02/05/2020 21:09 EST

Canadian Ambassador To China Says Relations Are Tense

Dominic Barton appeared before a special House of Commons committee to testify.

OTTAWA — Canada’s ambassador to China says there is a chill in relations between the two countries since the People’s Republic imprisoned two Canadians, but his top priority is winning their release and resetting the relationship. 

Dominic Barton offered that assessment in testimony on Wednesday before the special House of Commons committee studying the fraught relationship between the two countries, which was already tense when he was named to the post last fall.

Barton said that his main concern is winning the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both detained by China in December 2018 in what is widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou.

The RCMP arrested Meng in Vancouver on an American extradition request and nine days later Kovrig and Spavor were detained and accused of violating China’s national security.

Canada's Ambassador to China Dominic Barton waits to appear before the House of Commons committee in Ottawa on Feb. 5, 2020.

Neither Kovrig nor Spavor has seen a lawyer or been permitted visits from their families, while Meng has been released on bail and is living in a luxurious Vancouver home while her extradition hearing plays out.

Barton says other priorities include clemency for Canadian Robert Schellenberg, who was given a death sentence in January 2019 after having been previously sentenced to prison for drug smuggling.

“The chill is real,” Barton said.

He said both sides were shaking with anger during his first diplomatic meeting with Chinese officials.

“The first conversation I had was probably one of the most unpleasant conversations I have ever had.”

Barton said he has now met with all three imprisoned Canadian men and is impressed with how they are holding up. He said he plans to make further personal visits.

“I hope that our efforts will soon bear fruit,” he said, without elaborating. 

“I am unbelievably inspired by their resilience.”

Dominic Barton before the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations in Ottawa on Feb. 5, 2020. 

Opposition MPs on the committee clashed over whether Barton, not a career diplomat, was the right person for the job. His long tenure as the global managing director of consulting giant McKinsey & Co. drew sharp criticism from Conservative and New Democrat MPs.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said he was “a completely inappropriate choice as ambassador,” and said his time with the company — and the work it did for Chinese firms — raises a “big red flags for me.”

Genuis referred to a New York Times investigation from December 2018 that headlined how McKinsey held a lavish 2018 retreat in remote western China a short drive from where a large prison had been built to hold ethnic Muslim Uighurs.

He asked Barton to submit a list of state-owned Chinese firms that McKinsey worked with.

 “I’m very proud of my career and time in the private sector,” Barton replied in a measured tone. “We’re known for telling truth to power.”

We’re known for telling truth to power.Dominic Barton, Canada's ambassador to China

NDP MP Jack Harris questioned whether the business relationship of Barton’s wife with Chinese firms was a problem.

Barton said he has been “extraordinarily diligent” with the government’s conflicts and ethics vetting.

“My integrity matters a lot to me.”

Bloc Quebecois MP Stephane Bergeron defended Barton, saying he could not hide his “unease” with the attacks on Barton.

“The worst thing to do is to undermine the credibly of the person that is representing Canada before Chinese authorities,” said Bergeron. 

“You are very qualified for the delicate mission that has been given to you.”

The special committee was the result of a Conservative motion passed in December, supported by other opposition parties in the minority Parliament. It wants the prime minister, cabinet ministers and diplomats to appear as witnesses as the committee sees fit.

You are very qualified for the delicate mission that has been given to you.Bloc Quebecois MP Stephane Bergeron to Dominic Barton

Barton was appointed last fall after a long career in business, which included working in China and across Asia.

Barton said his experience in China dates back to 2003, when he lived in Shanghai for six years. He said he has had consistent engagement with people in China since then. 

But he said he can’t “pretend to have all the answers” when it comes to understanding such a complex and dynamic country.

China also faces significant challenges despite its strong economic growth and its new assertive posture on the international stage, said Barton. These include poverty, a polluted environment and demographic challenges that come with being one of the world’s most quickly aging societies.

Barton said he has not been shy about pressing Canada’s concerns over China’s human rights situation, singling out the treatment of China’s ethnic Muslim community.

Human rights organizations have said that as many as one million ethnic Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region have been rounded up and placed in camps. China says it is trying to re-educate and integrate the Uighurs to make them better contributors to Chinese society.

“Journalists, diplomats, and Chinese civil society representatives I spoke to agree that 2019 witnessed an increased crackdown on dissent and on expressions of disagreement about China’s human rights record, within and outside the country,” Barton said.

The government is concerned by the “credible reports of the mass detention, repressive surveillance, and family separation affecting Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, under the pretext of countering extremism, terrorism and separatism.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2020.