A junior Conservative cabinet minister has lambasted former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, who has criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to skip the Beijing Games.

Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism, told CTV Newsnet on Wednesday that Chretien has many clients who do business in China and has represented Chinese state firms.

"Mr. Chretien has a lot of explaining to do when it comes to, at the very least, the appearance of conflict of interest," Jason Kenney.

"You've got Prime Minister Harper who's representing Canada's interests and values ... and then you've got Mr. Chretien representing his own personal financial interests."

Kenney didn't name any firm, but Chretien has strong ties to Quebec's Power Corp.

On Monday, Chretien took aim at Harper's China policy, saying the prime minister's non-attendance at the Beijing Olympics and decision to honour the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, with honorary Canadian citizenship could harm relations with the rising economic power.

A front-page article in China's state-run English daily newspaper appears to indicate the country is miffed about Harpe skipping the opening ceremonies.

On Wednesday, China Daily ran a front-page story about Chretien's views.

"We established very good relations, relatively speaking, with China. And suddenly, you break the bridge. It would have been easy just to be there," Chretien is quoted as saying in the article.

He said he wouldn't have "hesitated a second" to travel to China if he was still prime minister.

Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson did attend the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies and has since dismissed any notion that relations between China and Canada are strained.

But CTV's Beijing Bureau Chief Steve Chao said the article indicates otherwise.

"China Daily acts often as a mouthpiece for the government and it also signals how the government feels about an issue," Chao reported Wednesday.

"The fact that this runs on the front page suggests China is very unhappy."

As prime minister, Harper has chosen to publicly criticize China on their human rights record -- a contrast to Chretien's "behind closed doors" approach, said Chao.

As a result, many Canadian businessmen have complained that relations with China have cooled, said Chao.

"The article here points to the fact that Stephen Harper has not visited China since taking office in 2006," he said. "For China, a major superpower, that is a big slight and they continue to hammer down on this point." 

Kenney said the Harper government has a strong "business-like" relationship with China, with exports to China up substantially since the Tories took office.

"But what we will not do ... is to sacrifice Canadian values" such as human dignity and religious freedom, he said.

Even after honouring the Dalai Lama, Canadian firms signed major deals with China, Kenney said, arguing Harper has the balance "just about right" between human rights and trade with China.

Harper does have an opportunity to mend relations if he chooses to attend the closing ceremonies of the Games this weekend, said Chao.

Kenney said he believes Harper will be in Canada's Far North this weekend, demonstrating support for Canada's sovereignty in that increasingly important region.