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Sunday, April 13, 2008

McGuinty's closed-door meeting with Chinese officials 'reprehensible': opposition

Maria Babbage, THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO - Premier Dalton McGuinty's closed-door meeting with a Chinese business delegation, days after his trade minister departed on a controversial visit to Beijing, proves Ontario's government is hiding its dealings with China amid international outrage over government crackdowns in Tibet, critics say.

The Liberals, who have been under fire all week over the trade mission, are "sneaking around on every front" instead of being open about their plans with Chinese officials, Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said.

"It's one of those things where you just wonder about the pattern of behaviour that's emerging here about them sneaking around, hoping nobody asks them any questions or even finds out what they're doing," he said.

In fact, the government has been scrambling for days to find a way out of the political quagmire, NDP critic Cheri DiNovo said.

When rumours surfaced last week that Economic Development and Trade Minister Sandra Pupatello was going to Beijing to open a provincial trade office, the Liberals tried to cover it up, she said.

DiNovo added that when the trade mission came to light, McGuinty tried to pass off human rights as a federal concern: something that didn't go over well with the hundreds of pro-Tibetan demonstrators who converged on the front lawn of the legislature last week.

"Essentially what happened is they were caught," DiNovo said, adding the Liberals were forced to introduce a "fluffy" motion that urged "meaningful dialogue" with China.

"They were trying to hide a trip to China because they knew how sensitive the timing was."

On Monday, McGuinty will lunch with a delegation from Jiangsu, China - a public event on his weekly itinerary which, in a rare move, has been closed to the media.

DiNovo called it "reprehensible."

"If he is going to go ahead with this luncheon ... then he should absolutely speak about the resolution we passed about Tibetan human rights and that should be front and centre on his agenda."

Monday's lunch with vice-governor Zhang Weiguo and the business delegation from Jiangsu - which has a friendship agreement with Ontario dating back more than 20 years - has been in the works for several weeks, said Jane Almeida, a spokeswoman for McGuinty.

"It's an opportunity for the premier and vice governor to speak about the long standing friendship between their provinces," she wrote in an e-mail.

"And it will allow the discussion between business leaders to happen freely and openly."

Celebrating such longstanding friendships is important, but so is registering concern, said Tory.

"We see a pattern emerging from a government that's not motivated by principle, because if you're motivated by principle, then you accept your responsibility for human rights." he said.

"You do that at all times, every day."

Reporters may not be invited to the lunch, but the premier can rest assured that it will be well attended by Tibetans, said DiNovo.

Tibetan-Canadians and human rights activists are planning to protest the luncheon at Toronto's Westin Harbour Castle where the meeting is being held Monday morning.

Activists say they will also begin a week-long sit-in Monday at the Ontario legislature to bring attention to the Liberal government's ongoing support of the Chinese government despite human rights violations in Tibet.

"It's still 'business as usual' for the McGuinty government while my people are suffering spiritual and cultural genocide," Gelek Badheytsang of Students for a Free Tibet Canada said in a release.

"The Premier and his cabinet have sold out the human rights values of all Ontarians by welcoming an official Chinese government delegation and by sending his trade minister on her own secret trip to Beijing."

Activists are hopeful Pupatello and Toronto Mayor David Miller, who is also taking part in the trade mission, will at least take the opportunity to express their condemnation of China's crackdown on Tibet when they meet with Chinese officials.

Dozens of people were killed and many others arrested in March after anti-government protests erupted in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, sparking massive demonstrations by pro-Tibetan activists.

Activists have also tried to disrupt the Olympic torch relay as it makes its way to Beijing, which is hosting the games in August.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to skip the opening ceremony, along with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

© The Canadian Press, 2008

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