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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, arrive in Beijing on Wednesday. ((Elizabeth Dalziel/Associated Press))

Prime Minister Stephen Harper began his first official visit to China on Wednesday with a pledge to stand firm on human rights.

As Harper's plane arrived in Beijing for a five-day visit aimed at improving relations with China, the country's leading English language newspaper, the China Daily, carried a front-page article about the visit.

It said Harper was hoping to re-energize ties with China that have stagnated in part because of his criticism of its human rights record. But Harper told reporters his position hasn't changed and Canadian values will not be checked at the door.

"That said, we have a good and frank relationship with the Chinese government. I meet President Hu regularly at international events and I'm looking forward to this trip. I think it will be a productive trip and I think the Chinese feel the same way."

Canadian government officials say they don't expect any major agreements to be signed during Harper's visit. But Peter Harder, president of the Canada China Business Council and a former deputy minister in the Department of Foreign Affairs, said it's all about optics — that the trip is happening at all is what's important.

China is Canada's second-largest trading partner, after the U.S., and Harper said this visit will help the political and economic relationships between the two countries.

"Close and warm political relationships are essential to creating warm and close business relationships. You can't have cold politics and hot economics."

Harper's trip to China comes on the heels of visits by U.S. President Barack Obama and other G-7 leaders. Harder said that's a sign the competition for China's attention is fierce.

"China is the economic story. … So we have to be more diligent and more creative in finding ways for Canada's presence and Canada's interests to be projected.

Harper is to meet President Hu Jintao on Thursday before heading off to speak to business leaders in Shanghai on Friday.