China urges the new Canadian ambassador to reflect on the mistakes made by Ottawa

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Dominic Barton has been named Canada's new ambassador to China.

Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press

The Chinese government did not offer any sign of new warmth to Canada on Thursday, hours after Ottawa declared that it would send a new ambassador to Beijing who had ties to the Chinese elite.

"Relations between China and Canada have encountered serious difficulties and the responsibility falls entirely on the Canadian side," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

He confirmed that China has approved Dominic Barton, former global CEO of McKinsey & Co. as Canada's main envoy to China, stating that Beijing hopes the new ambassador can help stabilize a relationship between the Pacific that has plummeted in its state worst since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

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But Mr. Geng did not show any sign of a changed tone from Beijing, urging Canada to "reflect on its mistakes" and immediately release Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive whose arrest in Vancouver last December set in motion a series of hostile actions, including the arrest in China of the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Cambell Clark: the new Chinese envoy Dominic Barton shows Trudeau's intention to re-engage Beijing

Beijing's reaction highlighted the difficulty of the task for Mr. Barton, whose success as ambassador will depend, in part, on his ability to secure the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor and revitalize Canada's commercial ties with the second world largest economy after Beijing has blocked imports of some major Canadian agricultural products.

The Canadian corporate community has enthusiastically welcomed the appointment of Mr. Barton, a trotting consultant who has occupied some of the world's most exclusive business circles – a trusted confidant of the government Justin Trudeau who also has a deep understanding of the complexities of doing work in China.

Observers have long lamented Canada's relatively anemic economic relations with China, compared to other allies and democratic powers.

Mr. Barton lived in Shanghai and his experience in China allowed him to access rarefied. McKinsey has worked for a large number of the best Chinese state entities. Barton himself rubbed himself with the richest and most powerful in the country at the prestigious China Development Forum.

He was a member of the Advisory Board of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, whose honorary members include Wang Qishan, one of the most trusted lieutenants of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The advisory committee organizes annual meetings with the most important members of the Chinese political establishment, including, in 2013, the same Mr. Xi. State media reports do not clarify at which meetings Mr. Barton personally attended.

But he met individually with the leaders of the entire Chinese plant, including Chen Jining, who was minister for environmental protection and is now mayor of Beijing, and Zhou Zhongshu, president of the China Minmetals Group, the largest metal and mineral trader in the country .

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This experience allowed him to learn about Chinese power structures unmatched by any previous Canadian envoy to China. He also offered him personal access to influential business leaders with access to sufficient resources to substantially raise exchanges between Canada and China.

However it is not clear to what extent this experience will benefit Mr. Barton as an ambassador in a strictly hierarchical country and that often reserves access to maximum leadership for those considered to be of equivalent level. The continuing tensions between Canada and China may also force Mr. Barton to spread critical messages that hinder his reception.

"The first time he has instructions to say things that are displeasing to the Chinese leadership – that if Canada sticks to its national interest, it will happen quite quickly – I think the value of this previous access will diminish," said Rory Medcalf, a former diplomat and Australian intelligence analyst who heads the National Security College of the Australian National University.

The court of Western democracies risks, he said, to send diplomats perceived by Beijing as friendly.

"If somehow the Chinese feel that they will now have someone who is actually more understanding of a corporate attitude at all costs, then obviously they will see an opportunity there to dilute Canada's independence in security matters – and to break the solidarity between Canada and other democracies on security issues, "he said.

Even in Hong Kong, the appointment of a company manager in Beijing was cause for concern.

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"Someone skilled in doing business with China can be an advantage, provided that commercial interests are not allowed to compromise their position on the defense of Canadian values," said Anson Chan, former Hong Kong chief secretary who has openly criticized Chinese Communist Sovereigns.

He has a vague view of the posture that business leaders tend to adopt towards China. "To make money, businessmen have been quite willing to close their eyes to some of the other things going on [in China] that under normal circumstances they would not have accepted from any other country," he said.

At the same time, critics wonder whether Barton's selection as ambassador signals a new desire by Ottawa to emphasize trade on other priorities, such as the defense by Muslims in western China who have been placed in internment camps for the political indoctrination and skills training.

"I see this as a victory for Beijing and a capitulation by the Canadian government," said J. Michael Cole, senior member of Taipei at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. "We are sending ever more authoritarian China a representative of a company, McKinsey, which apparently has had no complications in doing business with authoritarian regimes."

On Wednesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that Mr. Barton will break all corporate ties and engage in extensive discussions on human rights in China.

A person who responded to Mr. Barton's e-mail to McKinsey said he did not accept media interviews. McKinsey, in previous press statements, said he had "a proven record of making a positive difference" in Southeast Asia, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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