Stephen Harper raises religious freedom concerns with China

Prime Minister Stephen Harper talked trade throughout his one-day visit to Hangzhou in eastern China, but behind closed doors, he raised a more sensitive topic with the Communist Party secretary for the Zhejiang province — religious freedom.

Removal of crosses from churches in Zhejiang province sparks outcry from religious activists

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Xia Baolong, Communist Party secretary for Zhejiang province, at the Zhejian State Guest House in Hangzhou, China, on Friday. (The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has wrapped up a one-day visit to Hangzhou, in eastern China, where he talked trade everywhere he went.

But behind closed doors Friday, he raised a more sensitive topic with the Communist Party secretary for the Zhejiang province — religious freedom.

Xia Balong leads a province where a decree has led to many crosses being removed from churches.

Religious activists say this is happening because party officials don’t like the obvious symbol of Christianity in plain sight. The party leaders, however, say the crosses are violating building codes.

A man stands near the razed remains of a Catholic church in a village in eastern China's Zhejiang province in July. Across Zhejiang province, authorities have toppled, or threatened to topple, crosses at more than 130 churches. (Didi Tang/Associated Press)
In another area, the Sanjiang Church was demolished by the Yongja County government in Wenzhou, China, in April.

That prompted Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom to issue this statement.

"Churches are important centres for outreach to the broader community, in which they can play an important social function. As such, they should be respected by local authorities and not desecrated in such a grievous manner," Andrew Bennett wrote.

Private meeting addressed Canadian 'concerns'

On Friday, Harper’s spokesperson told the media that the prime minister told Xia "Canadians would be concerned to know that religious freedoms were being restricted."

The rest of the meeting, including Xia's response, are considered private.

It’s these kinds of issues that have led to some members of Harper’s cabinet to be wary of closer trade ties with China.

Several polls conducted this year show the majority of Canadians are skeptical too.

Industry Minister James Moore, who is on the trip with Harper, says the relationship with China is all about balance.

"Of course, there are always opportunities that we seek to not only expand free trade but certainly assert the principles of freedom, and democracy and respect for human rights and diversities," Moore said.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also addressed members of the business community in Hangzhou, China, on Friday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
But at a business networking session, some participants, including Guy Nelson, CEO of Empire Industries, had this advice for the prime minister as he raises human rights:

"I would say recognize China for the country that it wants to become, what it is already. And not try to impose our values excessively on this country. It’s a unique country," Nelson said.

'Engaging with China doesn't mean agreeing': ex-ambassador

Canada's former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, agrees finding the right balance with China is difficult.

"Engaging with China doesn’t mean agreeing with China. It really means taking more responsibility for managing an increasingly important international relationship for Canada," Mulroney said.

Harper spent much of his day publicly talking to Canadian and Chinese business leaders about the need for closer business ties.

He stopped by the headquarters for Alibaba, the largest online company in the world. In China, 64 per cent of all commercial transactions are done through e-commerce sites like Alibaba.

The prime minister said that as the affluent Chinese middle class expands to more than a billion people by 2030, there are opportunities for Canadian companies, big and small.

"We know that over the long haul, in the decades to come, there’s not going to be the kind of growth opportunities in the United States and some of our traditional markets than there’s going to be in China and other parts of the world," Harper told a crowd at Alibaba.

Mulroney said Hangzhou in particular is a good place for the prime minister to stop.

"The benefit of waving the Canadian flag in Hangzhou is you get a much warmer welcome," Mulroney told CBC. "Lots of people go through Beijing and Shanghai all the time, and the waiting list is long in the waiting rooms of all of the important people. But Hangzhou is hungry for business, and hungry for investment from places like Canada."