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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gestures to Chinese President Hu Jintao as they walk through the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 24, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Chinese officials, feeling the rise of their country's power in the world, are telling Western diplomats that it's a new era and they won't sit still for human-rights lectures anymore.

Beijing once pleaded the need for time and development to better the country's rights record when it met behind closed doors for formal rights "dialogues" with officials from Western countries. But U.S. diplomatic cables from the cache obtained by Wikileaks show that China now has a more aggressive response: We don't need to take this.

One 2009 cable recounts how European officials found their "human rights dialogue" with Chinese officials marked by a newly chilly tone.

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One EU official "said that the atmosphere was 'aggressive, assertive, frosty' and the most difficult he had experienced," the cable states. Another official agreed, "adding that China repeatedly reiterated that these are new times and China is 'no longer going to sit here to be lectured by you.'"

"That's a new attitude," said Brock University professor Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who sat through many rights dialogue meetings. "Their past attitude would have been more like, 'You have to understand that we're a poor and underdeveloped country and we're unable to achieve these high standards that you are calling for.' Now they're basically saying, 'Lay off, or else.' "

For years, the formal "dialogue" meetings between Western countries and Chinese officials have served as the official process for many Western nations to address the country's repressive rights record.

Canada once had its own human-rights dialogue with Beijing, but stopped meetings after 2005 when a report penned by Mr. Burton described them as scripted and pointless. But Stephen Harper's Conservatives, which once dismissed the process as sham, have flirted with reviving the meetings to help warm relations with China.

A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department, Laura Markle, said the formal human-rights dialogue meetings have "not yet resumed," but the Prime Minister and ministers use other meetings to raise human-rights issues.

The U.S. cables, released by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, which has a copy of all 250,000 documents obtained by Wikileaks, show that diplomats from other countries felt Mr. Burton hit the nail on the head. They pointed to his report to explain to the Americans - who didn't have a rights dialogue with Beijing - that they were scripted meetings that allowed for little real exchange, where Chinese foreign affairs officials absorbed Western criticisms as "goalkeepers."

Mr. Burton said in an interview that Chinese officials saw the meetings as something they were doing for the Western countries, so that Canada or the EU could claim they were engaging the regime on human rights. Chinese foreign affairs department officials recited the same things to different countries, diplomats found, and didn't report on the meetings to superiors or other parts of government. But it was useful to Beijing as a way to "manage" rights disagreements with the West behind closed doors, Mr. Burton said.

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The Wikileaks cables, however, show the West and China still oceans apart. When EU officials pressed Beijing counterparts on the rule of law, the Chinese responded by reiterating the old Three Supremes doctrines, that puts the will of the party and the people above the written law.

They suggested that Europeans be more flexible. "China then encouraged the EU to find a more open attitude toward rule of law," European officials told the American diplomats.

But even though the Chinese have become more assertive in rejecting Western human-rights pressures, they still want Canada to take part again, Mr. Burton said, because it provides a way for Beijing to deal with Western criticisms behind closed doors, rather than in public.

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