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Premiers Philippe Couillard, centre, Robert Ghiz, left, and Kathleen Wynne, at a news conference after their China mission, Thursday.

Andy Wong/AP

When three Canadian premiers descended on China's capital this week, they brought with them representatives of more than 200 companies and an effusive appeal for the Middle Kingdom's business.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, kept his Chinese counterparts waiting for weeks on a decision to accept their invitation of bilateral talks before the APEC summit in a few days' time.

The stark contrast highlights the differing approaches exhibited by the two levels of government in dealing with China. While Ottawa remains wary of Beijing, the provinces warmly embrace the Chinese government in hopes of drumming up trade.

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And Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called on Mr. Harper to do more to help the premiers' efforts.

"In many, many situations, it is helpful to have the federal government at the table with us as the provinces. My hope is that at some point that will happen," she said Thursday evening before a reception at a Chinese government compound in central Beijing. "Having the national government as part of that conversation would enhance our role [in China.]"

She said she raised human rights – particularly the right to dissent in light of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – with Luo Zhijun, the Communist Party secretary for the province of Jiangsu in a meeting in Nanjing earlier this week.

"[I told him] I support and will always support peoples' freedom of speech. That's very important for us, and peoples' ability to gather peacefully," she said.

But for the most part, the premiers have steered clear of such thorny political subjects. They have focused instead on closing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deals. The trio met with several Chinese cabinet ministers and hosted receptions for hundreds of business people.

Ms. Wynne is promoting Ontario's green technology sector, which is looking for contracts cleaning up China's air and water. Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard on Thursday promised a pricey new rail line to his province's north to entice Chinese mining companies. And Prince Edward Island's Robert Ghiz worked to get more Canadian seafood into China's booming market.

They said such a concerted push is vital if Canada wants a piece of the world's second-largest economy.

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"What we are seeing with the results we have is the importance of our continuous presence in China," Mr. Couillard said, pointing to his province's permanent trade offices here.

"You have to come here three, four, five times to close deals," Mr. Ghiz told a business audience earlier in the day at a Beijing hotel. "We have the product, China has the people."

Mr. Harper's relationship, meanwhile, has been more complicated. In 2006, he said he would not "sell out important Canadian values" in pursuit of Chinese trade. While he has tempered his position since, the Prime Minister has been less ostentatious than the premiers in his dealings with the country.

Relations have been particularly fraught in recent months. In the summer, Ottawa accused China of hacking Canadian government computers. Then, China detained Kevin and Julia Garratt, Canadian missionaries living near the North Korean border, and accused them of stealing state secrets.

He demurred over whether he would meet with officials in Beijing next week; the Chinese government announced just this week that he had accepted.

Of these two approaches, China has made it perfectly clear which it favours.

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In an interview, China's consul-general in Toronto, Fang Li, lauded Jean Chrétien, who led massive, flag-waving trade missions to China as prime minister. And when Mr. Harper visits, he said, he should steer clear of tough subjects.

"He has a lot of other important things to talk about with the Chinese leaders – like the economy, education," he said. "He should take this precious time, this very precious visit to talk about something more important than Hong Kong."

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