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Was it a carefully planned diplomatic ambush, or an off-the-cuff remark by a Chinese politician known for speaking from the heart?

The diplomatic dressing-down Prime Minister Stephen Harper received Thursday from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was so outside the norms of Chinese diplomacy no one seems able to say for sure.

Supporting the ambush theory is the fact that Mr. Wen walked out of his meeting with Mr. Harper - during which he slammed his Canadian counterpart for taking "too long" and waiting until he had been in office for nearly four years before visiting China - and elaborated on his criticisms in a seemingly staged encounter with a journalist from Hong Kong's Phoenix Television.

"The recent couple of years - and this is not what we like to see - relations between the two countries were estranged, thus affecting trading and personal exchanges between the peoples. I feel now the visit of Prime Minister Harper … I just said a sentence, which was this was a visit 'that should have taken place earlier,'" Mr. Wen told a journalist who approached him and asked about Sino-Canadian relations. During the exchange, Mr. Wen said the two countries had "problems of mutual trust" that he hoped could now be resolved.

That a Hong Kong network was given exclusive access to Mr. Wen Thursday seems orchestrated as well. After a stop in Shanghai Friday, a surely smarting Mr. Harper flies to the former British colony Saturday and is to deliver a speech to a group of Hong Kong and Canadian businessmen.

There are other signs that Mr. Wen's scolding of Mr. Harper was meticulously prearranged, notably the way it was foreshadowed in the state-run media. The China Daily, an English-language newspaper that never strays far from the government line, announced on its front page Wednesday that Canada-China relations were set "to thaw," but proceeded to list all the ways Mr. Harper had managed to offend his hosts since coming to office since 2006.

"Ottawa has aggressively criticized Beijing for its human rights record and for alleged spying. Harper was not among world leaders at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and he irritated China by embracing the Dalai Lama," the front-page article read. Mr. Wen referenced the media coverage in his remarks to Mr. Harper.

The episode can also be seen as further proof of China's new swagger and assertiveness, coming two weeks after Beijing saw fit to censor visiting U.S. President Barack Obama's televised chat with Shanghai university students so that his remarks on the importance of freedom of speech were seen by few Chinese who weren't physically in the audience that day. Emboldened by their country's economic success - and a decline in American diplomatic and economic clout - China is gradually easing itself into a new role as the planet's other superpower.

"There's a greater degree of self-confidence on the part of China, a feeling that they are the rising power and everyone else is declining, that other countries should seek to come to China, rather than vice versa," said June Teufel Dreyer, a China expert at the University of Miami. She described Mr. Wen's remarks to Mr. Harper as "not particularly cordial."

But some observers of Chinese politics argue it's far from clear that Mr. Wen's remarks were premeditated. Unlike President Hu Jintao, the stoic head of state whose meeting with Mr. Harper earlier in the day passed without incident, the Premier is seen as something of a wild card.

Indeed, in a country run by often colourless technocrats, the 67-year-old Mr. Wen is an exception, earning the affectionate nickname "Grandpa Wen" for his tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve and say plainly what's on his mind.

"In my judgment, China is not in a position to embarrass or humiliate a great country like Canada," said Viktor Gao, director of the China National Association of International Studies who worked as an interpreter to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. "Premier Wen was really thinking aloud… . He was being very, very honest and speaking what was on his mind all these years."

Wenran Jiang, a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, saw Mr. Wen's remarks as personal, but said they reflected the frustrations felt by the entire Chinese leadership after four years of chilly relations with Ottawa.

Dr. Jiang said Canada-China relations reached their "peak" in 2005 when Mr. Hu visited Ottawa and signed a strategic partnership with the Liberal government of former PM Paul Martin, but have gone into a tailspin since that Beijing blames on Mr. Harper's government.

"The goal is to restart the relationship in a good direction and get the attention of the Prime Minister himself," Dr. Jiang said. "I don't think [Mr. Wen's rebuke]was designed to be embarrassing to Mr. Harper. He was just being honest."