02/10/2012 07:59 EST | Updated 04/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper China Trip: PM Mixes Oil With Human Rights On China Visit


GUANGZHOU, China - Stephen Harper left the old political world of Beijing for a new industrial capital of China to deliver his strongest words yet on human rights and oil.

But the main criticisms which could be found in the keynote speech of his four-day tour of China weren't about the deteriorating rights situation in the Middle Kingdom.

He instead chastised environmentalists.

Harper's economic pitch to the Chinese was clear: Canada wants to sell its natural resources to people interested in buying, and it's obvious China has a need.

It was a dig at the United States for rejecting TransCanada's planned Keystone XL pipeline and it was a message the Chinese were eager to hear.

Harper has been receiving front-page coverage in local media since arriving in China earlier this week and his speech Friday night drew dozens of local and international reporters, and over 500 Chinese and Canadian business people.

Canada will sell, but won't sell out, Harper insisted.

"Canadians believe, and have always believed, that the kind of mutually beneficial economic relationship we seek is also compatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental principles," Harper told the dinner.

"And they demand that their government — and their businesses — uphold these national characteristics in all our dealings."

But while he stressed that Canada would continue to raise human rights issues in its business dealing with China, Harper didn't bring up any specifics during his speech.

In an interview to be broadcast Saturday Harper treaded carefully around the prospect of a free trade deal with China, an idea that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was warming to earlier in the week.

"There will be enormous opportunity in China if we could ever get to that stage, but at the same time not under any illusions that there would be a significant number of economic and other questions that would have to be answered." Harper said in an interview with the CBC Radio show "The House."

But Harper said his government plans to complete a study this Spring into the feasibility of a free trade pact with China.

Harper also told the CBC that trade talks wouldn't be jeopardized by bringing up rights.

"Our trade exists because the Chinese have a real interest in our trade," he said.

"That means we should take advantage of those situations. Obviously we are a guest in this country so we will raise these things respectfully."

Local news outlets reported on Friday that officials in Tibet were told to prepare for war as monks continue to set themselves on fire in protest of the rights crackdown there.

Meanwhile, a Chinese court sentenced a dissident writer to seven years in prison over a poem he wrote urging his countrymen to gather at a public square, a human rights group said.

Three other dissidents have received nine- and 10-year prison terms for subversion or inciting subversion over the last few months.

Harper's umbrage Friday was aimed at environmentalists' opposition to the oilsands, which the Conservative government has said is backed by international money.

"We uphold our responsibility to put the interests of Canadians ahead of foreign money and influence that seek to obstruct development in Canada in favour of energy imported from other, less stable parts of the world," he told the dinner.

Western leaders who've met with Chinese politicians in recent weeks have taken a far more public stand on human rights.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attracted global attention for attempting to have dinner with a high-profile human rights lawyer while in Beijing last week.

Harper came to Guangzhou to deliver his public pronouncement on human rights following a series of high-level meetings in Beijing that led to dozens of new government and business deals between Canada and China.

Both sides have said the relationship has improved markedly since Harper's first visit in 2009, but the Chinese have also sent signals they don't want too much push back on rights issues.

Harper said he can't claim to understand the pressures facing the Chinese as they grapple with an exploding economy.

"Nor do I ignore the undeniable differences of Chinese culture and history," he said.

"However, as Canadians our history has taught us that economic, social and political development are, over time, inseparable."

The southern Chinese city of 30 million where Harper spoke Friday is an industrial hub and governed by one of the more open-minded politicians in China who is expected to be promoted within the political hierarchy this year.

Harper began the day promoting education, visiting a local school that uses a Canadian curriculum to prepare Chinese students for further education.

Around 60,000 Chinese students study in Canada each year, contributing close to $2 billion to the economy.

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