As Canadians sour on China, an ambassador changes his tone

Dominic Barton, Canada's ambassador to China, made his first appearance at the China committee this week since before the pandemic hit Canada. He was noticeably less forgiving of Beijing and less bullish on business opportunities than last time — perhaps reflecting a turn against China in public opinion.

Ambassador Dominic Barton tried to fix the missteps made in his last appearance before a Commons committee

In his most recent appearance before a Commons committee, Ambassador to China Dominic Barton took a notably harder line on China's human rights abuses. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Today marks two years since the two Michaels were detained by China.

It's also been ten long pandemic months since Canada's ambassador to Beijing, Dominic Barton, made his previous appearance before the Commons subcommittee on Canada-China relations. Tuesday's second round of that hearing showed how much the mood around China has changed during 2020. 

Barton appeared conscious of the need to make some repairs to the impression he left in February, when his testimony drew unusually direct criticism from former diplomats with experience working in China.

Back then, Barton suggested that it was incumbent upon Canadians to recognize that "China values unity and the needs of society at large, rather than freedom of individual choice ... we just have to understand that."

Former diplomat and China expert Charles Burton told the subcommittee that Barton's words parroted Communist Party propaganda asserting that Chinese culture is inherently averse to liberty and democracy — when in fact the aversion comes from Xi Jinping's Politburo.

Watch: Trudeau says government will examine all options to bring Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.:

Trudeau says government will examine all options to bring Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig

2 years ago
Duration 1:58
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praises the families of Micheal Spavor and Michael Kovrig on the two year anniversary of their arrest.

In his Tuesday appearance, however, Barton opened with remarks on "our efforts to promote rights and freedoms in China."

"We are concerned by the decline of civil and political rights in China," he told MPs.

Touring Tibet with eyes open

Barton began his appearance with a lengthy description of a recent visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region, which he toured in a party of foreign diplomats. 

It was one of two closely-supervised Tibetan tours put on for mostly western diplomats this year, a sign that the Communist Party — bravado notwithstanding — still cares about what western countries say regarding its human rights record.

It may also have been an attempt to switch foreign attention to Tibet from the even more problematic neighbouring region of Xinjiang, where China's heavy-handed persecution of the Muslim Uighur people is opening new fronts for confrontation with the West.

Indian paramilitary force soldiers push exile Tibetan activists into a police bus during a protest outside the Chinese Embassy, in New Delhi, India, Friday, March 9, 2018. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

Barton said that he had consulted with pro-Tibet groups and academics in Canada before accepting the trip, which he said he undertook partly to show Tibetans the world was still concerned about their plight.

In addition to discussing what he'd seen on the tour — which took in a school, a monastery and greenhouses — Barton also talked about the motives of the Communist Party in allowing the trip. He said he understood that "what I saw was not the complete picture on any issue" and described one effort to escape his minders — when he left his hotel at 5 a.m. for an unaccompanied stroll through the streets of Lhasa.

Not so bullish now

Barton once famously described himself as "a bull on China" and his entire pre-diplomatic career was built on viewing China primarily as a business opportunity.

During his last committee appearance, Barton told members he "would love to talk more about promoting trade and investment. I probably should shut up and move on, but I'm very excited by the opportunity we have on many fronts."

This time, he took his own advice and left out the economic boosterism — suggesting that the ambassador had not only learned to read the room but perhaps understood how the ground had shifted under him.

"Countries all around the world are evolving their approach to China," he told the subcommittee Tuesday night. 

That's certainly true in Europe, where both public attitudes and government approaches to China have become considerably tougher over the course of 2020. Shachi Kurl of the Angus Reid Institute said Barton's changed tone also reflects new realities at home.

"This isn't just about Canada and Ambassador Barton aligning with the Western consensus," she told CBC's Power and Politics. "It really is about aligning with the Canadian consensus, because for several years we have seen a deterioration, and then a deterioration, and then a further deterioration in Canadian views of the Beijing regime."

China's image takes a beating

Opinion polls do show a crashing decline in China's standing in Canadian public opinion, reaching what Kurl calls "an all-time low" as 2020 draws to a close.

"You now find among the Canadian population a bloody-mindedness that says, 'You know what? This is not OK,'" she said. "This is about more than the human rights situation, this is about more than events in Hong Kong. What has really viscerally affected Canadians is the kidnapping of the two Michaels."

Obviously, the detention of Kovrig and Spavor was always intended by Beijing to be a pressure tactic — not a play for hearts and minds. But it hasn't worked as a pressure tactic and has instead backfired disastrously upon China's public image.

People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, March 6, 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Would the CCP judge the strategy wise in hindsight, or consider it a failure? Either way, the need to save face makes it hard for the Communist Party — famously averse to backing down on anything — to alter its course now.

During his committee appearance, Barton praised the two Canadians for their resilience, which he said was an inspiration to him.

Yes, he's a citizen

Barton was eager to mend fences when asked about another Canadian detainee: Huseyin Celil, a Uighur rights activist from Burlington, Ont. who was snatched on behalf of Chinese authorities while visiting Uzbekistan 14 years ago, whisked across the border and given a life sentence.

When asked about the case in February, Barton said he had not been able to visit Celil because Celil was not a Canadian citizen. 

Once again, he was echoing a view espoused by the government of China, which has refused to recognize the fact that Celil has been a Canadian citizen since 2001. Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne was forced to correct the record in the House of Commons a few days after Barton's misstatement.

Left: Huseyin Celil and one of his children. Right: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Trudeau (Twitter / CBC)

Two former ambassadors to China condemned Barton's mischaracterization of Celil. "China doesn't get to determine who is or becomes a Canadian citizen," said David Mulroney, who represented Canada in Beijing from 2009 to 2012.

This time, Barton described the steps he had taken to reach out to the Celil family in the wake of that embarrassing incident.

There is still no sign of progress in Celil's case, however. His detention differs from that of Kovrig and Spavor in that Celil was not seized as a bargaining chip to pressure Canada, and his case predates the Huawei dispute.

Instead, Celil's detention intersects with another issue that has raised tensions between China and Canada — one that also came up in one of the tenser moments in this week's meeting between Barton and MPs.

Mixed messaging on Uighurs

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis pressed Barton to make a clear statement on China's suppression of its Uighur minority, who are concentrated in the far western Xinjiang region.

He read out the recent words of the Trudeau government's newish ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, who told CBC News "there's no question that there's aspects of what the Chinese are doing that fits into the definition of genocide in the genocide convention." 

Did Barton agree with that statement? The ambassador refused to be pinned down, saying that while the situation was "very, very concerning," more reports from the area were needed.

Rights activists are particularly suspicious of Barton on this file because the company he headed, McKinsey, earned a reputation for indifference to Uighur suffering while eagerly promoting the Chinese government's economic plans for their homeland.

Uighurs living in Turkey participate in a protest against oppression by the Chinese government of Muslim Uighurs in the far-western Xinjiang province. (AP Photo)

The company defended itself but faced harsh criticism — even from the traditional business press.

"I think we need to see the reports," Barton said. "I haven't talked to Ambassador Rae about the particular evidence he has on that side."

"We need to have independent people on the ground who can go wherever they want" in Xinjiang in order to determine what's happening, he added. 

Genuis was skeptical. "We'd love to get access," he said. "I think there's realities in terms of whether that's ever going to be given."

"Is Mr. Rae's statement consistent with the government's policy, or is yours?" Genuis asked.

Barton minimized the gap between the two, arguing that Rae was also seeking more investigation. 

A noticeable difference remained, however, in how the two men described the situation.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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