Calling his five-day sojourn in China "very successful," Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrapped it up Saturday by hugging a baby panda, musing about even deeper trade ties with Beijing, and avoiding using the name of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Mr. Harper concluded his visit with a stop in Chongqing, a rugged Yangzte River metropolis, where he collected another prize for taking such a trade-focused approach over the past three years: the 10-year-loan of pair of giant pandas named Er Shun and Ji Li. The loan of the bears – at a fee $1-million annually – is the updated, capitalist version of "panda diplomacy," a centuries-old symbol of Chinese goodwill toward a foreign power.
"I think this really is a trip that is really moving us to a totally new level in our relationship, one that is going to be very good for both of our countries, particularly good for the creation of jobs and opportunities in the future," Mr. Harper said after witnessing the signing of the panda pact in the Chongqing Zoo. Er Shun, one of the bears, nonchalantly munched bamboo behind the Prime Minister as he spoke.
"The 10-year-loan of the pandas, besides being an obvious gesture of friendship, the length of that loan indicates the degree of commitment that the Chinese really do have, and the optimism that they have for the relationship going forward."
The panda pair – Er Shun (the name means "Double Smoothness") is male, Ji Li ("Successful and Pretty") is female – are slated to arrive at the Toronto Zoo next spring for a five-year stint before moving to Calgary for the second half of their stay. Zoologists are hoping to encourage them to procreate in their new digs, although the loan agreement dictates that any offspring would have to be repatriated to China.
The current warm-and-fuzziness of the relationship only goes so far, though. Mr. Harper said the idea of a free-trade pact with China – suggested this week by Premier Wen Jiabao – was "premature" even with the rapid expansion of Canada-China trade, which tripled between 2001 and 2010 to just under $60-billion.
"It would be premature to talk about a free-trade agreement today. There obviously would be considerable steps and some obstacles and questions that would have to be addressed. But what we have committed to do is move our economic and trading relationship to the next level. So this is a serious discussion we will be having with the Chinese over the next few months and then we will examine what the next potential step is," he said.
Mr. Harper, who once promised to put "Canadian values" ahead of "the almighty dollar" in trade with China, again made it clear that trade is now what matters most in dealings with the ruling Communist Party.
Asked by a reporter whether he thought Mr. Liu should be released from prison, and what demands he made regarding Husseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen of Uyghur descent who has been jailed since 2006 without consular access, Mr. Harper said it was his policy "when I'm in another country not to say anything publicly critical of that country."
He managed to get through the rest his answer without even using the name of Mr. Liu, a pro-democracy activist who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize but remains in prison serving an 11-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power." His wife, fellow dissident Liu Xia, has also been held incommunicado since Mr. Liu's Nobel Prize was announced.
The Prime Minister, who on Friday told an audience of Canadian and Chinese business people that "you should expect us to continue to raise issues of fundamental freedoms and human rights" referred to Mr. Liu and Mr. Celil only indirectly on Saturday. "In terms of the two individuals you mentioned, Canada is clearly on the record – publicly – over the past few years on both of those issues, what it is we want to see. And I can assure you we have raised all of those same concerns and same demands on this trip as well."
Mr. Harper met on Saturday with Bo Xilai, the Communist Party boss for Chongqing who until this week was considered a rising star in the Chinese political system, the standard-bearer for the country's nationalists and leftists. His career is now seen as being in jeopardy, however, after his right-hand man, deputy mayor Wang Liqun, took refuge Monday night in an U.S. consulate.
After leaving the consulate, Mr. Wang was taken into custody and it was announced he was taking "vacation-style" treatment. While it's not yet publicly known what, if any, information Mr. Wang passed on to the U.S. consulate, the scandal is seen as having sideswiped Mr. Bo's drive to be named to the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo during a once-in-a-decade power transfer that begins this fall.
None of that came up during bilateral meeting between Mr. Harper and Mr. Bo. Canadian officials said the two men talked trade, and discussed Canada's decision to upgrade its office in Chongqing from a consulate to a consulate-general.
"In spite of all the very important deals and the billions of dollars of contracts we signed this week, more people in Canada will notice the pandas than anything else," Mr. Harper told Mr. Bo.