OTTAWA - Stephen Harper's second trip China next week comes amid a renewed crackdown on dissent that highlights an issue his hosts would rather leave in the shadows: human rights.
Deeper links on energy and trade are billed as the main focus of the prime minister's visit. With the possible exception of his outspoken Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Harper's government has all but abandoned its pre-2009 habit of scathingly criticizing China's human rights failings.
Beijing's envoy to Canada, Zhang Junsai, has said Harper's visit will help forge a "win-win" natural resource partnership with Canada to help his country's expanding economy meet its voracious energy needs.
But Harper's arrival next week as the Year of the Dragon begins, coincides with China's stepped-up imprisonment of activists and a renewed campaign against restive Tibetans.
In recent weeks, China's courts have handed down stiff prison terms to three prominent rights campaigners. Two weeks ago, democracy activist Li Tie was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after being convicted of subversion because of articles he had written.
Several weeks earlier, two other activists, Chen Wei and Chen Xi, received nine- and 10-year sentences for writing what the government deemed to be subversive essays posted to the Internet.
Meanwhile, there has been a violent response to unrest in Tibet and the largely ethnic Tibetan province of Sichuan.
More than a dozen desperate Tibetans have committed suicide by setting themselves on fire in the last 11 months.
Three people were reportedly killed in Sichuan this week when police fired on a crowd of protesters, the latest in a wave of recent clashes there.
The clamp down is widely viewed as a step to control instability ahead of the biggest Chinese leadership change in a decade when Vice-President Xi Jinping succeeds Hu Jintao as president this fall.
Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, said China's leaders want to stave off a domestic version of the Arab Spring democracy uprisings. Neve gave Harper a list of 10 prisoners of conscience, whose cases he'd like to see raised with Communist leaders.
The list includes Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate serving an 11-year prison term for criticizing China's government and Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen serving a life sentence for speaking out on behalf of China's Uighur minority.
"With obvious Chinese interest in Canada's natural-resource sector, there is clearly a strong, two-way commercial relationship between our two countries," Neve said. "It is time to be confident and recognize that human rights can be put on the table without damaging trade."
Dermod Travis, head of the Canada Tibet Committee, said that with the government's promise to open an Office of Religious Freedom in the Foreign Affairs Department, Harper has no choice but to raise the Tibetan crackdown publicly with Hu and other Chinese leaders.
"When we see monks that have reached such a point of desperation that they have poured gasoline over themselves and lit themselves on fire — that's a message that needs to be heard in Beijing," said Travis.
"This is a two-track process: This idea that you hear from the Canada-China Business Council that if we raise human rights constructively and forcefully, we're going to lose trading opportunities just isn't borne out by the facts."
Baird levelled sharp criticism at China's leadership in a speech last month in Britain. He called regular crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims "abhorrent acts (that) fly in the face of our core principals, our core values."
This week, Zhang told a gathering of the influential Canada-China Business Council that two-way trade between Canada and China has grown 60 per cent in the last two years to more than $50 billion.
There was no talk of human rights at the Montreal luncheon as Zhang riffed positively on Harper's visit.
In Montreal, and in a recent letter to The Canadian Press, Zhang made a barely concealed request for Harper to keep human rights lectures to a minimum next week.
"Of course, you know we cannot see eye-to-eye on every issue. That is quite natural," he said. "Even within a family, so sometimes the couple, wife and husband, always quarrel, have differences. But, as I said, differences could be solved if we talk to each other through communications, through compromise."
Finger-wagging and moralizing is not viewed as a constructive way for Harper to broach the subject with the Chinese.
"This isn't about trying to encourage China to live up to Canadian values," Neve said. "This is about reminding China that we all have some shared universal values going back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948."
Harper's hosts might not mind being reminded that the Chinese intellectual and philosopher, P.C. Chang, was one of the founding drafters of that declaration, he said.
China has also endorsed two of the declaration's optional protocols. It ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, said Pitman Potter, the HSBC Chair in Asian research and a law professor at the University of British Columbia.
"Those are not really a question of us saying: do it our way. We're saying: do what you have said you were going to do," said Potter.
"That allows you to have a conversation about something that is ultimately of interest to both parties, but is not one party imposing its will on the other. That has an impact on other dimensions of the relationship, diplomatic and economic."
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