Baird says he's confident Chinese fugitive won't be executed

Although paving the way for stronger economic ties with China remains the priority, John Baird says he didn't shy away from tough conversations about human rights during his first visit to the communist superpower as Canada's new foreign affairs minister.

Speaking Monday from Beijing, Baird said he had a "frank and open" discussion with his Chinese counterparts, addressing such issues as migrant labour rights, minority culture issues, including the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, and legal aid.

Baird's visit also coincided with what many hope will be the conclusion of a 12-year-long legal battle involving one of China's most wanted fugitives.

Lai Changxing has been wanted since 1999 on allegations he masterminded a $10-billon smuggling ring that cheated the government out of import duties. He could be deported from Canada as early as next week if he fails to convince a Federal Court judge that he won't get a fair trial in China and could be subject to torture or death.

While Baird was reluctant to weigh in on a case currently before the courts, he did note that Canada and China tend to see eye-to-eye on these types of crimes.

"Canadian people and Chinese people don't have a lot of time for white-collar fraudsters," he said.

"We have a different legal system in Canada, and obviously that will run its course."

Baird, however, said China has offered assurances that white-collar crimes are no longer punishable by death.

"In this particular case, we have no reason to doubt that commitment," he said.