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John Baird lands yet another job as adviser to Hong Kong billionaire

Former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presents Richard Li, Chairman of PCCW Limited, with a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal in recognition of Mr. Li’s outstanding business and charitable contributions to Canada.

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada

Former foreign affairs minister John Baird has another new job, this one advising Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li, son of one of the wealthiest men in Asia.

Mr. Baird will be based in Toronto and offer Mr. Li advice on international matters as the tycoon makes investments around the world. It is not a full-time job, but Mr. Baird is expected to spend as much as half his time on this new assignment.

Mr. Baird, who quit Stephen Harper's cabinet in February to build a post-political career, has picked up a number of blue-chip jobs in the past week. Barrick Gold Corp. hired him to sit on its international advisory board, and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. nominated him to serve as a director.

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As part of his work for Mr. Li, the veteran Canadian politician will be expected to conduct risk assessments, including political analysis, to appraise business opportunities.

"They've known each other for many years," one source said of Mr. Baird and Mr. Li. The Hong Kong businessman, who has major interests in telecommunications and insurance, has "come to value John's friendship and his judgment."

Sources say Mr. Baird travelled to Hong Kong in recent weeks to finalize the job.

Mr. Li has Canadian citizenship, as does his father, 86-year-old business magnate Li Ka-shing, who controls Calgary-based Husky Energy and is well known in Vancouver for redeveloping waterfront land used for the 1986 World's Fair. The elder Mr. Li was also a long-time investor in Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, but sold his stake in 2005.

Forbes Magazine pegs Richard Li's wealth at $4.6-billion (U.S.) and his father's at $33.7-billion (U.S.).

The younger Mr. Li made a big splash in Ottawa circles in 2006, when he gave $1-million to the National Arts Centre Foundation. The donation was announced at a gala in September of that year. Mr. Baird, an Ottawa-area politician who made the jump from provincial to federal politics earlier that year, accompanied Laureen Harper, wife of the Prime Minister, to that event.

In 2007, Mr. Li joined forces with U.S. private equity firm Cerberus Capital and made a failed bid for communications giant BCE Inc.

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It is believed Mr. Li and Mr. Baird met through the National Arts Centre. "It was the NAC connection," one source said.

Mr. Li has remained active with the federal arts institution, which Mr. Baird championed as the federal minister responsible for the Ottawa area.

He has also tried to build closer ties between China and Canada. In 2013, the NAC orchestra toured China and credited Mr. Li as a supporter of the trip.

It is not clear whether hiring Mr. Baird indicates Mr. Li wants to make new investments in Canada. Sources say he is being hired for international expertise, not his knowledge of Canada.

Mr. Baird spent two decades in politics, first in the Ontario legislature and as a minister in the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris. He shifted to federal politics and became one of Stephen Harper's most trusted ministers. He spent more than three-and-a-half years as foreign minister, his last portfolio.

According to Forbes Magazine, Mr. Li's wealth more than doubled between 2014 and 2015, after his father transferred FWD Life Insurance to him. The Li group bought ING's life insurance business in Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand for $2-billion (U.S.)

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Mr. Baird gained a reputation as a blunt-talking foreign minister, sometimes criticized for a black-and-white vision of the world. But former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd called him a "pragmatic internationalist" earlier this year, and told The Canadian Press he wanted Mr. Baird's help reforming the United Nations World Health Organization because he was good at "practical problem-solving, rather than having a seminar on castles in the air."

The former foreign minister was more bullish on China than Mr. Harper, who is deeply skeptical of the country and its poor human rights record, and has alternated as Prime Minister between being a hawk who would not sell out to "the almighty dollar" and a pragmatist calling for deeper economic ties.

Mr. Baird was a stronger proponent of closer ties and richer trade with China. He travelled regularly to China and offered little public criticism of Beijing, saying he wanted to "re-balance" Ottawa's relationship with the Chinese government toward friendlier topics.

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