Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned Beijing on Friday not to threaten Canada on economic issues in the hope of getting his government to back off on human rights criticisms, including the case of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian imprisoned in China.
China has more to lose if the economic relationship between the two countries becomes fractured, Mr. Harper suggested in a sharp rebuke to a senior Chinese diplomat.
"I would point out today to any Chinese official, just as a matter of fact, that China has a huge trade surplus with this country," Mr. Harper said.
"So I think it would be in the interest of the Chinese government to insure that any dealings with Canada on trade are fair and above board."
China's assistant foreign minister for North American affairs, He Yafei, told The Globe and Mail on Thursday that the Conservative government's criticism of China's human-rights record hurts political relations, which in turn stunts economic relations.
But Mr. Harper was having none of that.
"When the rights of a Canadian citizen need to be defended, I think it is always the obligation of the government of Canada to vocally and publicly stand up for that Canadian citizen," Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Harper was speaking after a ceremony to name the Halifax airport for the late Robert Stanfield, a former Nova Scotia premier and leader of the old federal Progressive Conservative party.
Local dignitaries and invited guests broke into applause when Mr. Harper told reporters he would not let the Celil case drop.
Mr. Celil was travelling in Uzbekistan on a Canadian passport when he was illegally deported to China, Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Celil, who was born in China, is charged with terrorism. But the Chinese authorities have never produced any evidence of this, the Prime Minister said.
"They continue to deny his Canadian citizenship . . . so we continue to protest this at every level."
Mr. Harper also took a political jab at the Liberals, accusing them of being ready to forget the Celil case in the hopes of selling more Canadian goods to China. "I think that's irresponsible."
(The Liberals said in the House of Commons on Thursday that the Harper government's "cold war" with China made it difficult to deal with the Chinese on the Celil case.) Mr. Harper said on Friday that Canada's trade with China has lagged, but that this was also true under the previous Liberal government.
"We are committed to opening up Chinese market," but Canada is also going to promote human rights and defend the rights of Canadian citizens, Mr. Harper said.
International Trade Minister David Emerson echoed the Prime Minister's displeasure with Mr. He.
"We will continue to engage China economically, but that will not constrain our right to raise human rights, especially when the interests of Canadian citizens are at stake," Mr. Emerson said in a letter to The Globe. "Canada and China have a strong relationship based on cultural, political and commercial links. We will continue to advance trade, but our commercial interests and our values go hand in hand."
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said Mr. He's remarks show that the Chinese are feeling sensitive about the Celil case.
But Canadian diplomats are not going to hold their tongues, Mr. MacKay said. "It is the responsibility of my department to speak up for Mr. Celil and his interests."
The Celil case is just one of the irritants in relations with China. The Chinese are displeased that the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism agreed to meet the Dalai Lama and they don't like being fingered by Ottawa for industrial espionage in this country.
On other foreign issues, Mr. Harper said he would reserve judgment on whether the power-sharing agreement between the secular Fatah movement and Hamas radicals in the Palestinian territories will work. "It's too early to say."
He also said Ottawa continues to press Pakistan to crack down on Taliban hideouts near the border with Afghanistan. Canadian military commanders in Afghanistan say one of their greatest obstacles is the fact Taliban fighters can slip across the border easily.
At the Nova Scotia Tory convention last night, Mr. Harper delivered a partisan campaign-style speech to an appreciative audience of about 1,000.
He attacked the Liberals for supposedly trying to clamp a lid on the economic growth represented by the energy sectors in Nova Scotia and his province, Alberta.
"We all know if the Liberals even think about shutting down Alberta's energy industry, they would do the same thing to Nova Scotia's in a heartbeat," he said.