China's state-run media has warmly welcomed Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who arrived in Beijing earlier today for his first visit.
After three years of chilly ties, Mr. Harper is expected to try to patch up relations with the world's fastest-rising power. Beijing also seems keen to let bygones be. Mr. Harper was greeted by a front-page headline in the state-run China Daily that promised: "Ties with Canada to thaw."
"Harper's trip will prove to be a turning point in bilateral ties and herald a bright new future for the governments and peoples of the two countries," read an editorial inside the paper.
On issues of foreign affairs, the China Daily almost always parrots the official government line. The newspaper said ties between Ottawa and Beijing had "stagnated" because Canada "has aggressively criticized Beijing for its human rights record and for alleged spying. Harper was not among world leaders at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and he irritated China by embracing the Dalai Lama."
Relations have also been damaged by rows over two cases: Lai Changxing, a wanted Chinese fugitive who has been in Canada since 1999, despite demands from Beijing that he be returned to face corruption charges; and Hussein Celil, a Canadian of Chinese Uighur descent who was arrested in Uzbekistan in 2006, and was extradited to China where he was sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges.
While Mr. Lai remains in Canada with a newly issued work permit, and Mr. Celil is still in prison without consular access, the intergovernmental acrimony appears to be in the past. Both sides have made it clear this visit is about repairing the relationship, not picking at old scabs. An editorial in the Global Times newspaper, seen as a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, put the blame for the damage done on Mr. Harper for "appeasing his electoral base" by turning "a cold shoulder to China."
The piece hailed Mr. Harper's visit as a good starting point, but it warned that the relationship between Ottawa and Beijing required further nurturing. "A far-sighted political leader must realize the crucial importance of facing up to China's rise as an important player on the world stage," the paper said. "The relationship cannot go much further without a stronger partnership built on a shared commitment to strive for a win-win situation in the emerging world order."
Mr. Harper maintained that Canada would have a productive conversation with Chinese officials without compromising on human rights.
"Canadian values are part and parcel of who we are," he told reporters in Beijing Wednesday evening, "… and so we never check those things at the door.
"That said, we have a good and frank relationship with the Chinese government ... I'm looking forward to this trip. I think it will be a good and productive trip, and I think the Chinese feel the same way."
In a podcast produced by Shanghai's xinmin.com Web site, political analyst Zhang Wenzong said Mr. Harper's about-face appeared to reflect a new pragmatism from the Prime Minister. He said the new realities created by the global recession and U.S. President Barack Obama's recent visit to China, during which he underplayed human rights concerns and hailed the country's arrival as a great power, forced Mr. Harper to re-evaluate his hard-line strategy.
"It is the development and changes of the international situation which made Harper adjust his policy to China by paying less attention to ideology and to focus more on pragmatism," Mr. Zhang said.
Some in China's feisty online community were less willing than their government to forgive and forget. "Chinese leaders should give [Mr. Harper]a cold shoulder and teach him a lesson ... We should teach this primary student. Let him know he should extradite [Mr. Lai]before talking to others," read one posting on the popular sina.com web portal.
With files from John Ibbitson