Canada businesses impatient for China growth as Harper promotes trade

Fri Nov 7, 2014 8:13am EST
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By Andrea Hopkins

HANGZHOU China (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked off a visit to China on Friday facing criticism that the troubled diplomatic relationship between the two nations has hampered trade, but promptly raised concern about human rights during the mostly business portion of his trip.

Harper, on his first visit to China in two years, announced the opening of four new trade offices in the cities of Hangzhou, Xian, Xiamen and Tianjin to help the entry of Canadian businesses into the fastest growing regions of China.

But he then raised the issue of religious freedom when he met Zhejiang province party chief Xia Baolong, putting human rights on the agenda even as executives urged him to focus on improving trade and investment ties during his first visit in two years.

"He indicated that Canadians would be concerned to know that religious freedoms were being restricted. Beyond that it was a private conversation, but the issue was raised," spokesman Jason MacDonald said of the meeting with Xia, which followed Harper's remarks to a business conference.

Dozens of churches in the wealthy province of Zhejiang received government notices this year demanding the demolition of church buildings or removal of crosses in what the government says is a campaign aimed at illegal structures, the U.S.-based Christian group ChinaAid says.

Rights groups frequently accuse China of not respecting freedom of religion, charges it denies.

Since taking power in early 2006, Canada's right-leaning Conservatives have adopted an inconsistent policy on China, reflecting splits between pro-business members and social conservatives who are suspicious of Beijing.

As Harper kicked off a conference bringing together Chinese and Canadian executives looking to do business, some Canadian executives said political and economic irritants between the two countries have made it hard to keep pace with competitors in other countries.   Continued...

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen wave while boarding a Royal Canadian Air Force plane before departing for China, in Ottawa November 5, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie