Chinese President Hu Jintao, called on Thursday for better relations with Canada after years of discord on human rights issues.

Mr. Hu spoke after meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during the Canadian leader’s visit to Beijing.

Canada’s differences with China have widened since Mr. Harper’s conservative government took office nearly four years ago. His visit, part of a swing through eastern Asia, appears aimed at overcoming negative sentiment on both sides.

Mr. Hu said China hoped to “increase understanding, extend practical cooperation, and bring Chinese-Canadian cooperation to a new level.”

Mr. Harper said that the visit would boost trade and cooperation. He held meetings with both Mr. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, with bilateral trade volume increasing from $23 billion in 2006 to about $35 billion in 2008, according to statistics from China’s Customs Administration.

But in a sign of some of the lingering discord, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, called on Canada to deport Lai Changxing, accused of heading a network that smuggled as much as US$10 billion of goods, including untaxed oil, into China with the protection of corrupt officials.

Lai fled to Canada a decade ago and has battled to stay there, saying he faces torture and possible execution if he returns to China. Beijing says Lai will not be executed if he is returned.

“We have called for the Canadian government to repatriate him,” Mr. Qin told a regular news conference on Thursday.

Mr. Harper also angered Beijing in 2006 when Canada granted exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama’s honorary citizenship. China criticized a public meeting the next year between Mr. Harper and the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner as interference in its internal affairs.

Another issue is a Chinese court’s conviction on terrorism charges of Chinese-born Canadian Huseyin Celil, who was arrested during a 2006 visit to relatives in Uzbekistan and extradited to China. He is serving a life sentence.

Celil is a member of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group and fled China in the 1990s fearing persecution for criticizing the government.

Ottawa says that he has dual citizenship and that a Canadian diplomat should be allowed to visit him. China does not recognize that, saying he is a Chinese national and member of a banned terrorist group.

Mr. Harper, who also toured the Great Wall on Thursday morning, will also visit Shanghai and Hong Kong before leaving for South Korea on Sunday.

More In: International | News