China's ambassador in Ottawa is urging Canadians not to be "blinded" by their differences with his country over human rights and miss the opportunity to achieve what he calls a golden era in bilateral relations, including a possible free-trade deal.
In an opinion piece published on The Globe and Mail's website Sunday, Ambassador Luo Zhaohui touted last week's visit to Ottawa of Foreign Minister Wang Yi as an important step in boosting mutually beneficial relations.
Mr. Wang sparked controversy during a press conference when he lashed out at a reporter for questioning the country's human-rights record. The Globe also reported that the Chinese had earlier demanded a visit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which it eventually received, in a display of a more aggressive diplomatic posture internationally.
Mr. Luo said China is willing to discuss human rights with Canada or any other government, but decried "microphone diplomacy." He said it "will only serve to mislead the public, adversely affect co-operation and harm both sides' interests."
"Given the differences between China and Canada in history, culture and political system, it is only natural that the two countries may have different views on human rights," he wrote.
"China faces such differences squarely and never sidesteps them. One should not be blinded by such differences and thus ignore the overall interests of co-operation."
However, the ambassador echoed Mr. Wang's concern about journalists who ignore China's "tremendous and universally recognized achievements" in human rights and focus only on its problems. To do so, he warned, risks undermining hopes of the two governments to enhance China-Canada relations.
At a news conference last week, Mr. Wang berated the reporter after she asked a question about China's human-rights record and the imprisonment of Canadian missionary Kevin Garratt.
Both Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion – who watched Mr. Wang's tirade in silence – and Mr. Trudeau later said they had expressed their unhappiness to the Chinese Foreign Minister over the way he dealt with the issue.
A spokesman for Mr. Dion said the minister raised a number of economic and political issues with his counterpart during their meeting, including human rights. "Frank engagement with open eyes is the way to make progress," the minister's director of communications, Joseph Pickerill, said Sunday.
On the global stage, Chinese leaders have often bristled at foreign criticism and used the threat of damaged economic relations to quell it, said Chris Rea, director of the University of British Columbia's Centre for Chinese Research.
Mr. Trudeau intends to visit China in the fall, and is determined to elevate the relationship with the country after it was allowed to stagnate under the former Conservative government. The Liberals are broaching the possibility of a free-trade deal with the world's second-largest economy, which by some measures has already overtaken the United States.
That economic relationship is critical for Canada but should not prevent Canadians from speaking out against abuses, said David Mulroney, a former ambassador in Beijing and now president of St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto.
"Anything that can further grow our economic relationship with China – already far and away our second most important trading partner – is a good idea," Mr. Mulroney said in an e-mail.
"No country, other than the U.S., is as key to our future prosperity. But we can't afford to ignore human rights in talking to a China that is already powerful enough to reach across borders to harass and even snatch up people, including Canadians, it considers troublesome."
He added that Beijing is aggressively promoting economic development over political and democratic rights in the developing world, "to the comfort of the many dictators it subsidizes. We have an obvious stake in countering this challenge to the rules-based international system we helped to build," the former diplomat said.
In his letter, Mr. Luo said Mr. Wang had come to Canada armed with a list of proposals for expanding trade and political relations, including boosting the number of international students, expanding exchanges at the provincial and local level, and increasing co-operation in the area of environmental protection, resource development and innovation.
China wants to begin negotiations on a bilateral free-trade agreement. But Mr. Luo denied reports that, before talks can start, Ottawa must approve an oil-sands export pipeline through British Columbia, and roll back restrictions on state-owned companies buying oil-sands assets.
The Canada China Business Council estimates a free-trade pact could boost Canadian exports by $7.7-billion by 2030 and create an additional 25,000 Canadian jobs. But critics worry such a deal would be one-sided. Canada had a $46-billion trade deficit with China last year while importing manufactured goods and exporting raw materials and agricultural products.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said Mr. Dion's failure to speak up in defence of the journalist at the time of the incident is a troubling sign that the Liberals are unwilling to challenge Chinese aggressiveness.
"Canadians don't want to see their foreign minister dialling down the defence of Canadian values, including human rights and liberty, for the purpose of this rapprochement with the Chinese leadership," he said in an interview.
Mr. Clement said the Liberal government should focus on approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that includes the United States, Australia, Japan and Vietnam, rather than a bilateral agreement with China. "The priority should be free trade with our allies," he said.