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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives on stage to deliver a speech during a business dinner in Guangzhou February 10, 2012.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised Friday that Canada would always be a "vocal advocate" for human rights in China. But he made his first public remarks on the topic with none of those who run this authoritarian state in the room to listen.

Speaking in the city known as the "factory of the world," Mr. Harper praised China's economic progress in recent years, and acknowledged that lifting millions of people out of poverty was "its own kind of liberation."

He followed that up with the strongest words he has said public on this five-day trip about an issue that once seemed close to his heart – the rights and freedoms of the 1.3 billion citizens of the world's most populous country.

"As Canadians, our history has taught us that economic, social and political developments are, over time, inseparable… therefore, in relations between China and Canada, you should expect to continue to raise issues of fundamental freedoms and human rights," he told a room full of Canadian and Chinese business executives who sat stoically through that section of the speech.

Mr. Harper didn't go into specifics. He didn't raise the case of jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, nor the fact that the Communist Party has launched a fresh crackdown on its critics over the past 12 months, a time when trade with Canada was accelerating rapidly. Also unmentioned by the Prime Minister who once welcomed the Dalai Lama into his office was the ongoing unrest in Tibetan regions of Sichuan, just a few hours' drive from his next stop, Chongqing. Chinese officials there have been told to prepare for "a war against secessionist sabotage" after a series of violent protests and self-immolations by Tibetans opposed to Chinese rule.

The vague remarks seemed designed to placate critics in Canada who say the Prime Minister – who once promised not to compromise on rights in exchange for "the almighty dollar" – has gone back on that commitment. But the only Chinese who heard them were the governor of relatively liberal Guangdong province, and those Chinese business executives in the audience. Twenty-five Chinese reporters were in attendance, but several said they wouldn't be allowed to report on the human-rights portion of Mr. Harper's speech. "We will only report parts. The direction will come from above," said one Chinese reporter.

Before the speech, Mr. Harper met with Wang Yang, the Communist Party boss for Guangdong, who is considered one of the country's leading reformers, at least within the party's narrow political spectrum. Canadian officials said the two men discussed political reforms in the province, including the recent unrest in the village of Wukan, a rare instance of people power in China that saw villagers take to the streets to oust leaders they saw as corrupt and then hold their own elections. Mr. Wang has won plaudits for siding with the villagers in the dispute.

The Prime Minster says he also discussed China's human-rights record behind closed doors during his Wednesday meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao. But Mr. Harper's efforts on the issue paled in comparison to the more overt push German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a week earlier.

Ms. Merkel invited human-rights lawyer Mo Shaoping, who represents the jailed Nobel winner Mr. Liu, to a Beijing dinner and then attempted to visit the offices of the liberal Southern Weekly newspaper during her own visit to Guangzhou.

Mr. Mo was prevented from leaving his home to see Ms. Merkel, and the visit to Southern Weekly was cancelled by the Chinese side, but her efforts generated wide praise among Chinese Internet users.

Mr. Harper spent the rest of his Friday speech repeating a message he has hammered at throughout his visit to China: that Canada is ready to expand its economic relationship with China, particularly on the energy front.

"Canada is not just a great trading nation. We are an emerging energy superpower… . We want to sell our energy to people who want to buy our energy. It's that simple."

This time, the businesspeople in the audience cheered.

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