This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on May 31, 2020.
When it comes to China, the Trudeau government has acted with the deference a pageboy would show a queen. As they have muddled through a long series of skirmishes, from the arbitrary and unjust kidnapping of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to the trade disputes over canola, soybeans and meat, the objections of the federal government have been muted and overly diplomatic.
For a time, it seemed the COVID-19 pandemic would be no different. The well-substantiated suggestion that China had been less than forthcoming in its disclosures about the virus was dismissed by the federal health minister as a “conspiracy theory.” The minister of foreign affairs twisted himself into a pretzel to avoid even saying the word “Taiwan.” We refused to close our border to flights originating from China. And this week, as Beijing snuffed out the last remnants of the One Country, Two Systems agreement that protected civil liberties in Hong Kong, the most Trudeau could muster was a call for “constructive” dialogue.
But, thankfully, a bright light has appeared on the horizon: plucked from the private sector and appointed Canadian ambassador to China last September, Dominic Barton has gone further than any other Canadian official in criticizing Beijing.
Last week, Barton was in the news for his comments to the Canadian International Council during which he suggested Beijing had accrued “negative soft power” through its belligerent international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and endorsed a “rigorous review” of the WHO’s response.
By the standard of the Trudeau government, this amounted to surprisingly pointed criticism. More surprising still was the prime minister’s endorsement of this criticism the day after it was reported publicly.
Some had early concerns with Barton, who was appointed to the ambassadorship fresh off his stint as the managing director of the consulting firm McKinsey.
But Barton was a savvy choice. An experienced China hand, and a principled realist, he now uses the qualities that enabled him to succeed brilliantly in business to drive his candid commentary about China.
It is helpful that his concerns are real. In bungling its so-called Mask Diplomacy, China has, indeed, eroded its soft power and further alienated foreign governments. The Netherlands was forced to recall 600,000 faulty masks bought from China; in Spain, 50,000 test kits were tossed out after it was discovered they were only accurate about one-in-three times. The Slovenians bought 1.2 million antibody tests for $16 million dollars, only to discover they were similarly useless. The Czechs have had complaints, and so have the Turks. And, of course, Canada too. The list goes on.