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Liu He, the trusted confidant and top economic adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaks during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

Markus Schreiber/AP

Two senior representatives from China's Communist Party recently conducted high-level talks with senior Trudeau cabinet ministers and federal officials to broaden relations and resume a derailed effort to launch formal free-trade negotiations.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau spent time at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps last week with Liu He, the trusted confidant and top economic adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

At the same time, the Communist Party's top diplomat – an important role in the one-party state – paid a visit to Canada.

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Song Tao, head of the Communist Party's international liaison department, met Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Daniel Jean, the national security adviser to Justin Trudeau, as well as other senior advisers in the Prime Minister's Office. As head of the Communist Party's foreign affairs office, Mr. Tao is in charge of dealing with other communist parties in countries from North Korea to Vietnam to Laos and Cuba. But his portfolio has expanded.

No public announcement was made about this slew of meetings, aside from one that took place in Toronto between Mr. Song and Bardish Chagger, minister responsible for small business and tourism. China posted statements on its embassy website in Canada this week.

Mr. Liu, meanwhile, is set to become vice premier overseeing China's economy and financial sector, Reuters has reported, giving him a potentially powerful role in clearing roadblocks that prevented Mr. Trudeau from commencing formal free-trade talks with Beijing during his visit to China in December.

Mr. Morneau's senior adviser, Ben Chin, said the Finance Minister and the Harvard-trained Mr. Liu spent a half hour in Davos, largely in discussions on how to boost bilateral trade.

Mr. Trudeau came home empty-handed from Beijing in late 2017 when plans to launch formal free-trade talks during this trip went off the rails after the Chinese balked at Canada's demand to include labour standards in negotiations.

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Mr. Chin said there "was no recrimination or finger-pointing" over Mr. Trudeau's failure to get a deal with Beijing.

"They discussed the broad range of the Canada-China relationship and talked about strengthening that relationship from a trade diversification perspective," Mr. Chin said in an interview. "We want a stronger trading relationship and free trade is part of that relationship but it is not the be-all and end-all. The idea is we want to sell more widgets in China with or without free trade."

In his talks with Mr. Song, Canada's Trade Minister also focused on how to move ahead on free-trade negotiations.

"They touched on trade in terms of a shared desire to find the best way forward," Mr. Champagne's office said in a statement to The Globe.

"The minister reiterated our commitment to a comprehensive approach and Song reiterated his desire to work together."

The Chinese embassy released a statement, saying it believes "the Canadian side stands ready to, together with China, push forward the construction of bilateral free trade zone," among other goals.

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Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said he believes that Beijing and Ottawa are trying to find new language acceptable to both sides to push forward on formal free-trade talks and get past the disagreement over the inclusion of labour standards in negotiations.

The Chinese don't want to create a precedent in Canadian trade talks that could impel other foreign countries to also demand labour standards as part of their own trade negotiations, Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

"They are afraid that discussion of labour rights, that other countries could make this a condition as well."

Beijing under Mr. Xi is much bolder in its defence of China's social and political arrangements. "This is the new China that says you won't dictate to us how to behave," Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

This puts the onus on Canada to rework its demands on labour standards but find a way to preserve a defence of Canadian values.

"I think there's a bit of a hard swallowing that has to take place and it's time to use some creative language," Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

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Mr. Jean, who has been tasked with high-level security, judicial and law enforcement talks with Beijing, briefed Mr. Song on the recent Canada-U.S. summit on the North Korean threat. Mr. Song is President Xi's personal emissary to North Korea.

Most of the focus of their talks, however, was on bilateral issues related to security and rule of law, according to Global Affairs. No one in government would provide details of the security and judicial talks.

Last June, Mr. Jean and senior Communist Party official Wang Yongqing concluded an agreement in which China pledged to stop conducting state-sponsored cyberattacks aimed at stealing Canadian private-sector trade secrets and proprietary technology.

The deal only covers economic espionage – hacking corporate secrets – and does not preclude China from conducting state-sponsored cyberattacks against the Canadian government or military as it did in 2014, when Chinese hackers broke into the main computers at the country's National Research Council.

It's not known whether China continued to push Canada to enter into full-fledged negotiations on an extradition treaty that would enable Beijing to more easily request the repatriation of fugitives from Canada.

The next round of high-level national security talks with China will take place in Beijing later this year.

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