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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit in Singapore on Nov. 15. Harper will arrive in China for the first time on Wednesday in the hopes of improving trade. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Improving trade relations will be high on the agenda for Stephen Harper as he makes his first visit to China on Wednesday, but activists said Tuesday they want the Prime Minister to continue to address human rights issues.

Harper, who will arrive Wednesday and depart on Dec. 6, is hoping to use the trip to promote stronger economic ties with China.

Canada-China relations have been frosty since Harper formed his first government in 2006, particularly because of his past comments on China's human rights record.

But the Harper government has backed off in the last year from publicly chiding China, opting instead for more quiet diplomacy.

Harper said over the weekend that much of the visit to China will be spent discussing ways to improve investment between the two countries.

"Obviously we'll want to emphasize we're both advocates of opening up markets and that always has to be a two-way street," he said from a Commonwealth conference in Trinidad and Tobago.

Amnesty International spokeswoman Lindsay Mossman expressed concern, however, that the government is no longer making human rights a priority.

"We are concerned that the Canadian government has made fewer and weaker statements on human rights in China than they were perhaps making a few years ago," she said.

Coalition concerned over softened stance

The Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China issued a statement on Tuesday urging Harper to publicly push for improvement to China's human rights record.

"We need to see a mixture that includes closed-door diplomacy, but it is also vital to make public comments," Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said at a press conference in Ottawa. Amnesty is one of the 10 organizations in the coalition.

Harper set the tone for a tough stance on China in 2006, first when Parliament unanimously adopted a motion giving honorary Canadian citizenship to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader that has been living in exile since China annexed the region in 1958.

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Later in 2006 Harper also famously stated that he did not believe Canadians wanted him to sell out human rights beliefs "to the almighty dollar."

Chinese President Hu Jintao 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 coalition said Tuesday that thousands of Chinese, Uighur and Tibetan activists and human rights lawyers face arbitrary detention, harassment and imprisonment after unfair trials, and point out that China continues to carry out the death penalty, executing more people annually than the rest of the world's governments combined.

Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China said Harper's comments in 2006 "echoed around the world" but that his comments of late have been less encouraging. While Harper was one of the few world leaders who did not attend the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kwan said it wasn't clear the decision was a public criticism of China's rights policies.

Trade relations have suffered

Other observers, however, say Harper's tough stance has done little to improve relations with China.

Jeremy Paltiel, a visiting political science professor from Carleton University in Ottawa, said the consensus is that Canada has ignored China and done little to foster better relations, even as China's economy was growing.

Victor Gao, a Beijing-based expert on international relations, said Canada stands to gain from engagement with China.

"If Prime Minister Harper applies appropriate importance to the relations of our two countries, then Canadian exports to China is positioned to double, triple, or even quadruple in the coming five to 10 years," he said.

In 2008, Canada exported $10.3 billion worth of goods to China. Canada, however, imported four times that amount from China.

The human rights coalition said Tuesday that speaking out does not necessarily hurt economic relations.

The group said that in 1997, the year Canada abandoned public criticism of human rights violations in China, Canada had a share of 1.41 per cent of total imports to China. That share dropped to .97 per cent in 2006 and only recently has bounced back, coincidentally around the time Canada began to more openly criticize China's human rights record.

Harper said in advance of his trip that he would bring up China's human rights record.

The timing to address those issues is awkward, however, after recent accusations that Canada turned over prisoners to Afghan authorities for what was almost certain torture.

The story of diplomat Richard Colvin's testimony was carried in some Chinese newspapers, and was further complicated by the allegation that David Mulroney tried to muzzle Colvin's reports. Mulroney is Canada's current ambassador to China.

With files from The Canadian Press