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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne meeting with Chinese officials and business leaders in Nanjing during her trip to China in October.Qilai Shen/The Globe and Mail

In the first speech of her week-long trade mission to China last month, Kathleen Wynne wasted no time lauding her hosts.

At an upscale hotel in the heart of this eight-million-strong metropolis, the Ontario Premier praised the country's prowess at building infrastructure: the bullet train that whisked her the 350 kilometres from Shanghai in just 90 minutes; the local subway system, opened a decade ago but already more extensive than Toronto's.

"I must say how envious I am," she told hundreds of business people and politicians. "I am very happy to see all the progress."

Mere hours later, she pressed a high-ranking Communist official on China's human-rights record. In a private meeting with Luo Zhijun, the party secretary of Jiangsu, Ms. Wynne argued people must have the right to protest – a tough subject here in light of Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrations.

One side of Ms. Wynne's approach facilitated the other: complimenting a country in the morning makes it easier to criticize it in the afternoon. This nuance also reflected her determination not to fall into the simple, black-and-white thinking that often characterizes Westerners' approach to the Middle Kingdom.

"It's 'how do we learn from each other?' I said that in meetings and I really meant it. … Neither society alone has got all the answers," she told The Globe and Mail in an interview. "Sometimes, it creeps into our narrative that, somehow, we are bringing enlightenment to China. And that's just not the case."

Whether Ms. Wynne's stand on human rights will have any effect is doubtful: other politicians have long lectured China on such matters to little more than polite silence. But she nonetheless went further than most provincial leaders, who stick exclusively to trade. "We have to take principled positions as we develop a relationship – that's the case with any country," she said. "But we also have to recognize that we're different societies, and find a way of working together despite our differences."

It didn't appear to hurt the business aspect of the trip. The province announced $966-million worth of deals, a decent return on investment for an $800,000 jaunt. More importantly, the visit helped lay the groundwork for future business ties: In a country where the government is involved in most aspects of life, it often takes political intervention to open doors for commerce.

Chinese telco ZTE, for instance, announced $17-million for an Ottawa research and development centre. Denson Xu, who runs the Canadian arm of the company, said direct contact between Ontario officials and his head office helps give them the confidence to invest.

"Communications between our headquarters and [Ontario] government representatives is very important," he said on the sidelines of a reception Ms. Wynne hosted in Shanghai. "Of course, I can help to communicate between them – but it's better for them to have a face-to-face meeting."

Making these connections is particularly urgent for Ontario, which must wean itself off its long-time dependence on the U.S. economy. Today, the province's pitch to China centres on high tech, as well as its large pool of well-educated workers.

For Frank Ye, business development manager at Huayu Automotive, Ontario's appeal is its innovation. He's looking to Canada for such auto technologies as more efficient engines and improved safety features. "We are looking for next-generation products – that means maybe we can invest in startup companies or license new technologies into China."

Ms. Wynne showed a deft ability to build rapport with her audiences. Meeting with six Chinese financial executives at a Beijing hotel, the Premier rattled off economic figures and extolled the benefits of a Toronto-based yuan trading hub. As the bankers spoke, she listened intently, making notes on a piece of foolscap, occasionally jumping in with a question or a joke.

When Annie Han, a vice-president at Dagong Global Credit Rating, said her company was scouting locations for a North American office, Ms. Wynne didn't miss a beat. "We have a suggestion for you," she said.

The performance went over well.

"She is like a businesswoman – she wants to sell your province here. She is very outgoing," enthused Xuehui Zhuang of the Bank of China. "I'm impressed."

Meeting with students at the University of Nanjing, some of whom had lived in Ontario on exchange, Ms. Wynne was equally engaged, asking questions about their experience in Canada.

"She was really nice, really mother-like. She cares about your life," commented aeronautics major Hui Ling Gong, 21.

And, of course, there was Ms. Wynne's interest in China's infrastructure. In a meeting with Shanghai vice-mayor Ai Baojun, she commended the city's wide bicycle lanes – on nearly every major street, they are separated from auto traffic with low fences. "I hope that that doesn't get lost in the development of your transportation," she said. "Developing in exactly the way the West has, that's not necessarily the right thing."

She was equally effusive when Mr. Ai informed her of his city's plan to expand its already extensive subway system to 700 kilometres in the next seven years: "You are moving very quickly. … I am quite envious."

Such compliments may sound like mere niceties meant to curry favour with a host. But in an unguarded moment a couple of hours later, Ms. Wynne showed it was more than that. About to board a high-speed train to Beijing, the Premier peeled away from her entourage and made a beeline for the front. There, she posed for a photo next to the locomotive, marvelling at one of the fastest vehicles on Earth.

"The scale of this society has been beyond what I have experienced," she later explained. "I was experiencing it viscerally on that platform – the platform was so massive, and there were 14 of them. That was the 'young backpacker in awe' moment."

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