Canada’s diplomatic rift with China looks set to deepen following the dismissal of the country’s top diplomat in Beijing.
The forced departure of John McCallum, announced by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday, is the latest unintended consequence stemming from the high-profile arrest of Chinese telecoms executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last year.
The resignation comes just days after the former ambassador appeared to provide comments in support of China’s assessment that Meng’s arrest could be construed as politically motivated.
Meng, chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, was arrested by Canadian authorities acting on behalf of the United States on December 1. The US government alleges that Meng helped Huawei dodge US sanctions on Iran and has indicated it will file a formal extradition request by the January 30 deadline.
Speaking to Chinese-language reporters in Beijing last week, McCallum said that Meng stood a good chance of avoiding extradition to the United States, suggesting that remarks made by US President Donald Trump had potentially strengthened her case.
His comments sparked outrage in Canada, with opposition party members demanding his immediate resignation. McCallum backtracked and offered an apology Thursday.
However, speaking to a reporter from the Vancouver Star about the case again on Friday, McCallum further embarrassed Trudeau’s Liberal party government, saying that a decision by Washington to drop the extradition request would be “great for Canada.”
Originally Trudeau stood by his ambassador, but on Saturday the Prime Minister announced he had asked for McCallum’s resignation, without providing an explicit reason.
“Last night I asked for and accepted John McCallum’s resignation as Canada’s ambassador to China,” Trudeau said in a statement.
Speaking at a regular press briefing Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment on McCallum’s dismissal, calling it “an internal matter for Canada.”
But Geng reiterated Beijing’s view that Meng’s arrest was no simple legal issue, but a case with “strong political intentions and manipulation.” He again urged Canada to make the “correct choice” by freeing Meng immediately.
Chinese government outrage grows
A blazing editorial in the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times published on Monday claimed McCallum’s firing revealed “the political factors behind Meng Wanzhou’s case.”
“As a senior politician, McCallum unexpectedly played the role of the little boy laying bare the facts in The Emperor’s New Clothes … If Canada insists on wrong practice, it must pay for it.,” the editorial said.
The editorial is just a taste of the outrage from Chinese authorities and publications since Meng’s arrest. In early January, China’s ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye accused the country of “white supremacy.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying had struck a firm tone when questioned on McCallum’s comments during her daily briefings in the past week, maintaining “anyone with normal judgment” could see through the case.
“The Canadian side has made a serious mistake from the very beginning. It is by no means an ordinary judicial case. Instead, it is a serious political incident,” Hua said on Friday.
Speaking to CNN in the past week, Canadian Foreign Minister Christina Freeland said while Canada was aware of China’s concern around the case, Canada had the “best, impartial and objective judiciary in the world.”
“When it comes to Ms Meng, this is not a political decision Canada has taken, she is not accused of any crime in Canada,” she said.
Meng is due to face court again in Canada on February 6 for the next part of her extradition hearing.
‘You could be next’
Amid the back and forth over Meng and Huawei, two high-profile Canadians remain in Chinese custody after being detained in the wake of the Huawei extradition hearings.
Former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were taken by Chinese authorities in December over charges they had “endangered China’s national security.”
Many in the international community saw the two men’s detention as retaliation by Beijing for Meng’s arrest.
Freeland told CNN she and Prime Minister Trudeau had been calling world leaders to lobby support for Kovrig and Spavor’s release, saying that the international rules-based order was “under threat.”
“What we are hearing from our allies … is if you stand silent as say, in this case, a couple of Canadians are detained arbitrarily, you actually are not doing something prudent in your own self interest. You actually ultimately are jeopardizing your own longer term interest, because you could be next,” she said.
But Freeland said that she and the Canadian government were also in touch with Chinese authorities, including ambassador Lu to ask for the release of the two men.