Last month, when U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Beijing, the Chinese media made a big deal of the fact that he came here during the first year of his presidency.

Chinese leaders were delighted because the new president's timing appeared to be offering the Chinese a show of respect, or "face," as it is often referred to here.

For his part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper received a slap in the face, albeit a gentle one, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao chided him for waiting several years to visit China.


Clink. Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Premier Wen Jiabao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 3, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Pointing out that it takes two to tangle, Harper noted that it has also been several years since either Wen or President Hu Jintao have been in Canada.

In the wisest of old Chinese political traditions, after making Harper lose face in a room crowded with officials and journalists from both countries, Beijing quickly gave the prime minister face back by granting Canada Approved Destination Status.

For years, Canada has been seeking Approved Destination Status, a trade designation that could open the door to tens of millions of Chinese tourists. With Harper's arrival here, it has finally been granted.

A strained history

Some diplomats confided to CBC News that the strained relationship between the two countries was the reason the Chinese were holding back the designation.

In particular, the Chinese were (and still are) livid that the man they refer to as the "most wanted criminal in China," fugitive financier Lai Changxing, has been living in Vancouver for almost a decade. 

Lai is accused of running a gasoline and cigarette smuggling empire that was worth in excess of $10 billion.

The Chinese have insisted he be sent back to China to face justice and has promised that he will not be executed. But Lai has told the CBC that he does not trust the Chinese government because nine of his associates have already received the death penalty.

In any event, the standoff might have been eased by the extradition to China in October of Liu Xiaoquan, another fugitive businessman accused of profiting from fraudulent contracts. 

On Thursday, the prime minister's office announced China was granting Canada Approved Destination Status, which comes at an opportune moment.

The tourism market here is booming as newly wealthy Chinese are looking for interesting places to travel. Canadian cities — particularly Vancouver and Toronto because of their large Chinese populations — have a real advantage and should now have the opportunity to at last do some aggressive marketing here.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen at the Badaling section of the Great Wall in Beijing, on Dec. 3, 2009. (Xinhua, Xie Huanchi/Associated Press)

Without the official status, advertising and marketing are far more cumbersome and difficult.

Behind closed doors

The Chinese also announced they will be putting a new consular office in Montreal.

That will be welcome news to Montrealers with links to China who are sick and tired of having to handle visa and trade matters in either Ottawa or Toronto.

Beijing's decision to make it easier to travel between the two countries combined with the consular announcement are signs of success for Harper.

Canadian business leaders in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong have taken a critical view of the prime minister's past approach to dealing with China. His achievements here this week may take some of the heat off.

For human rights activists, however, it may be another story.

Whereas Harper once said he would not shy away from raising human rights issues — or being held hostage to the almighty dollar — his new approach to China is far more reminiscent of trips here by former Liberal prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien.

Raising human rights issues (which Harper's aids say that he did in his private meetings) is much less offensive to the Chinese when it happens behind closed doors.

When the Chinese get face, they often give it.