A federal cabinet minister has pushed ahead with a critique of China's human rights record, despite suggestions that Beijing's resentment of such criticism led to a diplomatic snub of Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week.
Gary Lunn, the natural resources minister, said he raised human rights issues with senior Chinese officials when he met them in Beijing this week. He also raised his government's concerns about Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen who is being held in a Chinese prison.
China has prevented Canadian diplomats from gaining access to Mr. Celil, who has been jailed in an unknown location on allegations that he is a Muslim terrorist, despite international treaties that require it to give access to diplomats from the home country of any imprisoned foreigner.
Mr. Harper had planned to raise the Celil case in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao during the APEC summit in Hanoi this week, but China told Canada this week that it has rejected the meeting.
Some analysts say Beijing is unhappy that the new Conservative government is putting greater emphasis on human rights issues, including the Celil case, which has emerged as a top issue from Canada's perspective.
Despite those concerns, Mr. Lunn did not back away from human rights issues in his three-day visit to Beijing this week.
"We obviously raised human rights," Mr. Lunn told reporters in Beijing Wednesday near the end of his visit. "It's an important issue for our government. 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."
Mr. Lunn refused to comment on the cancelled meeting between Mr. Harper and Mr. Hu, and he refused to say whether Canada has suffered damage in its relations with China as a result of the diplomatic snub and the human rights issues. He said, however, 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."
Canadian business groups have been increasingly concerned that they are losing opportunities in China because of the growing level of friction between Canada and China in the early months of the Harper government. In the wake of those concerns, Mr. Harper had publicly said that he wanted to hold a meeting with Mr. Hu during the APEC summit. Knowing the Canadian desire for a meeting, China's unexpected refusal to hold the meeting is a blow to Canadian diplomacy, analysts say.
"It will definitely be a setback for Canada," said Wenran Jiang, a political scientist at the University of Alberta who has been consulted by Ottawa on relations with China.
"It's a surprise, because all the indications were that China would eventually allow the meeting after a bit of a waiting game. But China knows that Canada needs more from this relationship than the other way around."
Ironically, the federal government has been much more active and positive in its engagement with China in recent weeks, Mr. Jiang said, but Beijing may still be focusing on the friction in the early months of the Harper government. "In its initial stages, this government gave a bit of a cold shoulder to China, and this might have had an effect on China. But now Canada is eager to engage China on all fronts."
Another political scientist, Charles Burton of Brock University, said the Celil case was probably one of the reasons why China cancelled the meeting with Mr. Harper. It would be a difficult issue for Mr. Hu to defend, so China preferred to avoid the issue, Mr. Burton said.