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Murat Yukselir/The Globe and Mail

Eastern promises

About to visit China for the first time as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau can certainly expect a warm welcome, but he would like to come away with a lot more. Daniel Leblanc reports

Justin Trudeau got his first taste of China in 1983 as he tagged along on Pierre Trudeau's last official mission to Beijing. He was 11 at the time, and his father, in his final months as prime minister, was working on nuclear disarmament as part of his world peace initiative.

Justin Trudeau twice returned to China, once in 1990 with his father and his brother Alexandre, making an obligatory trek to the Great Wall. Five years later, Mr. Trudeau went back with a few university buddies travelling around the world. Arriving on the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow, they stopped in Beijing before heading to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand.

Starting on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau will launch his first official visit to China as Prime Minister, accompanied by his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and their daughter, Ella-Grace. They will land in Beijing before attending a series of private and public events in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Hong Kong, in addition to going to the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

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Justin Trudeau and younger brother Alexandre in Tiananmen Square during the Prime Minister’s second visit to China with father Pierre – and just a year after the infamous 1989 uprising.

Justin Trudeau and younger brother Alexandre in Tiananmen Square during the Prime Minister’s second visit to China with father Pierre – and just a year after the infamous 1989 uprising.

PMO

If everything goes to plan, Mr. Trudeau will renew China's love affair with Canada and set the Canada-China relationship back on a strong footing. But there will be pitfalls along the way, as the Chinese have grown increasingly assertive on the world stage in recent years, leaving many Canadians wary of increased ties with the economic giant. For starters, the prospect of a ban on canola imports from Canada is threatening to overshadow the trip.

Contrary to his father's Cold War-era trip 33 years ago, Mr. Trudeau's main focus during his eight-day foray will be economic. China has changed radically in recent decades, and instead of acting as a source of cheap imports, it is increasingly seen as a growing market of millions of new middle-class consumers. To fulfill its promise to fuel economic growth at home, the Liberal government needs to find more buyers for Canadian goods and services, and China is on everyone's mind in Ottawa these days.

Mr. Trudeau is expected to speak to the China Canada Business Council in Shanghai and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, but another key meeting is planned in Beijing with the China Entrepreneur Club. Chaired by Jack Ma, head of the Alibaba e-commerce giant, the group of young millionaires and billionaires says it represents the "first generation of modern Chinese entrepreneurs." And Canada is on their radar, as they are planning to hold one of their annual gatherings here, a federal official says.

The Canadian delegation is hoping to surf on the personal popularity of Mr. Trudeau, who is planning to make an appearance on the social media site, WeChat. The government also hopes to benefit from the goodwill toward the Liberals that still flows from his father's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Mao Zedong's regime in 1970 as well as Jean Chrétien's Team Canada trade missions.

It wasn't a coincidence that Mr. Trudeau travelled this summer to Gravenhurst in small-town Ontario. Whenever the Chinese bring up the tale of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who is still revered for his work in China with the Communist army in the late 1930s, Mr. Trudeau will be able to show them pictures of his stop at the historic house where Bethune was born.

The Chinese are saying they hope the official visit will "build trust" between key members of the Canadian and Chinese governments.

Joining Mr. Trudeau on the trip will be Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, who will all have a hand in shepherding the delicate China file in coming years.

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During his first day in Beijing, Mr. Trudeau is set to be the guest of Premier Li Keqiang for an "informal evening meeting." A Canadian official said the invitation is "unusual" for a Canadian leader but also "a good sign" the Chinese are serious about getting to know Mr. Trudeau. There is also a planned meeting with President Xi Jinping, as well as a series of signings of diplomatic accords and commercial deals in Beijing.

Still, sources have told The Globe and Mail that there will be "no movement" toward a free-trade deal with China. Federal officials say the Canadian public is skeptical about China's willingness to embrace the rule of law and transparency in business dealings, and it remains to be seen how the Chinese react to Mr. Trudeau's calls for the respect of human rights during his trip, however forceful he makes it.

The key signing is expected to be a deal guaranteeing annual meetings between Chinese and Canadian leaders, including regular bilateral visits. This will be Mr. Trudeau's fourth visit to China, but certainly not his last.

Daniel Leblanc is a member of The Globe and Mail's parliamentary bureau.

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