China’s second most powerful leader has likened his nation’s relationship with Australia to flying through a lightning storm.
Li Keqiang and his wife Cheng Hong were on Thursday honoured at a formal lunch in the Great Hall at Parliament House following a ceremonial welcome that included a 19 gun salute over the heads of protesters and supporters.
The pair arrived in Canberra late on Wednesday night as part of a seven-day tour of Australia and New Zealand.
“We flew across the clouds. There was lightning but we kept flying and that is the same as China-Australia relations,” Mr Li told guests through a translator.
“It will keep moving forward and forward and forward.”
Mr Li talked up an increase in Australian beef export opportunities to China and joked about how he had been looking forward to eating the local steak, to then be told there was only chicken on the menu.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described Mr Li as a trailblazer in China noting he was the first-ever lawyer appointed premier, while he was the 14th Australian prime minister with a legal background.
He praised Mr Li’s superb English, noting his two-year-old granddaughter Isla speaks English and Mandarin but is not quite up to translating at a diplomatic level just yet.
“I was holding her in my arms and she pointed to a painting of a fish on the wall and said ‘Yu’ and knowing I wasn’t bilingual added: ‘fish’ ,” he said.
Mr Turnbull also reflected on the 20 years he has been visiting China, including his past business dealings setting up a gold, silver and zinc mine in Hebei province.
He flagged the leaders would announce the next phase of the China-Australia free trade deal that will open up new opportunities in services and in investment. There was also vast scope to cooperate in science and innovation.
Mr Li said he was excited about going to see the AFL Sydney Swans play Port Adelaide on the weekend.
Always the diplomat, he said he would cheer for whoever wins.
The AFL will stage a match between Port and the Gold Coast in Shanghai in May.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten welcomed Chinese people falling in love with Australia’s great indigenous football code.
“I dream of a day when the Collingwood Football Club will have a billion members,” he said.
An estimated 300 Chinese students gathered on the lawns of parliament house to show support for the premier’s visit, while 200 people protested against China’s human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch hopes Mr Turnbull will raise China’s harsh crackdown on democracy activists and civil society groups, its weak judicial system and internet censorship during Friday’s bilateral meeting.
Mr Li is meeting Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove, Mr Shorten, and Speaker Tony Smith and Senate President Stephen Parry on Tuesday afternoon.