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 is offering that assessment in testimony this evening 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 says in prepared remarks that his top priority is winning the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were 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.
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 his top priorities include seeking clemency for Canadian Robert Schellenberg, who was given a death sentence in January 2019 after having been previously sentenced to prison for drug smuggling.
“In December 2018, Canada’s relations with China fundamentally changed following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou,” Barton says in prepared remarks.
“The chill is real. I am committed to working hard to resolve the significant challenges that currently exist in the bilateral relationship.”
Barton says he has now met with all three imprisoned Canadian men and is impressed with how they are holding up.
“While I insist that we protect their privacy and the wishes of their families for discretion, I nonetheless want to say that I have had the opportunity to meet each of them several times now, and their resilience has deeply impressed me,” he says.
“I consistently and constructively engage with the Chinese government on their cases, and hope that our efforts will soon bear fruit.”
The special committee was the result of a Conservative motion passed in December, thanks to support from 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.
Barton is the first significant witness to appear. NDP MP Jack Harris said prior to the hearing that Barton’s testimony would be important, especially in light of the breakout of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, a city in central China.
Some 200 Canadians are now scheduled to fly out of China on a government-chartered plane, but there has been criticism Canada reacted too slowly.
“Are we being inefficient as a country in dealing with this or are we getting barriers put in place because of the other issues between Canada and China,” Harris said.
Barton was appointed last fall after a long career in business, which included working in China and across Asia.
Barton says his experience in China dates back to 2003, when he lived in Shanghai for six years.
“Although I have had consistent engagement with people in China since leaving, I certainly do not pretend to have all the answers when it comes to understanding this complex, diverse and dynamic country. In fact, I would caution against anyone who says they do.”
China also faces significant challenges despite its strong economic growth and its new assertive posture on the international stage, says Barton.
These include poverty, a polluted environment and demographic challenges that come with being one of the world’s fastest aging societies, he says.
“While China has taken significant economic strides in recent decades — strides that have lifted hundreds of millions above the poverty line — it continues to have millions more who live just below or at the subsistence level,” he says.
Barton says he has not been shy about pressing Canada’s concerns over China’s human rights situation.
He singled out the situation surrounding 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 they 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 says.
“I know many Canadians are especially 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.”
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press