OTTAWA — The federal government has chosen a career diplomat who says defending human rights and repairing the Canada-China relationship are her main focus as Ottawa’s new ambassador to China.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Jennifer May, most recently ambassador to Brazil, as his new envoy to Beijing, ditching his practice of putting political appointees in the job.
It is intended to be a reset of professional diplomatic relations after the bilateral relationship went into a deep freeze when the Meng Wanzhou affair led to trade reprisals and the nearly three-year detention of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
A few months after the release of the “two Michaels” one year ago this week, Canadian ambassador Dominic Barton left the embassy in Beijing to return to the private sector, saying his main task was completed.
The diplomatic post has sat empty since December.
May’s appointment also comes ahead of the Liberal government’s plan to recalibrate Indo-Pacific relations with a new policy strategy expected to be released later this fall, while long-ago talk of a new China strategy has been abandoned.
A 30-year veteran of Canada’s foreign service and a native of Toronto, May said in an exclusive interview with the Star she will not shy from criticism of China, particularly when it comes to abuses of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, the crackdown on legal freedoms in Hong Kong, or individual cases like that of dual citizen Huseyin Celil.
Celil is a Uyghur activist and Burlington resident arrested by Uzbek authorities in 2006 and handed over to China, where he was convicted and imprisoned. His family has not been allowed to see him.
May said the past has shown that diplomatic pressure can work, especially if other countries can be rallied to support a detainee’s cause. “At a bare minimum, my hope is that by continuing to raise the case, and keeping that spotlight on it will make the situation for Mr. Celil as good as it can be under the circumstances — and we just keep pushing and pushing and trying to get justice for him.”
May, who speaks Mandarin, was first posted to Hong Kong in 1998 — the year after Britain handed that territory over to China — and then to Beijing until 2004. Her work then focused on both human rights and trade.
She acknowledged that public opinion had sourced towards China in recent years, but said her message to Canadians is that the relationship remains very important.
“This is a global player, and that it’s not like black or white. China isn’t good or bad — China is,” she said.
“And that we have to deal with a China that is here in front of us … There are absolutely things where we will fundamentally disagree, and we’re going to push back and we need to be doing that. But there are other areas, and I think environment and climate change is probably the one that is most obvious to people, that there is no answer to this kind of global issue if we’re not working with China.”
The challenge is “to find the ways that we can work co-operatively and constructively in the areas where we have common interests,” she said, also citing global health challenges, “and where we can push back and make sure our values are very front and center.”
May is not a political confidante of the prime minister’s, unlike her predecessors Barton and former Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum, but she is not worried about how that will be viewed by the Chinese government. “China doesn’t have that system of career diplomat versus political appointees,” she said.
“I think they would be looking at the prime minister saying, ‘This is the person that I want for the job,’ and that this is clearly, for Canada, an extremely important relationship. So I would expect that they would believe I have the confidence of the person who’s named me.”
May hopes to travel to Xinjiang province to see conditions there for herself. China has sharply condemned Western critics, denying accusations of genocide and forced labor camps, as well as tightly controlled access, insisting its actions in the northeastern region are its internal affairs.
May said Xinjiang is one human rights concern, “but there’s a lot of other human rights issues that we have concerns about, whether it’s Falun Gong, whether it’s Christians, whether it’s a situation of people in Tibet.”
She said she wants to support Canadian business interests in China. “We’ve got a very significant trade relationship with China,” but Canadian businesses face “headwinds” in China, she said, because “it’s not a level playing field. And that’s another area I’ll be speaking out very directly.”
When the Trudeau government came to power in 2015, there were high hopes of increasing trade ties with the booming Asian nation, even talk of one day negotiating a free-trade deal. That all ended as China’s hardline President Xi Jinping consolidated power in 2017, and trans-Pacific tensions grew when US President Donald Trump’s administration cracked down on Chinese high-tech companies like Huawei.
The low point came in 2018 when, at the request of the US, Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on an extradition warrant in Vancouver. China responded with the judgments of Michael Kovrig, a Canadian diplomat on leave with an international research group, and businessman Michael Spavor.
There were trade reprisals as well, with Beijing halting Canadian meat, soy and canola exports. Canada advised Canadians not to risk travel to China. Last spring, Ottawa finally did what its American allies had been urging and banned Huawei from participating in building Canada’s next-generation 5G cell networks.
Since then, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly has spoken to her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and signalled the government’s intention to try to re-establish a constructive relationship.
But irritating remain.
On Hong Kong, May said Canada is “really concerned” that China is not living up to commitments “that they freely made under the treaty, the Sino-UK treaty on Hong Kong, that the ‘One Country-Two Systems’ needs to be respected, as well as the Hong Kong basic law that Canada has a stake in,” because some 300,000 Canadians live there.
Asked if a new China-focused strategy is needed, May said “we’re adjusting as we go along rather than saying ‘this is how we’re going to deal with China, and it’s fixed in stone.’”
“Obviously if you look at Indo-Pacific, China’s the most populous country, it’s the biggest one. It’s the most important trading partner. It’s the most important strategic challenge. It’s the most important political partner for most countries in that region. So… obviously, the Indo-Pacific strategy is not just China.
“But from my perspective,” she said, “an Indo-Pacific strategy is always going to have a piece of China embedded in it.”
Then there are rising tensions around Taiwan, over which China asserts sovereignty.
China warned last month it would take “forceful measures” if Canada “interferes” in Taiwan, after a group of parliamentarians said they would visit Taiwan later this year.
May said there is no change in Canada’s “one China” policy warranting any action by China. “There’s absolutely nothing on that front at all that is changing. So my message, and the message I’m receiving is that they should make sure that they’re not escalating a situation, that there is no change in our policy.”
She declined to comment on what Canada’s position would be after US President Joe Biden said last week that American forces would defend Taiwan if China invaded.
If the Canadian government hopes Canada-China relations can be put back on track, May still sounds a note of caution when asked if the government now wants Canadians to know it’s safe for them to travel in China.
“I think that everybody has to look at their own situation,” she said. “We’ve got some good consular advice up on our website, and I would encourage everybody to have a look at that before they make any travel decisions.”
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