McCallum’s odious courting of China
‘A callous unconcern’ for hostages
Is it possible to reappoint John McCallum as ambassador to China just so he can be fired again?
The politician turned diplomat turned neither, whose unfiltered musings on Sino-Canadian relations were his undoing earlier this year, has done it again. In a jaw-dropping interview with the South China Morning Post, McCallum volunteers that he has been warning his contacts in the Chinese foreign ministry to avoid further “punishments” to Canadian exports, in the escalating conflict over Canada’s arrest and possible extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to the United States.
He has been issuing these warnings, because … why? Because China has no valid reason to block our exports? Because it has no legitimate grounds to object to Meng’s arrest, which was entirely lawful, undertaken by independent law enforcement officials, reviewed by impartial courts and in accordance with Canada’s bilateral treaty obligations?
Because China’s kidnapping of two Canadians in response, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, whom it has been holding hostage the past seven months, was none of these things, an intolerable affront to international law, not to say human decency?
No, because it “will help the Conservatives,” who “are much less friendly to China than the Liberals.” Rather than anything “more negative against Canada,” he suggests, “it would be nice if things will get better between now and the election.”
Besides, “Canada is in China for the long run … This problem will pass.”
In case anything was lost in the translation: the former ambassador to China for Canada has not only been, by his own admission, enlisting China’s aid in re-electing the Liberals — inviting the leadership of a hostile foreign power, if not to intervene in the next election on their behalf, then to refrain from acting in a way that would help their opponents — but coaching them how to do it.
Among the many, many questions raised by the former ambassador’s new gig as a freelance political consultant: whose interests was he taking it upon himself to defend? The Liberal party’s, certainly. China’s apparently. It’s just not clear where Canada’s interests fit into his thinking — except, of course, so far as the interests of the Liberal party are assumed to be synonymous with Canada’s.
Does the prime minister agree that the Conservatives are “much less friendly,” and its corollary that the Liberals are much more friendly, with a regime Human Rights Watch calls “a one-party authoritarian state that systematically curbs fundamental rights”? If so, why? On what grounds? How is this manifested? And are these feelings, shall we say, reciprocated? Should we expect, as McCallum suggests, “things will get better” in time for the election? Should the hostages sit tight for the next few months, awaiting an October surprise?
Worse yet is the suggestion that this is all just a bump in the road, a passing misunderstanding between two friends that should not be allowed to get in the way of the important work of sucking up to the government that has currently imprisoned two of our citizens in rooms where the lights never go out.
To the contrary, McCallum advises, now is the time — “when the going is tough” — for Canadian political and business leaders “not just to come to China but to come often ... This will put our companies in a good position to do well when the going improves.” After all, “other nations have had problems with China in the past. And are now doing just fine.”
Just fine. Beyond the callous unconcern for the fate of the hostages, this is a fundamental misreading of the situation. China today, under the permanent leadership of Xi Jinping, is not the China people might have imagined, even a decade ago, would emerge. It is not on the road to democracy, not opening itself to the world, not westernizing.
It is, rather, profoundly authoritarian, increasingly nationalist, repressive within — not least to the million or more Uyghurs, members of the country’s Turkish minority, it has herded into “re-education” camps in the province of Xinjiang — and aggressive without.
The fracas over Meng’s extradition is only a flashpoint, then, in a larger conflict. The regime’s thuggish response has offered a timely signal of how much China has changed, and of the need to reframe our approach to it accordingly. It is to its discredit that the Liberal government did not understand this before; but it requires a quite extraordinary blindness not to understand it even now.
It’s fine to say that McCallum is no longer ambassador. But it was the Liberals who appointed him. A former senior minister in the Trudeau government, he is a card-carrying member of the Liberal establishment, the same mix of political and business types that have been so visibly panting after a free trade deal with China, to the point of demanding, against all principle or precedent, that Meng be set free. He comes from their world, shares their values, including that strange mixture of naivete and cynicism when it comes to China’s “basic dictatorship.”
Even as ambassador, he had to pipe up twice — once to suggest that Meng had a good case against extradition, the other to muse that “it would be great for Canada” if the Americans dropped their request — before the prime minister fired him.
Many suspected then that he was, if not speaking for the government, then at least reflecting their thinking. Does he do so now?
Michael Kovrig (top) and Michael Spavor