Canada’s Ambassador to China, Dominic Barton, appeared before the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations Wednesday evening to talk about all aspects of Canada’s relationship with China.
During the two-hour exchange between Barton and the MPs on the committee, Canadians learned a bit more about the ambassador’s mandate in China, the strength of Canadians being held there and how our relationship has evolved over the last two years.
In December 2018, Canada detained Huawei Technologies chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver International Airport on an extradition request from the United States. She was later granted bail and is now awaiting court proceedings.
Shortly after Meng’s arrest, two Canadian expats living in China — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — were detained by Chinese authorities. In March of 2019, China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission accused Kovrig of stealing state secrets passed on to him by Spavor.
Convicted of playing a central role in a methamphetamine smuggling operation, Canadian Robert Schellenberg was sentenced to 15 years in prison in November of 2018. That prison term was changed to a death sentence at a hastily scheduled January 2019 retrial.
Barton said that despite the challenges facing these three Canadians, he was “inspired” by how they are holding up.
“I’ve seen each of them a number of times as I’d gone through it,” said Barton. “I am unbelievably inspired by their resilience. Each of these three people, it’s incredible, as humans and individuals.”
Barton said that it is unusual for ambassadors to frequently visit Canadians under detention in China but that he has committed to visiting them “every single time” he is allowed to.
The ambassador said that he was given a mandate that included an overall objective of restoring relations between Canada and China. That mandate comes, Barton said, with one caveat and three key priorities.
“First and foremost, secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and get clemency for Robert Schellenberg. That is core. That’s a priority. Second, promote and protect human rights,” said Barton.
The third priority is that Barton deepen the person to person relationships between Chinese and Canadian people. This should take place, Barton said, at all levels including government, the arts, business and in the university setting.
The caveat means that all that effort must be done with “international rules and principles that provide predictability and security.”
Barton said that in the days after Canada arrested Meng and China in turn detained Spavor and Kovrig, there was virtually no dialogue between Canadian and Chinese officials. It was all anger and resentment.
“We’re angry. We’re very angry because of our people that had been taken. China is very angry as well, furious. We’re both furious,” Barton said.
“The first conversation I had there was probably one of the most unpleasant conversations I’ve ever had. I mean, the shaking and anger from there, and we were also … it wasn’t a conversation.”
Barton said that since that low point, Canadian and Chinese officials have begun to talk to one another and are now able to have critical debates about issues that they both agree and do not agree on.
“We’re never going to be singing from the same hymn book,” said Barton. “We did not have any formal communications, it was a lot of informal, we now have very good formal relations. We have real discussions where we can argue and debate.”
Barton said that part of his mandated approach to China is not to allow Canada to be bullied. The ambassador cited that as a reason for why Canada will not agree to a prisoner swap of Kovrig and Spavor for Meng.
He went on to explain that despite trade disputes over the Canadian meat and canola exports that make it seem as though China has a more powerful bargaining position, Canada does actually have some leverage despite its smaller economic clout.
“We’re saying you need to be careful on the Chinese side because we are a high quality, safe food supplier,” said Barton.
The ambassador explained that Canadian producers of pork and beef — producers that China relies on to feed a very large population — may decide to try and find other more stable markets in Asia and beyond if China continues to use trade as leverage in the Meng dispute.
It is a message, Barton says, that has been delivered to the Chinese regime.