Justin Trudeau wants to rebuild Canada into a bridge between China and the world, a bid to take back the role fashioned by his father more than four decades ago.

Canada is “in a position to help China position itself in a very positive way on the world stage,” the Canadian prime minister said in Beijing, where he arrived Tuesday afternoon for his fourth visit, and first as prime minister.

“How can the relationship between China and Canada set a new tone and a new era of positive collaboration that is good for the citizens of both countries?” he asked a group of elite Chinese business leaders, in a conversation with Alibaba founder Jack Ma. An Internet live-stream of the hour-long conversation attracted more than 9.3-million views.

Mr. Trudeau called on China to “ask for advice and take suggestions about how to be better for its citizens” and “tackle big problems that other countries have faced at different times.” He mentioned “governance issues and rule of law issues” — and a Chinese hunger for foreign assets “that isn’t always well-received by populations and governments around the world.” He made no reference to human rights in a country that has defined progress in economic terms, while maintaining strict control of its people’s speech and ability to criticize government.

Though China’s overseas economic ties continue to grow, under president Xi Jinping it has also grown more overtly nationalist, with a more assertive foreign policy and a greater willingness to shrug off international opposition. It was only this June that the Chinese foreign minister told a Canadian reporter she had “no right” to ask about China’s treatment of its people.

A day before Mr. Trudeau arrived, China further strengthened a campaign against western influence, with a new guideline demanding all entertainment news comply with Communist Party ideology. It must not “express overt admiration for Western lifestyles,” the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said. The order follows similar calls to strip western values from universities, and place foreign NGOs under strict Chinese control.

Mr. Trudeau, however, has made it his goal to “reset” the relationship with China on his week-long trip.

It was Mr. Trudeau’s father who led Canada into restarting diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1970, a recognition that helped ease China into a more integrated role in the global system — a role for which Pierre Trudeau remains fondly remembered.

Mr. Ma, perhaps China’s best-known business figure, offered “special thanks” to the elder Trudeau. “Our task today is not to establish friendship and trust. Pierre Trudeau and his generation has already established this,” Mr. Ma said.

On Chinese social media, however, it was images of a youthful younger Trudeau walking onto a red carpet-draped tarmac in Beijing — dressed in a red tie, next to wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau in a vermilion dress — that caused a stir. “I thought for a second Tom Cruise became president,” one person wrote.

Even in a room with the corporate luminaries that make up the China Entrepreneur Club, Mr. Trudeau could not escape the fawning. “You are the most fashionable politician. You are the best-looking prime minister,” said Xia Hua, who chairs EVE Group, a Chinese male fashion brand owner.

Mr. Trudeau was left to protest: “I might look like I’m 25. I’m actually in my mid-40s. So I’m not that young.”

In a country that values age, a perception of youth is just one thing Mr. Trudeau must fight. From the first hours of his trip, he was also confronted with a China eager to further integrate Canada into its own economic orbit.

Chinese business leaders peppered the prime minister with questions about whether he would welcome their money in sensitive Canadian industries, like agriculture and culture. One even suggested making Chinese an official language in Canada.

Do that, and “you will certainly be bigger than your father to a lot of Chinese people,” the man said.

Mr. Trudeau demurred. Better ties will “create new opportunities for Canadian businesses and give Chinese businesses a chance to expand investment in Canada,” he said. But he showed more eagerness in selling Canadian food and agri-food technology to China, and “working with Chinese investors and entrepreneurs to make sure we are accessing this excellent Chinese market.”

He did, however, say Canada is “looking very favourably” at joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a China-led institution that has challenged the primacy of the World Bank. An announcement could come as soon as Wednesday.

Like his father before him, Mr. Trudeau said, he was hoping to pass along a friendship and “openness toward China,” both to a new generation of Canadians and his daughter, Ella-Grace, who is accompanying him on the trip.

His arrival carried other echoes of Pierre Trudeau, who first came to China as prime minister in 1973 and walked directly into meetings with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier and Mao Zedong’s right-hand man.

Justin Trudeau was similarly eager to begin, sitting down for his first public session hours after arrival.

But the younger Trudeau’s counterparts were far different from the architects of Communist China. These were, instead, Mr. Ma and the members of the China Entrepreneur Club, themselves architects of the country, although in a very different kind of way.

Founded in 2006, the club may be the most exclusive of its kind anywhere, populated by the top ranks of the country’s billionaires, many of them totems of Chinese private enterprise success. Combined gross revenue at their 49 companies last year exceeded $550-billion, equivalent to nearly a third the Canadian GDP.

Meeting them gave Mr. Trudeau a chance to promote Canada before a crowd with significant economic power.

Still, it’s unclear how much Mr. Trudeau can achieve. With an increasingly skeptical population at home, including a business community not certain free trade with China is in their best interests, expectations are low for a dramatic economic breakthrough during Mr. Trudeau’s week in the country.

The visit’s political agenda will kick off Tuesday evening at a private dinner with premier Li Keqiang inside Beijing’s Forbidden City and continue Wednesday, when Mr. Trudeau will also meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People, just west of Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Trudeau is expected to press China to release missionary Kevin Garratt and allow Canadian canola exports — a victory that, if it comes, would merely mean achieving the status quo.

Ottawa has signalled that it will also seek regular high-level meetings between the two countries, as well as agreement to open new paths for large numbers of additional Chinese students and workers to come to Canada.

On Monday, China’s foreign ministry suggested talks were going down to the wire.

“As we speak, the two sides are in close communication on preparatory work of this visit,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

China expects the Trudeau “visit will inject new impetus to the development of China-Canada strategic partnership,” Ms. Hua said.

BEIJING — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016 6:25AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016 7:15AM EDT