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Canada's ambassador to China, John McCallum, arrives to brief members of the Foreign Affairs committee regarding China in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

For weeks, China has condemned Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as part of a politically motivated plot to undermine a corporate flag-bearer for Chinese innovation and overseas success.

Now, people in China have found support for that position in an unexpected place: Canada’s own ambassador to China, John McCallum, who in a conversation with Chinese-language media in Markham, Ont,. this week said Ms. Meng has “some strong arguments that she can make” to fight extradition, among them “political involvement” in the case by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Mr. McCallum also said it’s possible Ms. Meng could be freed through a deal between Washington and Beijing – a potential outcome that suggests the U.S. case against Ms. Meng is subject to both political interference and a political solution.

That aligns closely with the arguments Chinese authorities have made, and, on Thursday, Mr. McCallum’s remarks found a welcome audience in China.

“It’s obvious that Canada is taking a pro-China stance on Meng’s case at this time,” said Lin Hongyu, Dean of the College of International Relations at Huaqiao University.

Mr. McCallum cited three potential defences Ms. Meng could use against extradition: political involvement in the case, extraterritorial application of justice and an argument that Canada itself had no interest in sanctions against Iran. Those “are exactly the points we are using,” Prof. Lin said.

And “the potential outcome mentioned by McCallum illustrates that, from the perspective of Canada, this is purely a political matter,” Prof. Lin said.

The refrain from United States and Canadian leaders has been that politics cannot intervene in the independent administration of justice in the proceedings against Ms. Meng, who U.S. prosecutors want to arrest on fraud charges related to alleged violations of Iran sanctions.

The notable exception was Mr. Trump, who said in mid-December of the extradition bid for Ms. Meng that “I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary.”

Mr. McCallum did not respond to a request for comment.

In his remarks to the Chinese media, he said the Canadian government will not intervene in the judicial process. But he also said if Ms. Meng is ultimately extradited, “that would not be a happy outcome.”

If the ambassador’s intent was to calm a worsening fight with China, however, he does not appear to have succeeded. On Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing has noted Mr. McCallum’s remarks, “and I believe that anyone with normal judgment would see what lies at the core of this incident.”

Yet Ms. Hua showed no sign that China is prepared to deviate from the strident tone it has taken toward Canada in recent weeks, saying Ms. Meng’s arrest is “a serious political issue.”

“It has been a serious mistake since the beginning,” Ms. Hua added. “We hope that Canada and the U.S. can realize the seriousness of the problem and take actions to correct it soon as possible.”

Mr. McCallum’s comments will “certainly be taken by the Chinese government as evidence to support its long-standing argument that Meng’s arrest was a politically motivated one,” said Sida Liu, an expert on Chinese law and criminal justice at the University of Toronto.

That carries a “dangerous” risk of validating China’s response, added Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who has previously served senior strategic and advisory roles to Australian political leaders.

“If it’s all part of political strategy, it’s perfectly legitimate for them to retaliate in kind – take a few hostages – because that’s how things are done,” he said.

In the weeks following Ms. Meng’s arrest, China detained two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor – and sentenced to death a third, Robert Schellenberg, after a single-day retrial on drug charges.

Still, at least one Chinese political scholar raised doubts over who Mr. McCallum was speaking for.

"This ambassador in past years has always been nice to China and he is unhappy with the Trump administration,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University, who until recently also served as a counsellor to China’s State Council, China’s Cabinet.

“But look at the ambassador’s words – he’s contradicting his boss.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday said that “part of the strength of our justice system is that people get to mount a strong defence,” but he pledged to properly defend “the rule of law and independence of our justice system.”

Mr. McCallum, however, is not the only senior Canadian diplomat to raise eyebrows with comments in recent days. Earlier this week, Canada’s ambassador to the United States David MacNaughton publicly complained about Washington, who he said “are the ones seeking to have the full force of American law brought against [Ms. Meng] and yet we are the ones who are paying the price. … We don’t like that it is our citizens who are being punished.”

“MacNaughton’s remarks might well be interpreted as a signal to the Canadian courts of the wishes of the Canadian government, and surely McCallum’s remarks make such an interpretation more plausible,” said Jerome Cohen, a New York University legal scholar who is a respected expert on the law in China.

Don’t be surprised, he said, if the ambassadors’ words are repeated in the extradition proceedings against Ms. Meng.

She “will undoubtedly be represented by some of Canada’s first-rate lawyers and the case should be left to the able judges involved. These recent events make it more likely that the courts will find the offences in question to be ‘political.’”

At the very least, “the remarks of the Canadian ambassador to China show that even some people in the Canadian government believe that politics is involved in the process,” said Wang Jiangyu, a law scholar at the National University of Singapore who is also a member of the Governing Council of the Chinese Society of International Economic Law.

“That will probably have some bearing on the court process in Canada.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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