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Opinion By naming Dominic Barton to be Canada’s Chinese envoy, Ottawa has left Uyghurs worried

Mehmet Tohti was born in Kashgar in northwest China and is the founder of the Uyghur Canadian Society and the Canadian representative for the World Uyghur Congress.

The appointment of Canada’s new ambassador to China was a much-watched affair. The position had remained open since John McCallum was removed from the posting after weighing in on the legal arguments in favour of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada at the request of the United States and awaits an extradition trial. Relations between Canada and an increasingly belligerent China entered a deep-freeze when Ms. Meng was detained in December, and lacking an ambassador for more than seven months has not helped. Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained in response to Ms. Meng’s arrest and they are still languishing in prison.

But there are other issues, too, including Chinese trade embargoes that have damaged major Canadian agricultural industries, as well as the issue of Uyghurs – an ethnic minority group largely living in China’s northwest Xinjiang province that, according to reports and investigations from media outlets and international organizations, has been placed in camps, or “vocational training centres” as China calls them, without due process. Prominent voices have spoken against this forced mass detention of more than one million people, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called it “the stain of the century."

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So it is a surprise that Dominic Barton has been chosen to serve in the high-profile envoy position. After all, Mr. Barton was the global managing director of McKinsey & Co., one of the world’s largest consulting firms, from July, 2009, to September, 2018.

In December, 2018, The New York Times reported that McKinsey consultants have been heavily involved in advising companies owned by the Chinese state – at least 22 of the 100 biggest ones, in fact. Just six kilometres away from a lavish corporate retreat held last year in the city of Kashgar, the 2,000-year-old epicentre of Uyghur civilization and culture, more than 120,000 Uyghurs were languishing in camps. And the Times lays out a client list that includes the governments of authoritarian leaders.

As a human-rights activist, I have been focused on Western companies’ direct or indirect involvement in state persecution of Uyghurs. Technological assistance from companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific have helped create the sophisticated high-tech police state that currently exists in Xinjiang, one that reportedly features facial recognition, DNA sequencing, iris scanning and blood sampling. This has all been under way as McKinsey, which has become highly influential in Eastern Asia in recent years, has been offering its services to the Chinese government.

Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen of Uyghur origin, has been serving a life sentence in China on baseless “terrorism” charges since 2006. And while he was still ambassador, Mr. McCallum helped co-ordinate a letter signed by 14 other Western envoys voicing concern over Uyghur detention, triggering an angry response from Beijing. These are among the files that have been issues for Canada while Mr. Barton was managing partner at McKinsey, a company that said it would not take on jobs that were opposed to its values: “Since 1926," the firm said in a statement to the Times, “McKinsey has sought to make a positive difference to the businesses and communities in which our people live and work.” Mr. Barton will now have to deal with these issues head-on in his new role.

This is a moment of crisis around China, one that’s unmatched at any time since 1989. Our new ambassador is expected to help lead new thinking about Canada’s inadequate China policy. Canada needs a new approach in boldly engaging with China to protect our economic priorities, but also to reflect our stake in a rules-based international system that prioritizes human rights and international peace and order.

According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Barton’s years of experience in Asia and China, dealing with state-owned big businesses and business elites, make him a great choice to represent Canada and Canadian interests. According to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, he has been involved in extensive conversations about his role, as well as the importance of human rights and women’s rights.

But given Mr. Barton’s former company’s close engagement with businesses owned by the state that has oppressed our people, Uyghurs have every reason to be nervous about his appointment. Will he be able to separate his established business interests and relationships with Beijing’s elite class from his ambassadorial responsibility to advocate strongly for our Canadian collective interest?

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Kashgar has a unique place in my heart. I worked there as a university professor in biology from 1987 to 1989. Many students and intellectuals in Kashgar, including former co-workers of mine, have been incarcerated and put in these detention camps. It is hard to imagine the Kashgar I remember being turned into a site of oppression. It is also hard to imagine still that Canada would send, as its ambassador, a man who was a leader in a company that reportedly profited from working with the Chinese state.

And yet, as Mr. Barton heads to Beijing to represent our country, I would humbly recommend that he read the December, 2018, report by the House of Commons’ subcommittee on international human rights. “To be clear, the scale and scope of abuses in Xinjiang are unlike anything Human Rights Watch has seen in China in decades. Not just the numbers of people held, but the abuses – the systematic abuses region-wide – are unprecedented," said Farida Deif, Human Rights Watch’s Canada director. "The impact goes beyond China to Uyghurs globally, including Uyghur Canadians here at home.”

The subcommitee’s report concludes: “The government of China’s actions in [Xinjiang] deserve the censure of the international community.”

Canada has a role to play, and a special stake. Let us hope that our new ambassador takes that to heart.

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