Premier defends upcoming China trip amid Hong Kong unrest, Canadian detentions

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil is making no apologies as he heads to China on Friday, a trip that comes as Chinese officials are overseeing a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and authorities continue to detain two Canadians.

It will be McNeil's eighth visit as premier to the country, which has become Nova Scotia's second-largest trading partner and has dramatically increased its imports from the province in recent years.

"This relationship is an important one," McNeil told reporters following a cabinet meeting in Halifax on Thursday. "This is continuing to build on our job to promote and build a more vibrant economy here at home."

A background briefing Thursday morning by an official with the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs highlighted an impressive growth in trade between Nova Scotia companies and those in China, who have embraced the province's seafood in particular.

In 2013, when McNeil took over as premier, $197 million worth of goods were being shipped to China from Nova Scotia. This year that figure is expected to reach the $1 billion mark. The United States imports the most — $3.6 billion in goods — including seafood, fruit and wood.

'It's a sharp moment'

But Nova Scotia's opposition parties both expressed concern about the trip in light of the crackdown in Hong Kong and the almost year-long detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave, and Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur.

"It's not like this is a business as usual, status quo moment in Chinese history," said NDP Leader Gary Burrill. "It's a sharp moment, and a moment when people are interested in democracy can be expected to register their views."

PC MLA Allan MacMaster noted the 15-day trip means McNeil will not be in Nova Scotia on Remembrance Day. He will instead be in Shanghai, attending various events put on by the Canada China Business Council.

"I just think it's ironic that he will be away in a country where there are stories of human rights abuses at a time of the year when we're remembering Canadians who sacrificed their lives to help people in other parts of the world who were being oppressed with similar types of human rights abuses," said MacMaster.

Asked about the optics of his trip, McNeil suggested the province had a limited role in securing the release of the Canadians.

"That national governments obviously are working toward solving that," the premier said. "We'll continue to work with them to solve this problem but we need to continue to build a relationship."

Promoting democracy

McNeil is scheduled to meet with Ma Xingrui, the governor of the Province of Guangdong and a member of the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

He said the two Canadian detainees, along with the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested last year in Vancouver, will "I'm sure will be part of the conversation."

McNeil reiterated his belief that building good trade relationships was a way to promote democratic values and showcase the value of democracy.

"Isolation and protectionism has never worked," he said.

The premier will be accompanied by three government staffers and an RCMP guard during the two-week trip, which will also take him to Tokyo and Seoul. Such trips have traditionally cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

Burrill cast doubt on the value of this visit and others, given the inability to link increased trade with the missions themselves.

"I think, in general, the premier has for some time been exaggerating his importance on this front," he said. "I think it's pretty clear that there will be Chinese students in our excellent schools, and there will be Chinese consumers for our excellent lobster without Stephen McNeil going back and forth between Canada and China every second weekend."

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