Canada’s ambassador to China speaks truth, then recants

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Photo: John McCallum flickr/ Day Donaldson

On Tuesday, January 22, Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, told a group of journalists who work for Chinese media or report in Chinese for Canadian media there was a good chance a Canadian court would deny the U.S. request to extradite Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Then, two days later, he walked back his statement.

Despite his claim that he misspoke, the Chinese now understand the Canadian government will almost certainly find a way to get Meng off the hook.

McCallum’s original point was that U.S. President Donald Trump prejudiced the American government’s case when he said he would consider using Meng as a bargaining chip in trade talks with China.

As well, the ambassador pointed out, the U.S. government’s beef with Meng involves the breaching of sanctions against Iran -- sanctions Canada does not itself impose.

That second argument was not entirely accurate. The American case against Meng is not, formally, about a breach of sanctions. Rather, U.S. authorities claim the Huawei executive told financial institutions that a Huawei subsidiary -- which might have done business in Iran -- was separate and independent from Huawei, which is not true.  Her offence is thus, officially, bank fraud.

The underlying issue, though, is flouting U.S. sanctions against Iran, and McCallum was only stating a fact when he said Canada has chosen not to go along with those punitive measures.

And so McCallum’s statement seems, on the face of it, eminently plausible and reasonable. Nonetheless, it engendered a firestorm of outraged comment.

Pundits argued that when the ambassador dared say openly what everyone in Ottawa is saying privately, he somehow made the Liberal government’s position vis-à-vis the Chinese more difficult.

Former Canadian ambassadors to China took to the airwaves to excoriate the current ambassador for breaching diplomatic reserve. McCallum was freelancing, they said, and could undermine the government’s oft-repeated point about the independence of Canadian courts.

The prime minister did not openly rebuke McCallum, but he came close.

When journalists gave him the opportunity to give a full-throated defence of his ambassador, Justin Trudeau demurred. Instead, he ritualistically incanted his government’s favourite talking point, to wit, “Canada is rule-of-law country.”

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was not so circumspect. He called on Trudeau to fire the ambassador.

A hasty retreat

And so, by Thursday afternoon McCallum was in full retreat mode. He issued a news release that paid appropriate obeisance to the “rule of law,” and then went on to say: “I regret that my comments with respect to the legal proceedings of Ms. Meng have created confusion. … These comments do not accurately represent my position on this issue. As the government has consistently made clear, there has been no political involvement in this process.” 

McCallum’s seemingly accurate original statement is still out there, though, and cannot be erased from memory. And it is hard to imagine the ambassador acted impulsively or without forethought. He is an experienced politician, who held senior cabinet posts in the governments of three prime ministers.

Ever since it detained the Huawei executive on what now appear to be shaky grounds, and engendered enormous Chinese ire in the process, the Canadian government has been grasping for a way out.

McCallum’s Tuesday statement could be part of that way out. It could be designed to placate the Chinese and assure them that, in due course, Meng will be free and clear of all charges. 

The subtext, here, is that the Chinese have no need to retaliate against any Canadians, which they have done, in one case, to the extent of condemning him to death. McCallum wanted to reassure the Chinese that the independent Canadian courts, if they operate as one might expect them to, will almost certainly do the right thing by Meng.

Even in his statement of retraction McCallum continued to reinforce that message.

He prefaced his I-did-not-mean-it apology by affirming that “Canada is conducting a fair, unbiased and transparent legal proceeding with respect to Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, which includes the ability for individuals to mount a vigorous defence before a court of law.”

McCallum has already provided Meng’s lawyers with some fairly compelling arguments for their “vigorous defence.”

The Chinese seem to have got the message

The ambassador’s bottom line, like that of the prime minister, is that Canada wants to get its two incarcerated citizens back -- and, although they do not say as much, spare a third Canadian from execution.

“Every action our government takes is focused on the safety and security of these Canadians,” McCallum concluded, adding: “That will continue to be our absolute priority until they can return home.”

The Chinese ambassador to Canada certainly seemed to get the message and to appreciate it. She said as much publicly.

Some have suggested that McCallum did not have to speak out publicly. He could have made his argument to the Chinese government in private. Words spoken publicly, however, can have a stronger impact than the same words spoken sotto voce, behind closed doors.

The Chinese now understand that, in the end, the Canadian government will almost certainly find a way to get Meng off the hook.

And do not forget, in the unlikely event that a Canadian court were to grant the dubious U.S. extradition request, the final say as to whether or not to deliver this Chinese citizen to U.S. authorities lies at the political level, with the federal justice minister.

Photo: flickr/ Day Donaldson


Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.


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