PM kicks off China visit with 'goodwill' appointment
Published Tuesday, February 7, 2012 7:28PM EST
After a long journey from Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his delegation of politicians and business leaders touched down in Beijing for a visit aimed at strengthening ties and boosting trade.
The prime minister -- accompanied by his wife Laureen and an entourage of five cabinet ministers, six Conservative MPs, as well as 40 community and business leaders -- was afforded a formal welcome after landing in the Chinese capital late Tuesday evening.
A more ceremonial greeting is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, before the trip's official itinerary gets underway.
So far, the only announcement to come out of the visit is the appointment of Canadian-born Chinese celebrity Mark 'Dashan' Rowswell as a goodwill ambassador to the country.
Dashan first captured the Chinese public's attention during a TV appearance while he was studying in Beijing in the mid-1980s. Since then, he has risen to the status of cultural icon in China, with many regarding him as the epitome of "East meets West."
"For many years Mark Rowswell has used his extraordinary talents to build bridges of understanding between Canada and China," the prime minister said in a statement announcing the appointment.
Harper is expected to follow up with even more weighty announcements in the coming days, however. For example, observers are closely watching for signs of new energy deals with the Asian economic giant.
Given the recent U.S. delay of a proposed pipeline to carry Canadian crude from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, the presence of several high-level Canadian oil and energy company executives amongst the Canadian delegates has bolstered expectations the prime minister will be pushing to increase Chinese investment in the sector.
Currently, the United States accounts for 97 per cent of all Canadian oil exports.
Satisfying China's demand for oil, however, potentially hinges on the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline linking oil sands in Alberta to a port on the west coast of British Columbia.
The review of the project just launched in Canada, meaning it could be years before the route is in place.
So the prime minister is hoping to come away from his coming high-level meetings with other deals, including the long-simmering foreign investment protection agreement.
But the NDP says the prime minister must address issues such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in Canada.
"If these trade talks are only about oil, which is a wonderful resource we are giving away as fast as we can, then we will have failed the hundreds of thousands of Canadians and our children, who are looking for productive employment," Jinny Sims, the NDP's international co-operation and deputy foreign affairs critic, told CTV News Channel on Monday.
"This has to be about far more than oil. This has to be about manufacturing, and it has to be looking at trade in the widest spectrum."
Beyond talking trade, Harper's itinerary during his three days in the capital includes a tourism event and a tour of a building design centre.
Bilateral talks with current leaders President Hu and Premier Wen are also scheduled, as are meetings with Communist Party figures expected to take over by next year including Wen's likely successor Vice-Premier Li Keqiang.
After Beijing, the delegation heads to southern China where Harper is expected to talk business in the manufacturing city of Guangzhou and pandas in Chongqing.
While an announcement that China will send pandas on a long-term loan to Canadian zoos would undoubtedly capture hearts and headlines, the ongoing tensions in the Middle East -- and China's role in the international reaction to it -- threaten to overshadow the good will.
Harper will be under pressure not only to raise China's weekend veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the rising violence in Syria, but also China's human rights record.
Ahead of the trip, China's ambassador to Canada signalled that any critics should think before they speak.
"Canada and China are different in terms of history, culture, social system and stage of development," Zhang Junsai wrote in a letter to The Canadian Press.
"Instead of being barriers, these differences should be drivers for deeper understanding."
In that vein, a group of five British Columbia First Nations is calling on Chinese officials to turn the tables, particularly with respect to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples.
The Yinka Dene Alliance has written two open letters, one to Hu and another that is making the rounds in Chinese media, outlining areas of Canada's human rights record that bear scrutiny.
The problems include the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women, the disproportionate number of First Nations peoples in Canadian jails, and Ottawa's pursuit of resource development without their support.
Chief Larry Nooski, one of five chiefs to sign the letter, said he wants to help China understand "the facts of life" for aboriginals.