I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 12 of the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations.
Pursuant to the motion adopted on Wednesday, September 23, 2020, the committee is meeting on its study of Canada-China relations.
Today's meeting is in a hybrid format. The meeting is also televised and will be available on the House of Commons website.
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I would now like to welcome His Excellency Dominic Barton, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Canada to the People's Republic of China. As well, we have Ms. Joya Donnelly, counsellor, political affairs.
We also have Mr. Shawn Steil, executive director, greater China policy and coordination.
Thank you for being here.
Ambassador Barton, please proceed with your opening remarks.
, Mr. Chair and honourable members. Thank you for the invitation to appear before you tonight.
I'm grateful for the opportunity to discuss my Tibet trip. I know it's an area of great interest for Canadians and it is at the forefront in our efforts to promote rights and freedoms in China.
I also welcome the invitation from the committee to provide an update on a few developments since my last appearance in February.
As highlighted during his testimony to the committee last month, we need to be smart and coordinated when it comes to our relationship with China, and we need to work with others. Countries all around the world are evolving their approach to China and all recognize the complexity of the relationship. I think Canadians understand that there are times when we need to challenge China. We need to work with partners to hold them to account. At the same time, there are times when we need to co-operate economically and as we face global issues such as climate change. I'm tremendously proud of the work our embassy staff do every day to navigate this complex relationship.
Our government has clearly laid out my top priority, and that's the safety and security of Canadians, leading with the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as well as clemency for Robert Schellenberg.
Equally, the promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of our work. We continue to raise both the arbitrary detention of Canadians and human rights issues with the Chinese government in public, in private and in collaboration with like-minded countries.
Our mission network in China has a host of programs that seek to empower progressive voices and shine a light on existing difficulties. For example, in the last month we've hosted a two-day event on women's empowerment to mark 25 years since the Beijing world conference on women. We've also engaged with children of migrant workers and with family members of human rights defenders.
We are concerned by the decline in civil and political rights in China. We, along with the international community, have raised our deep concerns publicly, and Canada has taken concrete measures following the imposition of the national security legislation in Hong Kong. We remain deeply concerned by the troubling reports of human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and the government has repeatedly raised our concerns, including most recently at the UN, alongside 38 other countries. We remain concerned by the continuous restrictions on the freedoms of Tibetans.
This brings me to the focus of this presentation, which is my visit to Tibet. I visited the Tibet Autonomous Region with nine other diplomats at the invitation of the People's Republic of China. In recent years, as you know, access to Tibet has become increasingly challenging, including for foreign government officials. Despite repeated requests, this was the first time a Canadian diplomat had visited Tibet since 2015. My visit was from October 26 to 30, and we visited the Tibetan capital of Lhasa as well as the Shannan prefecture.
I see the invitation in itself, coming after five years of consistent requests on our part, as positive. We were pleased that the Government of China extended this invitation, but I was also very aware that our visit would be controlled and focused on what they wanted us to see. The decision to participate was not taken lightly, and before doing so, I spoke with representatives of the Tibetan community in Canada, with Canadian academics who specialize in Tibetan studies and with experts around the world who work on human rights issues to seek their views. All agreed that it was important for me to participate given that so few have had access to the Tibet Autonomous Region in recent years.
We should also remember that few Tibetans have had the opportunity to connect with foreigners. I felt that it was important for Tibetans to see that outsiders still show up and care deeply about their situation, and for them to see that Canada cares. For these reasons, and as part of a broader engagement on Tibetan issues, I decided to go.
We had a very packed program over three days. Most activities would fit under the themes of economic development, environmental protection, education, culture and religion. What I saw was not the entire picture on any issue, but I nonetheless want to share with the committee what I was able to observe.
On the economic development front, I visited an industrial park with close to 140 greenhouses growing cash crops. I saw busy stores and markets selling Tibetan goods. I met a Tibetan businesswoman who ran a hotel, with Tibetans in management and at the working level. She told me numerous times that the hotel chain, being Tibetan-owned, needed more foreign tourists to come.
I visited a village where people had been resettled as part of a poverty alleviation program. There, I met a man and his family who were nomads, but he now works in the construction trade. I was able to see the beautiful Tibetan Buddhist shrine he meticulously built on the second floor of his house.
Chinese officials often talk to you in numbers and statistics. They point to government statistics, such as absolute poverty having been completely alleviated in the Tibet Autonomous Region as of 2019, or the fact they have close to 100% broadband access across the region. Our own assessment is that inequality remains a critical issue.
Resettlement and displacement of Tibetans are stark reminders that freedom of choice and the ability to live out one's cultural or other values are equally a measure of well-being or prosperity, as is material wealth.
Our group made other visits to places, including the Lhalu Wetlands, known as the lungs of Lhasa, and saw a conservation area teeming with wildlife. We visited the Lhasa experimental primary school, where I saw mostly Tibetan and some Han students being taught primarily in Mandarin, with some teaching in Tibetan, for example, classes in calligraphy, chess and opera. This school was impressive, but I recognized that most schools in Tibet were probably not of that caliber. It would be important to see schools in the rural areas, where almost 70% of the people live.
I visited the Tibetan Traditional Medical University and the Tibetan Thangka Academy of paintings. We visited cultural and religious sites, including the Potala Palace and Norbulingka. Both were profoundly moving, a reminder of the incredible religious and human accomplishments of the Tibetan people and of the importance of ensuring their rights.
At the Samye Monastery, we saw young monks studying. The visit was led by monks and we were able to speak with them. During my entire visit, top of mind were Canada’s concerns about the human rights situation affecting Tibetans, including restrictions on freedom of expression, movement, religion or belief, and the protection of linguistic and cultural rights.
I was able to raise these issues during official meetings and in side conversations with officials in Tibet. I raised specific cases of concern with Chinese authorities while there. I sought out opportunities to speak with local Tibetans. Those whom I met expressed great pride in their culture, and it was evident that the Tibetan language and cultural preservation remain very important to them. In speaking with officials, I advocated for unhindered future access to Tibet for UN agencies, academics, researchers and journalists, as well as return visits by other Canadian representatives.
While my visit to Tibet was short, I hope it opens doors to more contact with Tibetans inside China, and demonstrates that Canada is still very much engaged in the promotion of their rights and freedoms.
Though my appearance today is to be largely about my visit to Tibet, as I understand it, I want to further address the cases of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor; something which I know is very important to members of this committee and all Canadians. As I said earlier, this is my top priority.
This week, December 10, will mark the second anniversary of their arbitrary arrest and detention. We continue to call on China to immediately release both men. In October, after a hiatus of many months, and much effort by the embassy and the minister, we secured on-site virtual consular access with Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. I have since met with both of them on two occasions to confirm their health and well-being. The resilience and strength they have shown has been an inspiration to me, as I know it has been to many Canadians.
In closing, this committee plays a vital role to understand the difficult and complex nature of Canada’s relationship with China. It also plays a crucial role in the national conversation we are having about Canada’s evolving approach to China. The Canadian Parliament, the Canadian government and the Canadian people have a lot at stake in getting this approach right.
With that, I am happy to take your questions.
Merci . Thugs rje che.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for that observation.
I was surprised by that, too, and it wasn't choreographed, if you will. I discovered it. She was helping when we were having dinner. It was actually before a performance that we were going to see called Princess Wencheng. Yes, I was very surprised by that.
They actually do have a lot of Han Chinese tourists, as you mentioned. Last year, they said there were 40 million Han Chinese tourists.
What I found interesting—and something someone else could do deeper work on—was that there are a lot of Chinese Buddhists. One number I heard—and please check with experts, not what I'm saying, but just a number I heard—was that there could be 300 million.
People are coming, I think, not just for the tourism, if you will, but because these sites are actually quite important to them. They're Han tourists and what she was saying was that it would be great to have more foreign tourists able to come to the session—it was a bit of an oddity to see someone like me or others there—and that more people should visit from Canada. I said, “No kidding. We would like to if we could get access; that would be great. You might want to raise that.”
I don't know if that answers your question.
Mr. Chair, the whole area of language was a very important focus on the trip. What we did was ask, but again recognizing when you ask people those sorts of questions with party officials around, you may not get the most accurate response, so what we did was observe. We basically saw that all the signs were bilingual. Posters on the roads and on entrances were in Tibetan and Mandarin.
You make a very important point. Interestingly, all of the tours.... For example, the tour of the Tibetan medicine museum was led by the Tibetan principal, but he did it in Mandarin and then it was translated into English. It was much like when you had the visit in 2018 from the Tibet authority, and they spoke in Mandarin, not Tibetan. I think one of the members made an important intervention in Tibetan. Everything was in Mandarin and then translated, even though they were Tibetans.
At the school, there were classes that were taught in Tibetan. It was more the cultural part of it. We saw lots of Tibetan chess, the calligraphy, and signs in the school that were bilingual. Our sense from the group was that Mandarin was primarily the core measure.
I was able to talk to some of the family members who were there, people who we were able to meet, and they said, “Look, the importance of maintaining our language and culture is critical. We try to do that with the family to make sure we are doing that.”
One of the families we met—I want to be careful, and I won't go into the details, because I don't want to get them in trouble or anything—had actually moved from Canada back to Tibet, because they wanted their son to understand and learn the Tibetan culture. “With all respect to Canada,” she said, “which I love, it's up to me to drive it.” There was a lot of passion, I felt, by the people, but clearly, Mandarin is the core language.
Mr. Chair, there are a couple of things I'd say about that. One is that we are obviously very frustrated by not being able to get access, even virtually. As far as we know from the science, the virus doesn't go through televisions. How does that work? We pushed them on that.
Second, I just want to clarify one thing. No one was getting access to these national security cases. It wasn't just a Canada thing; everyone was having this problem. That's why we led a joint démarche in May on behalf of other countries, including the United States and Britain, that couldn't get access. This was related to national security cases.
I think our understanding of why it was the case is that the Chinese are completely paranoid about the virus. I was able to see a death penalty case in May. Again, it was not a national security case, so I could see the person virtually. I was actually able to interview the prison warden afterwards, and he asked me for questions. I asked, “What are your KPIs?” He said, “Zero, zero.” That's zero cases and zero risk of a case. I asked, “What happens if that doesn't happen?” He said, “I'll be fired.”
There was, I think, a craziness in terms of that restriction, but that was what was going on. We tried to demonstrate how in Canada we still allowed people to get access if they had people in detention, but it was very frustrating. I'm glad we eventually got there, and it's actually opened it up for others on the national security case side to be able to do it.
I hope we'll eventually be able to get to the physical interactions, because again, it's a strange thing. We fly to these places—or drive to them in the case of Beijing—and I know that the Michaels are literally on the other side of the wall. It's like this. It's sort of a TV screen in terms of how that works.
Does that answer...?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Ambassador, for joining us.
I represent about 7,000 Tibetan Canadians in my riding of Parkdale—High Park. I'm also the chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet and have a background in human rights law. That's the orientation from which I come to this issue.
I'm glad you acknowledged my Tibetan constituents. The Tibetan Canadian community is vibrant and strong in this country. I know groups like the Canada-Tibet Committee and Sherap Therchin have been in contact with you. I echo your assessment of the community, because they've taught me a lot about the injustices that they're perceiving on the ground.
I'd also salute you for making the decision to go, notwithstanding the veneer that would have been presented to you and the stage-managed approach with which the Chinese would have approached your visit into the TAR. In my meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2018, he told me much the same, that notwithstanding what you may be presented with, it's important that the world see Tibetans in their territory for who they are and that they know the world has not forgotten them. Thank you for participating in that, Ambassador Barton.
That being said, I am suspicious about what you saw. I know you went in with your eyes wide open in terms of what you were seeing.
The first thing I want to ask you about is the linguistic point that's been raised by others, including by Mr. Bergeron. You know that there are provisions on the ground and laws about the education of people. We know there's an ethnic autonomy law in China that says schools and other educational organizations recruiting mostly ethnic minority students should, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use these languages as the medium of instruction. That's a quote from China's regional ethnic autonomy law.
Tell us a bit more about what you saw at that school in particular. I appreciate calligraphy is one thing, but actually having substantive courses being taught in Tibetan is quite the other. What is the status of linguistic protection from your assessment and your time on the ground?
This is, again, just my observation for the honourable member to then interpret because you probably have much deeper experience.
What I saw in the Potala Palace and Norbulingka while we were there was there were pilgrims who were in the facilities. You saw very old people, really old people, and very young children. While we were there, they were touring around.
One of the questions we had been asked by the Tibetan experts in Canada was whether they are able to make donations, or is it coming from the party type of thing. There was money everywhere. People were making donations in all sorts of different places. It looked normal. It was very crowded in some of the areas we walked through. It felt like that was happening.
The second point I would make, especially with that person on the poverty alleviation program, is I want to tell you an impression. We were there doing the interview with him on his main floor. It has pictures of Mao Zedong, red books for all sorts of different awards.
We went up to the second floor, which they really didn't want us to, and that's where we saw this Buddhist shrine. What I would say is on the surface people may say, “Look, I'm following what the government's doing,” but the religious belief and the commitment I felt is deep. It's there.
One of the things I worry about acting up in the way-off future is when the Dalai Lama passes we need to be prepared for the emotion and the commitment to this. I felt like it's there. That's my impression.
As I said, Mr. Chair, I think this engagement with Tibet has to be broad and ongoing. This is one vignette, if you will, a three-day trip there.
I think as Canadians, as an embassy, we should continue to reach out, to be there. We're planning our next round of trips to these other regions where there are a lot of Tibetans, and we actually have engagement there. We'll be going back out there in two months. We need to keep doing that.
The other part of what we're doing is we are convening.... I don't want to exaggerate to make us look like we're the.... We are convening other missions here, particularly for the ones who weren't able to go and who want to go, and we're saying, “Look, if you do go, and we think you should, please ask for this and that.” We were able to get the agenda changed from the first trip to the second trip. They didn't see a school, for example. We just have to keep working together to push that.
There's a commitment from the group of like-minded countries to do that so that we work together to try to get more access, not only for other countries here but more broadly. That's on the ground. We can do a lot, and we will take leadership, if you will, to try to pull that through.
I think the other area is what your committee recommended in your motion, that we are encouraging of this dialogue. Again, I think there are probably diplomatic ways to try to get that moving, but that's a very important issue. I think it has some urgency to it, as I mentioned before.
Many people ask, “Why are you even saying anything, given that you guys are in the doghouse?” I think that doesn't matter. We will always stand up for what we feel and where we are, no matter what the case is.