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Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a toast with Wen Jiabao, premier of the People's Republic of China, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

There should be more regular visits between Canadian and Chinese leaders, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday after getting a mild chiding for waiting so long to visit the Asian country.

In Beijing for the first time to meet with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Harper was reminded that a Canadian prime minister had not visited in five years.

"Five years is too long a time for China-Canada relations and that's why there are comments in the media that your visit is one that should have taken place earlier," Wen said.

Harper also said he would like see Chinese leaders come to Canada more frequently. "I think on both sides, more regular visits would make sense," he said.

In an earlier meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao also pointed out twice that it was Harper's first visit. Harper said it has been five years since a Chinese leader visited Canada.

Despite the gentle proddings, Harper's visit to China seemed to be producing results. In a joint communiqué, the countries said China will bestow the label of "preferred tourist destination" on Canada, a move that will make it easier for Chinese tourists to visit Canada.

China will also open a consulate in Montreal.

The statement only briefly mentioned the issue of human rights, saying the two sides agreed they had "distinct points of view."

"We always make sure when we bring up these matters — whether they relate to particular cases that you’re aware of in the newspaper that have been discussed from time to time, or whether they’re broader questions such as the situation in Tibet — we always bring these up in a way that is frank, at the same time in a way that is respectful of Chinese sovereignty," Harper said.

Cool relations

Relations between Canada and China have been cool in recent years as Harper has pressed the Chinese government to improve its record on human rights.

In their joint communiqué, the leaders pledged to keep discussing human rights, trade and investment, and to co-operate on "green" technology.

Commenting on the scolding from the Chinese leadership, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said it was as though Harper "had received a slap in public" and that it will cost Canada jobs.

"He lost face today," Ignatieff said. "And in that culture, losing face is very important and I do think it's cost Canada economic opportunity today."

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae charged that Canada has paid a price for four years "of not just living on the margins, but actually, deliberately disregarding China."

"This was a deliberate decision on [Harper's] part to ignore the relationship and to assert that it had no particular importance for him, and I think we’re now paying a very, very heavy price for that decision," Rae told reporters on Parliament Hill.

In another development, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called on Canada to deport Lai Changxing, who is accused by China of running a smuggling empire that netted him more than $10 billion. Changxing has taken refuge in Vancouver for the last nine years after fleeing China.

Chinese newspapers have taken a somewhat mixed tone toward Harper's visit.

On Wednesday, the government-run China Daily ran a story touting Harper's arrival as a sign that ties between the two countries may "thaw," while another article described Harper's visit as "late" but "still welcome."

An editorial in the Global Times, a publication of the country's Communist Party, accused Harper of criticizing the Chinese government to appease his electoral base and of turning "a cold shoulder to China."