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Stephen Harper makes a speech to business leaders in Shanghai on Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday his government would not let the pursuit of expanded economic ties with China lead to silence on human rights issues.

In his first and only major speech during his four-day visit to China, Harper told a crowd of business leaders gathered in Shanghai that building a stronger trade relationship is not incompatible with an open discussion of human rights.

He also outlined the benefits of increasing trade and Chinese investment in Canada, highlighting Canada's falling tax rates, low government debt and abundant energy resources.

"But just as trade is a two-way street, so too is dialogue," he said.

"Our government believes and has always believed that a mutually beneficial economic relationship is not incompatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental values like freedom, human rights and the rule of law," he told the crowd of 500 business leaders.

"And so, in relations between China and Canada, we will continue to raise issues of freedom and human rights, be a vocal advocate and an effective partner for human rights reform, just as we pursue the mutually beneficial economic relationship desired by both our countries."

This section of the speech was greeted with silence from the crowd of businessmen, who had applauded previously statements focusing on trade and the removal of protectionist policies.

Harper's comments came a day after Canada and China issued a joint statement saying China would bestow the label of "preferred tourist destination" on Canada, a move that will make it easier for Chinese tourists to visit Canada.

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

Harper chided for waiting too long to visit

It is Harper's first visit to China since forming his first government in 2006, a fact Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made note of several times during public statements on Thursday. A Canadian prime minister had not visited since Paul Martin did so in January 2005.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, visited the Forbidden City in Beijing on Friday before meeting with business leaders in Shanghai. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

"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 Thursday.

Canada-China relations have been frosty since Harper became prime minister in 2006, particularly because of his past comments on China's human rights record and his public support of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has been living in exile since China annexed the region in 1958.

Chinese President Hu Jintao also had threatened to call off a meeting between the two leaders in Vietnam in 2006 after Harper criticized China over a case involving Huseyin Celil, a Canadian activist jailed in China for alleged terrorist links. Beijing continues to refuse to allow Canadian consular visits to Celil.

The Conservative government has backed off in the last year from publicly chiding China, opting instead for more quiet diplomacy, a recognition of China's growing importance as an economic power.

The government-run China Daily has characterized Harper's visit as a sign that relations between the two countries may "thaw," while another article described Harper's visit as "late" but "still welcome."

Earlier in the day, the prime minister visited the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing and met with Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee of the National People's Congress and one of the government's top figures.

Harper is scheduled to visit Hong Kong on Saturday and then concludes his Asian trip with a visit to South Korea, where he will address the National Assembly on Monday.

With files from The Canadian Press