‘Chill Is Real,’ Trudeau Envoy to China Says of Huawei Feud

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The man Justin Trudeau put in charge of repairing Canada’s ties with China acknowledged he has his work cut out for him.

Dominic Barton, who the prime minister tapped as ambassador to Beijing in September, said Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei Technologies Co. executive in late 2018 “fundamentally changed” the nation’s relationship with its second-largest trading partner.

“The chill is real,” Barton told lawmakers Wednesday evening in Ottawa. He added that helping secure the release of the two Canadians locked up in China in the days that followed Meng Wanzhou’s detention is his top priority.

Barton, the former global head of McKinsey & Co. Inc., said he is “consistently and constructively” pressing Chinese officials about the two men, who Canada argues have been imprisoned arbitrarily. He is also seeking clemency for a third Canadian who was sentenced to death in a drug case.

“The first conversation I had was probably one of the most unpleasant conversations I have ever had,” Barton said of his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese officials, citing palpable anger in the room.

His testimony comes as Canada negotiates the evacuation of its citizens from the Chinese epicenter of a deadly coronavirus outbreak. A charter flight planned for Thursday has been delayed by weather but is expected to leave Wuhan soon, Barton said.

The rift with China contributed to a 16% plunge in exports to the Asian powerhouse last year, the largest drop in data going back to 1997. China halted billions of dollars of agricultural imports after Meng’s arrest on a U.S. extradition request.

‘Chill Is Real,’ Trudeau Envoy to China Says of Huawei Feud

Promoting human rights is second on Barton’s priority list, and he said he’s heard first-hand accounts of an increased crackdown on dissent by China over the past year. In particular, he highlighted “credible reports of the mass detention, repressive surveillance and family separation” of Uighur and other Muslims in Xinjiang province and said he would urge Chinese officials to end the practice and release all those detained.

Barton also faced tough questions from opposition lawmakers on the special parliamentary committee examining Canada-China relations. The Conservatives and New Democratic Party pressed him on McKinsey’s ties to the government in Beijing and work with state-owned firms, as well potential conflicts of interests arising from his past business relationships and personal investments.

He said that he’d made all necessary disclosures and put his assets in a blind trust, adding his integrity is a point of personal pride and that he has no interest in profiting from his appointment. “This is the stupidest economic decision I could have made in my life,” Barton said, adding that he turned the ambassadorship down the first time it was offered.

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