OTTAWA (AP) – The leaders of China and Canada pledged Friday to double their trade and investment by the end of this decade and work to improve human rights in the Asian giant long condemned for persecuting its political opponents.

President Hu Jintao, making some of his most extensive public comments on the issue, defended China’s human rights policies and reaffirmed its sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet.

“China is a country of 1.3 billion people,” Hu told a news conference after meeting with Prime Minister Paul Martin for two hours. “We have to give top priority to the rights to survival and the right to the development of our people. At the same time, we also attach a great deal of importance to the civil rights of our citizens.”

With several hundred followers of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement meditating and exercising outside the news conference on Parliament Hill, Hu said the different histories and cultures of Canada and China were bound to lead to conflicting views on human rights.

“In recent years, China and Canada have had quite some discussions about human rights on the basis of mutual respect,” Hu said. “We affirm this constructive approach to human rights.”

Hu and Martin made their comments after the signing of agreements on civil transportation, food safety and nuclear energy.

Martin, who pledged Thursday that trade and investment would not trump human rights during their talks, said the two had “open and frank” discussions about Tibet, Falun Gong and 10 human rights cases. A spokesman for Martin said he could not elaborate on the cases due to privacy concerns for the individuals involved.

“Even though we noted … significant signs of progress, I clearly indicated that Canadians remain concerned with the human rights situation in China,” Martin said. “I spoke in support of greater freedom of expression, association, religion.”

Outside, tourists were treated to a Chinese cultural spectacle on the lush lawns of Parliament Hill, where Falun Gong followers did their slow movements as their loudspeakers clashed with Chinese Embassy-sponsored celebrations featuring traditional dancers.

Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin outlawed the form of spiritual meditation and thousands of Falun Gong followers have been jailed as Beijing declared it an “evil cult.”

“I think the Chinese Communist Party is the evil cult. Falun Gong believes in truthfulness, compassion and tolerance,” said Grace Wollensak, a software engineer from Ottawa who was born in China. “Do you see anything evil or bad from this?”

Martin, who annoyed Beijing by meeting with the Dalai Lama in Ottawa last year, said he expressed concerns over the treatment of Tibetans seeking autonomy.

China accuses the Dalai Lama – who fled to India in 1959 during a failed uprising against Chinese communist rule – of agitating for Tibetan independence.

“Even basic understanding about the history of Tibet will show that our differences with the Dalai Lama is not any difference about ethnic affairs or religion,” Hu said. “It is not about human rights, but rather this difference is a political issue involving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.”

Hu, 62, was making his first visit to North America since taking office nearly three years ago and is only the third Chinese president to visit Canada.

Hu noted that when the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1970, trade stood at $150 million.

He said China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, and the two countries expect to do $15.5 billion in bilateral trade by the end of this year. The two leaders pledged Friday to double that to $30 billion by 2010.

Andrew Hannan, a spokesman for the federal agency International Trade Canada, gave conflicting trade figures, however, saying the two countries had traded $25 billion last year.

Hu said China plans to open its markets wider and expand investment, particularly in infrastructure, energy, agriculture, telecommunications and environment.

The more than 1 million ethnic Chinese in Canada are the largest minority in the nation of 33 million people. And with the fastest-growing economy in the world and the rapid urbanization of their homeland, the Chinese are hungry for more oil and natural resources, which Canada can provide.

President Bush canceled a meeting with the Chinese leader this week, citing Hurricane Katrina. They intend to meet on the sidelines of the U.N. summit next week in New York.

Hu also traveled to Gatineau, across the Ottawa River that separates Ontario and the French-speaking province of Quebec, to attend a luncheon hosted by Martin. Hu travels Saturday to Toronto and Niagara Falls, then to Mexico on Sunday.

AP-ES-09-09-05 1635EDT

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