After two days focused on economic deals, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday that his Chinese hosts should expect Canada to continue to advocate for human rights as well.

"Canada does not — and cannot — disconnect our trading relationship from fundamental national values," Harper said in a speech at a business dinner hosted by the Chinese ambassador to Canada.

"Canadians believe, and have always believed, that the kind of mutually beneficial economic relationship we seek is also compatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental principles such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of belief and worship," Harper said. "And they demand that their government — and their businesses — uphold these national characteristics in all our dealings."

'I do not claim to fully understand the unique kinds of challenges that a huge, emerging, spectacularly expanding economy, such as this one, faces.'— Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Harper arrived Friday morning in Guangzhou, a sprawling urban centre of 13 million people in southern China.

Harper's public messaging for his first two days in Beijing, when he met with top officials including Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao, was focused on economic dealmaking and "historic" milestones in the Canada-China trade relationship. 

A joint statement issued Thursday included a brief mention of an agreement to "increase dialogue and exchanges on human rights, on the basis of equality and mutual respect," but for the most part human rights remained on the backburner for the Beijing portion of the trip.

Harper's speech to the Guangzhou audience continued to emphasize Canada's trade ambitions, but concluded with a carefully constructed political message alongside his business boosterism of Canada as an "emerging energy superpower."

Guangzhou, ChinaGuangzhou, China

"I do not claim to fully understand the unique kinds of challenges that a huge, emerging, spectacularly expanding economy, such as this one, faces," Harper said, noting that the opportunities provided from recent economic growth in southern China are "without a doubt.… its own kind of liberation."

"Nor do I ignore the undeniable differences of Chinese culture and history," Harper said. "However, as Canadians our history has taught us that economic, social and political development are, over time, inseparable."

Pipeline pledge

Harper also used Friday's speech to reiterate for a Chinese audience a message he and other members of his cabinet have sent before to those who oppose the development of Alberta's oilsands, and the approval of the pipeline infrastructure necessary to get that bitumen to ports for export to new markets such as China.  

"Our government is committed to ensuring that Canada has the infrastructure necessary to move our energy resources to those diversified markets," Harper said.  

"Yes, we will continue to develop these resources in an environmentally responsible manner. But so too will we uphold our responsibility to put the interests of Canadians ahead of foreign money and influence that seek to obstruct development in Canada in favour of energy imported from other, less stable parts of the world," Harper said.  

Chinese capital has played an important role in financing oilsands development, although Chinese interests hold only a minority stake in key resource development projects. 

Education a 'strategic priority'

When Harper arrived in Guangzhou earlier on Friday, he was welcomed by party secretary Wang Yang, one of the next generation of political leaders in China and someone who is expected to rise through the ranks, the CBC's Susan Lunn reported.

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Ping-pong diplomat: Prime Minister Stephen Harper plays table tennis with a student at the Huamei Bond International School in Guangzhou on Friday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The prime minister and Chinese leaders issued a statement agreeing to raise education to a strategic priority in future. They said it is a growing tie between the two countries, worth $1.9 billion in 2010 with more than 60,000 Chinese students coming to Canada.

Speaking through a translator, Wang was clearly pleased that Harper was stopping in his city.

"I'm very pleased to receive your excellency, because of our friendly exchange of histories, and I believe your visit to Guangzhou will enhance the friendly exchanges in trade, science and technology and education," Wang said.

For his part, Harper said, "There is no better place in the world to study than Canada.

"That’s why more than 60,000 Chinese students now attend Canada’s world-class colleges and universities, a 35 per cent increase in four years … and the number is growing."

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Harper greets students at the Huamei Bond International School in Guangzhou. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The prime minister also noted that there are more than just friendly exchanges between southern China and Canada.

"It is surprising that I'm the first sitting prime minister to visit this city and this region, because … this is the ancestral home of a very significant number of Chinese Canadians — in fact, more than any other province in the country," he said.

Harper visited a school in the city that uses an Ontario curriculum. Chinese students graduate with the equivalent of a Canadian high school diploma, all with the goal of attending a university in Canada.

Last year, Chinese students attending universities in Canada brought $1.9 billion in tuition fees with them.