Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are physically and mentally well and showing inspiring resilience as they near the end of their second year of imprisonment by the People’s Republic, says Canada’s ambassador to China.
Dominic Barton also says Chinese authorities were paranoid about containing the spread of COVID-19 as they denied consular access to the two men from January to October.
“Our understanding of why it was the case is that the Chinese are completely paranoid about the virus,” Barton said in testimony Tuesday night before the House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations.
Barton is leading Canada’s efforts in China to win the release of Kovrig and Spavor, who were arrested and imprisoned on Dec. 10, 2018, in what is widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Chinese high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou.
After months of delay, Barton was most recently granted on-site virtual consular access to Kovrig and Spavor in November, following similar virtual visits with the two Canadians a month earlier.
“We were obviously very frustrated at not being able to get access even virtually because as far as we know . . . the virus doesn’t go through televisions,” said Barton.
The Chinese government has charged Kovrig and Spavor with espionage but the Canadian government says their detention is arbitrary and has called repeatedly for their release.
Barton said it wasn’t just Canada that was blocked by the Chinese from visiting prisoners charged in national security cases; the U.S. and Britain faced similar restrictions.
When Barton was able to see them, he said he was able to verify they were in good physical and mental condition.
“They are robust,” said Barton, who was testifying from Beijing via video link. “You would be very impressed by seeing both of them.”
Spavor is being held in a prison in the city of Dandong near the North Korean border while Kovrig is in a Beijing area prison.
“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 sort of on the other side of the wall, but you’ve got, you know, two big TVs,” he said. “It’s like this.”
Barton’s main purpose for testifying was to describe the three-day Chinese government-controlled visit to Tibet that he and nine other Western diplomats undertook in October. He said he remains concerned about the human rights situation there and that they only saw what the Chinese wanted them to see.
Even though the area is filled with security cameras, as is the capital of Beijing, Barton said he wandered off a couple of times to visit with locals without his Chinese government minders in tow.
He said Canada is not reluctant to raise human rights concerns with China even though some people think Canada is in the Chinese “doghouse” these days. He also said that even though he knew the visit to Tibet would be controlled, it sent a signal to local people that the outside world still cared about their plight.
Thursday marked Barton’s second appearance before the committee this year, following testimony in February in which he declared “the chill is real” in Canadian relations with China.
In February, Barton described an angry, emotional meeting during his first diplomatic contact with his Chinese counterparts after being appointed to the post in 2019 after a long career in business, which included being the global managing director of the consulting giant McKinsey & Co.
His position in the company gave Barton high level access in China and across Asia, something the Trudeau government is hoping to leverage to win freedom for Kovrig and Spavor while maintaining economic relations with its second largest trading partner.