Hu might get together in Hanoi, perhaps for a brief chat. The more substantial bilateral meeting was to have taken place tomorrow, but Mr. Harper will now meet only with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Experts see the diplomatic dispute as a sign of Chinese displeasure with a series of perceived slights by the Canadian government.
Canada has accused the Chinese of industrial espionage, allowed MP Jason Kenny to meet with the Dalai Lama, and delayed a meeting between Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and the Chinese ambassador. Canada did not send a cabinet minister to visit China until a month ago, nine months into the government's mandate.
Mr. Harper said he does not believe the tiff will harm business relations between the two countries.
"Individual ministers have been going to China and will continue to go to China and I'm sure that there will come a time in the future when President Hu and I will have an opportunity to meet."
Mr. Lunn said there was no hint of Chinese unhappiness or dissatisfaction with Canada during any of his meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing this week.
"I can only comment on what I've experienced here on the ground -- incredibly positive meetings, warmly received," he said.
"The tone was good. They see Canada as a place to do business, and we see China as a place to pursue our relationship. There will always be difficult files, between any two nations, and we'll work through those difficult files. But it's also important that we move forward on the trading relationship and the other files, and that's exactly what we're doing."