Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrapped up his trip to China with his hands on a national treasure but avoided a public handshake with a controversial politician.
Harper’s final bilateral meeting Saturday was with Bo Xilai, a rising star in Chinese politics expected to be moving closer to China’s inner circle.
The meeting was one of several Harper held with the next generation of Chinese leadership, a sign that the current Chinese government views Canada as a country worth getting to know in the long term.
That view was further reinforced by an agreement signed Saturday for the Chinese to loan Canada two pandas for the next 10 years.
But Bo’s political future has been cast in doubt after his deputy mayor spent a day in a U.S. consulate in southwestern China amid speculation that he sought political asylum. Wang Lijun had been the top police officer in Chongqing until he was mysteriously removed last week.
He stayed on as a deputy mayor and was reassigned to duties involving the local economy and education.
As the city’s top cop, he had helped carry out a widespread crackdown on organized crime groups seen as part of a campaign to promote Bo, the city’s Communist party secretary and one of the country’s most prominent political figures.
Unlike his previous photo opportunities with political leaders, Harper did not pose for the usual handshake photograph with Bo, instead greeting the leader outside of the sight of journalists.
The two sat across from a large conference table, with Bo showing no sign of the political controversy swirling around him and Harper not acknowledging it either.
What most Canadians are going to take away from his trip, Harper told the party secretary, wasn’t the government-to-government relationship or the business deals.
“More people in Canada will notice the pandas than anything else,” he joked.
Bo did not laugh.
But the panda deal represents a significant thaw in Sino-Canadian relations. Even zoo officials, who’d been negotiating for a set of pandas for over a decade said the final push was because the two countries had renewed their dialogue with Harper’s last visit in 2009.
Harper told reporters earlier in the day that the pandas sent an important signal.
“The length of that loan indicates the degree of commitment that the Chinese really do have and the optimism they have for the relationship going forward,” he said.
It may take the full 10 years of the panda loan to move forward on all the commitments agreed to during the course of Harper’s three-city tour.
Many were agreements in principle or intents to proceed on issues as varied as uranium exports to science and technology.
The signature agreement was on a foreign investment protection deal the two countries have been negotiating for 18 years.
That deal also needs to be legally reviewed and ratified before it comes into force.
But it sets the stage for both Canadian and Chinese businesses to step up business relationships and may start the two countries down the road to a free trade deal.
“I think it would be premature to talk about free trade agreement today,” Harper said, refusing to put a timeline on the process.
“There obviously would be considerable steps and some obstacles and questions that would have to be addressed, but what we have committed to do is move our economic and trading relationship to the next level.”
Harper insisted throughout the trip that the relationship would also involve a frank conversation on human rights, but when pressed Saturday refused to say specifically what aspects of human rights he has brought up in meetings.
The Chinese have been criticized in recent weeks for what’s perceived to be an increased clamp down on dissidents in part to stave off an Arab Spring type revolution.
“I make it my habit when I’m in another country not to say anything publicly critical of that country,” Harper said.
“I can tell you I have raised all of the major issues you would expect from looking at your news programming.”