BEIJING, China - Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday he's raised a litany of concerns with the Chinese in his meetings with the Communist country's leadership over the past few days, insisting he's only forging closer ties with China to benefit Canada.
Eight years after a newly elected Harper vowed not to sell out to the "almighty dollar" in China, the prime minister said he's hardly let the Chinese off the hook despite inking an array of trade and currency deals worth as much as $2.5 billion over the weekend.
"You can rest assured that every single item that is important in the area of consular issues, human rights, governance, the rights of minorities — I have raised every single one of those," he told the media shortly after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"Those are things on which we will continue to follow up and have ongoing dialogue."
The case of Kevin and Julia Garratt is chief among those issues, Harper said after meetings at the majestic Great Hall of the People, located alongside Tiananmen Square, best known as the site of violent pro-democracy protests in 1989.
"That particular case is of significant concern to us, to Canadians, that's why I raised it," he said.
The Garratts, who have lived in China for 30 years, have been held without charges since August. Their detainment came just days after Canada accused the Chinese of spying on federal government agencies.
The couple's son, Simeon, said Sunday that he had feared the Canadian government wasn't putting enough pressure on the Chinese to release his parents. But later in the day, Simeon Garratt said those concerns had been assuaged after hearing from embassy officials.
"I am really glad with ... the leadership role that Harper and I think the rest of the government has taken on my parents' case," he said in Beijing, where he travelled last week to time his visit to Harper's.
"I know they are doing the best to get my parents released and get this resolved."
He added he was pleased that China is now allowing Canadian consular officials to visit his parents every two weeks. Harper too called that development "at least one positive" in the Garratts' plight.
The prime minister and some of his top cabinet ministers — John Baird, Ed Fast and James Moore among them — were given the red carpet treatment at the Great Hall of the People over the weekend.
With great fanfare, Harper was welcomed to the ornate building — adorned with gold-plated doors, gleaming marble floors, elaborate artwork and lush arrangements of fragrant flowers — by the Chinese premier on Saturday, and then again on Sunday by Xi.
Harper sat in a plush velvet armchair as he also met with Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People's Congress, in yet another opulent meeting room in the building.
All three leaders thanked Harper for visiting China.
Despite the outward good cheer, the prime minister acknowledged later Sunday that the Canada-China relationship has been tense, making reference to the 2006 "almighty dollar" remark that stunned the Canadian business community as it was making efforts to tap into China's exploding economy.
"You may remember there was some controversy in the early days of this government, when we said that when we conducted relationships with China or any other country there were really three elements to that," he said.
"There were not just economic interests, there were also fundamental human values, Canadian values and also our security interests .... We insist that all of those things be on the table in this and any other relationship."
Nonetheless, Harper's third visit to China — a trip that was almost scrapped due to recent tensions — has been heavy on trade and economics.
In addition to signing dozens of lucrative commercial agreements, Canada and China also inked a hotly anticipated reciprocal currency deal.
The agreement will foster far easier trade between the Canadian dollar and the Chinese currency, and makes Canada the first country in the Americas to have a deal to trade in the yuan, also known as the renminbi.
Harper said his goal was to ensure all dealings with China benefitted Canada first and foremost.
"Our approach to this relationship is to first and always make sure we protect and defend Canadian interests," he said.
"We obviously want to have a good relationship but it has to be a good relationship that serves this country's interests .... I think we have significantly advanced the economic relationship."
Harper is making an appearance Monday at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in the Chinese capital before flying home to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies on Parliament Hill. He then flies to New Zealand before heading to Australia for a G20 summit.
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25
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