Canada will not sell out values in exchange for dollars in China: Harper

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Jennifer Ditchburn
Canadian Press
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CP) - Canada will not "sell-out" its position on human rights to cash in on trade and investment with China, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday, firmly putting his government's stamp on relations with the Communist powerhouse.

Harper's comments, made to reporters travelling with him to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Vietnam, were some of the most forceful made by a Canadian prime minister about China in recent history.

They came as the Chinese government abruptly - and pointedly - backed away from arranging a private meeting between Harper and Chinese President Hu Jintao when both leaders would be in Hanoi for the APEC summit.

"I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values - our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights," Harper said. "They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar."

"There's always a balance to these things," he said.

Hours earlier, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay downplayed the Chinese refusal to arrange the meeting.

"I believe that the prime minister will have the opportunity to see President Hu on the margins of the APEC summit," MacKay said in a telephone interview from Hanoi. "I'm sure that they'll have that important discussion and talk about issues of mutual concern."

The details of what went awry with the bilateral meeting are still murky.

Harper said the Chinese took the "unusual" step of "demanding or asking" for a meeting with him during the APEC summit, and Canada said yes.

But a source in Ottawa familiar with the details said China had simply asked whether the Canadian government would be interested in meeting with Hu, a sort of subtle overture that is customary practice with some Asian countries.

Whatever the case, Harper and his officials say they were not told explicitly why the Chinese suddenly declined to meet. But the prime minister hinted broadly that Beijing had tried to dictate what sorts of subjects would be raised during their tete-a-tete.

"All I can say is that the approach we have in international affairs is that we try to build positive and respectful relations, but also frank and open relations, and we don't accept conditions," Harper said.

"We will discuss economic affairs which are obviously of vital interest to Canada-Chinese relations. We want to encourage the positive growth of trade and investment. At the same time, the government is determined to express its opinions on political issues, human rights concerns and in particular matters that concern Canadian citizens."

Harper was referring to the case of Huseyin Celil, a Chinese-Canadian currently serving a 15-year prison sentence in China.

Beijing accused Celil of terrorist activities and has not recognized his Canadian citizenship. His family in the Toronto-area says he's being persecuted because he is a Muslim from China's Xinjiang province, home to the Uyghurs, China's largest ethnic minority group.

"When it comes to general human rights we obviously have an obligation to express our values, but when it comes to the specific case of Canadian citizens who are mistreated, we have an absolute moral obligation to stand by those citizens and express our views," Harper said.

But there have been other irritants between Canada and China since the Conservative government took power last January.

It bestowed the Dalai Lama honourary Canadian citizenship, and lashed out at alleged government-sponsored commercial espionage by the Chinese. Even before they defeated the Liberals, Conservatives were harshly critical of human rights abuses in China.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have pressed western leaders to press for better human rights in China and other Asian countries. But the Canadian business community has urged the government to act cautiously when dealing with China, so as not to hurt Canada's trading relationship while other countries reap the windfall.

Harper said he's had no indication that anything has changed on the economic front.

"I haven't seen any evidence that we're unable to do business in China. Our ministers continue to meet regularly with their Chinese counterparts, we've had no unusual difficulties in the economic and trade area," Harper said.

"We have had this peculiar phenomenon where the Chinese are demanding or asking for a meeting and then declining it once it's accepted. It's a pattern that kind of perplexes us."

In Hanoi, MacKay said Canada isn't going to back off on human rights but still enjoys good relations with China.

"We've said from the very beginning that we were going to put a great deal of emphasis on freedom and democracy and human rights and the rule of law and we've been very consistent and clear in communicating that with all countries," he said.

"If we're going to say those things, we've got to be prepared to back them up."

MacKay said he has a good relationship with Li Zhaoxing, China's foreign minister, and will meet him on Friday.

He pointed out that Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl recently visited China, and Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is there now.

© The Canadian Press 2006