10/31/2014 01:17 EDT | Updated 12/31/2014 05:59 EST

Stephen Harper To Make Third Trip To China Next Week

OTTAWA - It was business as usual Friday at the prime minister's Langevin Block office, where Stephen Harper smiled and chatted with the Chinese ambassador to Canada before confirming plans for his third official visit to China next week.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to build on our economic relationship and also our friendship," Harper told Luo Zhaohui.

However, less than a block from the red brick building, Wang Bingwu of Toronto stood outside, holding a simple white placard that read, in all-caps lettering: "PM Mr. Harper, please help to free my brother."

Dr. Wang Bingzhang, considered by many the founder of the overseas pro-democracy movement in China, has been in a Beijing prison since 2002, serving a life sentence for trying to foster democracy in China from abroad.

Wang, who studied in Canada and received his doctorate in pathology from Montreal's McGill University, was abducted by Chinese agents while on a trip to Vietnam. He was convicted in a secret trial that the organization, Amnesty International, says did not meet international standards for a fair trial.

Since then, Wang's relatives in Canada have made it their business to campaign for his release. But so far, they have been unsuccessful, amid growing worry that the 66-year-old's health is in steady decline.

"I'm here to ask our prime minister, Mr. Harper, to promise our family to bring up the issue of my brother's case when he goes to China early in November," Wang said.

"I'm here to get his help, that's why I'm here."

Wang said he delivered a hard copy and email version of a letter to Harper's office on Thursday, but had yet to receive a response.

Harper's spokesman Jason MacDonald said Friday night that Wang's case was known to the government.

"The promotion of human rights is an integral part of Canada's foreign policy," he said.

"And these issues have been raised in the context of our open and frank relationship with China."

Harper made no mention of human rights in a press release that announced his trip, nor did he speak to any human rights issue during the four minutes that photographers spent in his office with the Chinese ambassador.

That's not unusual. Most analysts say that while it is important for Western leaders to raise human rights issues with Chinese leaders, doing so in a way that allows for some saving of face might actually bring long-term results — perhaps the freeing of prisoners.

The Chinese don't take kindly to public lecturing, a lesson Harper has already learned. In 2006, he said Canada wouldn't sell out its values to the "almighty dollar" and be cowed from raising human rights with Chinese leaders.

The next three years of Sino-Canadian relations went into the deep freeze before Harper's first visit. The prime minister also felt the heat from powerful movers in shakers in the Canadian business community who had staked much on the government helping open doors for them in China.

Since then, Harper has made deepening economic relations with China a key plank in his economic platform. Harper wants to diversity markets for Canadian oil and gas away from the United States, which has delayed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Wang understands all of that, but nonetheless hopes the plight of people like his brother isn't ignored.

"That's exactly why I'm here," he said.

"When the government of Canada is making deals with the Chinese government, they should keep in mind, many, many people are suffering in jail because of their views, because of their actions, activities and pro-democracy and human rights activities, my brother included."

Wang's isn't the only such case on Harper's plate when he departs Ottawa next week.

In August, China arrested a Canadian couple who owned a coffee shop in Beijing. Kevin Garratt, 54, and Julia Dawn Garratt, 53, who were openly Christian, face spying charges.

Earlier this year, Wang's 24-year-old daughter Ti-Anna made an impassioned plea to China at the United Nations Human Rights Council to release her father and all other prisoners of conscience. Chinese delegates tried unsuccessfully to silence her intervention.

Wang said Friday he last saw his brother in February but was denied a visa this past August to travel to China to visit him.

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