BEIJING - In a surprisingly undiplomatic rebuke, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was publicly chided at a traditional Chinese welcoming ceremony Thursday for taking too long to visit the country.
The subtle but pointed rebuke came as the prime minister and his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, sat at a large oval table for talks following a military welcome at the cavernous Great Hall of the People.
With television cameras rolling, Wen noted that he and Harper had yet to meet and that no Canadian prime minister had visited China in five years.
He also reminded the prime minister that Chinese media was full of stories about the lack of attention paid to China by his government since being elected in 2006.
"Five years is too long a time ... and that's why there were comments in the media that your visit should have taken place earlier," Wen said through an interpreter.
An hour earlier, President Hu Jintao twice emphasized that this was Harper's first visit at their private meeting.
However, the prime minister did not let the comments slip by without a response. He pointed out that it had also been five years since the Chinese leadership had stepped foot in Canada.
Responding to a reporter's question, Harper said he hasn't changed his views, but that "more regular visits would seem to make sense."
The gentle prods seemed to confirm official media assertions, always an indication of the government's thinking, that the relationship had turned icy since Harper's election in 2006.
In Ottawa, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the admonishment was significant because it is uncommon for China to make such diplomatic complaints publicly.
He said Harper's "deliberate disregard" for China had harmed Canada's relations with the country, and Canadian companies were paying a heavy price for that decision.
While the Chinese government has given every indication of having taken offence over what it perceived as the Harper government's neglect, as well as attacks on China's human rights record, Hu and Wen made clear they are prepared to rebuild the relationship that at one time had been among China's closest with the outside world.
Wen was again the most direct, calling Harper's visit a "great mission (of) special significance," and telling the prime minister he was prepared for an in-depth exchange of views.
"We hope that through your visit the China-Canada relationship will turn a new page," he said.
Regardless of the state of the relationship, the prime minister is not leaving China empty handed, having won over the Chinese on several irritants.
The biggest plum came during the Harper-Wen talks when China notified Canada that it is being granted "approved destination status," something the Canadian tourism industry has long requested. Many countries, including the United States have the status.
Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said the agreement, which he estimated could be worth $100 million to Canadian tourism, came at the last moment and did not involve Canadian concessions.
At a later news conference, Harper confirmed that the stumbling block had been Chinese demands that Canada extradite Lai Changxing, who Beijing considers a criminal who ran a massive smuggling ring. Harper said Canada also wants Lai extradited but cannot override the court process.
As well, the two countries signed four memorandums of understanding pledging co-operation on green technologies, agriculture and scientific and technical assistance, and agreed to a process that would land Canada its biggest prize, an investment protection agreement that businesses say would give them assurance of being treated fairly in China.
Two days earlier, China dropped its ban on imports of Canadian pork, a trade valued at about $50 million.
The approved destination status gives the Canadian tourism industry a boost by permitting Chinese travel agents to market Canada as a vacation spot, and as the prime minister pointed out, it couldn't have come at a better time with the Vancouver Winter Olympics just around the corner.
Calling the meeting positive, Harper said: "This is the beginning of a significant new era in our bilateral relations".
He also revealed to Hu that he had dreamed of visiting China since he was a small boy.
That is a different tone from the one Harper struck in 2006, when he declared he would not sell out Canadian values to the "almighty dollar."
Asked about human rights after his meetings with the two Chinese leaders, the prime minister said he had brought up in private both specific issues and general ones, such as the situation Tibet.
One specific issue is the case of Husein Celil, the Canadian dual citizen whisked out of Uzbekistan in 2006 and imprisoned in China. The government is refusing Canadian consular visits.
But Harper has also been careful not to embarrass the Chinese by bringing up the issues in a public setting.
"We always bring these up in a way that is frank and at the same time that is respectful of Chinese sovereignty," he said.