Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s weekend firing of Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, is drawing anger in Beijing from those who saw the former Liberal cabinet minister as a connected, co-operative figure and promoter of a “great new era” between the two countries.
Mr. McCallum was removed from his job Saturday after twice wading into the legal case surrounding Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who was detained in Vancouver on an extradition request from the U.S. government.
Mr. McCallum’s departure is another twist in the continuing diplomatic row between Ottawa and Beijing that began with Ms. Meng’s arrest on Dec. 1 and the subsequent detention of former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor. Chinese authorities have loudly demanded Ms. Meng’s immediate release, calling the case against her a political attempt by the United States and Canada to constrain Huawei, a Chinese technological powerhouse. Prosecutors in the United States accuse Ms. Meng of fraud related to the violation of sanctions against Iran, and have sought her extradition, and officials in both Canada and the United States have said that the case against her is purely a legal one.
A senior government official said Mr. McCallum has undermined Canada’s efforts to build an international coalition of countries to press Beijing to respect the rule of law and release the two Canadian detainees. The official was granted anonymity by The Globe and Mail because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The controversy unfolded on Tuesday when Mr. McCallum first publicly described what he called strong legal arguments that Ms. Meng could make against extradition, including political interference by the Trump administration. He apologized on Thursday then told StarMetro Vancouver on Friday that it “would be great for Canada” if the United States dropped its extradition request.
Mr. Trudeau initially resisted calls to fire Mr. McCallum and later accepted his apology. But in the wake of Friday’s comments, the Prime Minister made the move. “Last night, I asked for and accepted John McCallum’s resignation as Canada’s Ambassador to China,” Mr. Trudeau said Saturday in a statement.
On Sunday, Mr. Trudeau continued to reach out to foreign leaders to seek their support to win the release of Mr Kovrig and Mr. Spavor and clemency for Robert Schellenberg, who China hastily imposed the death sentence on after he had earlier received a 15-year prison term for drug smuggling.
Mr. Trudeau spoke with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and French President Emmanuel Macron.
The Prime Minister’s Office said the leaders discussed the “arbitrary detention of two Canadians in China, as well as the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty on a third Canadian and the importance of the rule of law.”
Mr. Trudeau has not given a reason for Mr. McCallum’s firing and the PMO did not respond to a request for comment Sunday on the issue. However, Liberal MP Marco Mendicino, the parliamentary secretary to the Infrastructure Minister, defended the government’s decision during an appearance on CTV’s Question Period.
“Over the last number of days, John made a number of statements which were both unhelpful and did not reflect the position of the government. That’s why the Prime Minister asked for his resignation,” he said Sunday.
In an editorial posted Sunday night, the state-run China Daily criticized Ottawa’s McCallum decision and defended the former ambassador.
“McCallum was merely stating the truth when he observed that Meng has a strong case against extradition, which he rightly said was politically motivated,” the China Daily wrote. “Although what he said is 100 per cent true, his words seem to have fallen on deaf ears at home. Those who had attacked McCallum should feel ashamed of themselves... the political mess that Ottawa is floundering in could get a lot worse if it chooses to accede to the U.S. request for Meng’s extradition despite the problems with the case that McCallum, among others, has pointed out.”
The government of Canada launched Mr. McCallum’s posting as ambassador to China with a fanfare fitting the country’s first political appointee to the world’s second-largest economy. Mr. McCallum is “very close to the Prime Minister and to me,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a Chinese audience in August, 2017. “And he is here so that you can have a direct connection to Canada at all times.”
Taking over as acting ambassador in Beijing is Jim Nickel, a Saskatchewan-born diplomat described as a “steady hand at the tiller” by former colleagues.
Mr. Nickel, 59, arrived in Beijing last August as the deputy head of mission, but will now be thrust into a leadership role at a time of strained relations with one of Canada’s most important economic and diplomatic partners.
In the wake of the firing, Canada has reverted to the way things have long been in Beijing, with a career foreign-service officer as its top man in China.
Pushing Mr. McCallum from his post “is really adding salt to the injury” for Chinese authorities, said Victor Gao, vice-president of the Center for China and Globalization, a prominent Beijing-based think tank.
“It basically reveals that the Canadian authorities right now are at the end of their wits, and do not know how to effectively deal with the Meng Wanzhou situation in a very honourable and decent way.”
The decision to fire Mr. McCallum has also angered some Liberals who believe the envoy was speaking the truth when he blamed the Trump administration for the Meng case.
Herb Dhaliwal, a former minister who served with Mr. McCallum in the Chrétien government, said the firing of Mr. McCallum and the arrest of Ms. Meng has set back Canada’s relations with Beijing that Jean Chrétien had cultivated.
“I think it was a big mistake, you know, Chrétien worked very hard to build the Canada-China relationship and they have destroyed it in a very short period,” Mr. Dhaliwal said in an interview.
Mr. McCallum’s comments about Ms. Meng also threatened to damage relations with the United States and risked fuelling the impression that Ottawa was intervening politically in the case.
In Beijing, meanwhile, the undoing of Mr. McCallum was met with shock and concern to the diplomatic community, raising questions over whether the departure could further poison Canada’s relations with China, or whether Beijing might, as punishment, delay approval of Mr. McCallum’s permanent successor.
Mr. Nickel, for his part, isn’t saying much.
On Sunday, his first full day as acting ambassador, he declined an interview request at the instruction of Ottawa.
Born in Regina, Mr. Nickel grew up in various places in Saskatchewan, where his father served in the RCMP. Mr. Nickel first came to China in 1987 to teach English at Hunan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The following year he moved to the capital, to the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, where his teaching position afforded him a front-row seat to the student protests that erupted at Tiananmen Square. He was still in Beijing when soldiers opened fire on June 4, 1989.
Mr. Nickel joined the foreign service in 1991, and has been posted to Tokyo, Jakarta and New Delhi, where he was Deputy High Commissioner. Before being dispatched to Beijing, he was director-general for North America at Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa.
In temperament, he matches the classic Canadian conception of a diplomat − low key and diligent, said friends and former colleagues.
Still, observers questioned how much difference an individual ambassador can make in a country whose leadership regularly tells others not to interfere in its internal business.
“With or without McCallum, I don’t think it makes a difference as I don’t think he had any effect on the situation,” said Michael Yen, a Canadian business consultant who has lived in China for three years.
For Mr. Yen, watching the events of recent weeks has been a dispiriting experience.
“The public threats from the Chinese government regarding Huawei and these arbitrary arrests have shown me that China isn’t an option for long-term business, nor for settling down,” he said.
The McCallum controversy will be front and centre when Parliament resumes on Monday.
In a campaign-style speech Sunday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Canadians are tired of the Prime Minister’s diplomatic mistakes.
Mr. Scheer told a crowd of Conservative MPs and candidates that the Liberal government “has damaged relationships with key allies and trading partners, backed down to [U.S. President] Donald Trump on NAFTA, and refuses to get serious about the threat posed by China.”
Speaking a day earlier as news of Mr. McCallum’s departure broke, Mr. Scheer told reporters that the Prime Minister should have fired Mr. McCallum sooner.
“This is, I think, part of a bigger problem. And that is Justin Trudeau’s approach to diplomacy, where he thought he could conduct image-over-substance foreign affairs. And now Canadians are paying for his mistakes," he said.