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Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs for a seven-day trip to China and South Korea from the Ottawa International Airport on Dec. 1, 2009.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Ask Chang Chunming what she thinks about Canada and her weather-beaten face lights up into a broad smile.

"Canada is a very rich country - too rich. Everything is very people-oriented there. Everybody, no matter whether rich or labourers, can afford a car and house," says the 65-year-old retiree, walking home on a Beijing street the day before Prime Minister Stephen Harper lands in the city tomorrow for his first official visit. "The people are very friendly."

China's leaders might disagree. Politically, Canada's relations with China have slid, with Chinese officials offended by Mr. Harper's meeting with the Dalai Lama - whom Beijing considers a dangerous separatist - and by Mr. Harper's absence from the Beijing Olympics last summer.

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But on the street, at least, Canada still enjoys a sunny reputation as the home of clean air, maple trees and Norman Bethune, the Canadian physician who treated Chinese Communists wounded while fighting Japanese soldiers in the late 1930s. It's a reputation that political observers say will help salvage Chinese-Canadian relations during Mr. Harper's visit, which continues until Saturday.

"I don't see clear, hard evidence in past years that the differences in human rights and religious freedoms have cost too much in economic ties," said Chu Shulong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Tsinghua University. Prof. Chu acknowledged relations have been strained at the political level, but added that a recent flurry of visits by senior Canadian cabinet ministers has helped.

"I do see a little progress in our relations in the past year," he said. "It is unfortunate [Mr. Harper]did not come earlier."

A key issue for Beijing will be its demand that Canada deport Lai Changxing, one of China's most-wanted criminals, for his alleged role in a massive smuggling and corruption case. He has been living in Vancouver for a decade.

Though denied political-refugee status, Mr. Lai has avoided deportation on fears that he will face execution if sent back to China. To the dismay of Chinese officials and the state media, Ottawa granted Mr. Lai a work permit earlier this year.

"They just think those decisions about Lai Changxing … are not judicial decisions but political decisions, because all decisions in China are political decisions," said Wu Guoguang, a University of Victoria political scientist who, before leaving China, was a government adviser and state media columnist.

"Because of that guy Lai Changxing … many Chinese people are mad. They don't understand why Canada protects that guy. That is quite negative [for Canada] I would say."

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The case is believed responsible for holding up Canada's effort to be granted preferred-destination status for Chinese tourists with that country's government. Achieving the designation would boost both tourism numbers and the number of Chinese students studying in Canada, since parents are unlikely to send their children to study in a country they can't easily obtain permission to visit.

The case has also tarnished Canada's otherwise sterling reputation here, so well known is the case to the average Chinese.

Much of Mr. Harper's agenda is expected to focus on economic ties. Of primary concern are China's decision to refuse imports of Canadian canola and, on the Chinese side, heavy Canadian tariffs on steel products used in Canada's oil industry.

Human rights are expected to take a back seat. Mr. Harper and other senior Canadian officials declined to meet the Dalai Lama during his visit to Canada this year, despite awarding him honorary citizenship in 2006. And the Canadian government has been left without a high horse to preach from given the scandal involving the transfer of prisoners from the Canadian military to Afghan custody where they faced torture. The government adviser on Afghanistan at the time was David Mulroney, who this year was appointed Canada's ambassador to China.

There has been some attention in the Chinese press to the decline in relations. Late last week the China News Service carried an interview with former Canadian politician-turned-political pundit Sheila Copps criticizing Mr. Harper for delaying his visit.

For the most part, though, China's state-controlled media have paid little attention to the relationship, while officials in Beijing, though perhaps quietly seething, have simply bided their time.

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"Chinese leaders have kept their silence on the negative position of Canada against China," Prof. Chu said. "They have waited for a change in position and a change in attitude."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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