Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that diplomat Jennifer May will take over as ambassador to China with a mandate to speak out on human-rights abuses while pursuing trade opportunities with the world’s second-biggest economy.
“A dedicated public servant, Ms. May’s many years of diverse experience on international missions, and her deep understanding of Asia, will serve to manage this important bilateral relationship and advance Canada’s interests in China,” Mr. Trudeau said Friday.
The last two ambassadors to China – former cabinet minister John McCallum and business executive Dominic Barton – were often accused of soft-pedalling human-rights abuses in the country.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Mr. Trudeau expects Ms. May to use her posting to highlight the importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights.
“As ambassador to China, Ms. May will lead Canada’s important work in standing up for democratic values, human rights, and the rule of law,” the PMO said in a news release. “Her work will be key to advancing Canadian priorities in the Canada-China relationship including supporting the long-standing people-to-people, economic and business ties between our two countries.”
Ms. May, who was recently ambassador to Brazil, will become the first woman posted to Beijing, the second-most important diplomatic mission after Washington. Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Kirsten Hillman, is also a career diplomat and the first woman to serve in that posting.
Ms. May speaks fluent Mandarin and handled human-rights and political issues as first secretary at the Canadian embassy in Beijing from 2000 to 2004.
“It is reassuring to have experienced diplomats in this important post. Her language skill and experience in human-rights issues would certainly help. There are not many qualified candidates in the Canadian ‘talent pool,’” said Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
One senior government official described Ms. May as a “black-belt diplomat” who also served in Hong Kong and Thailand, giving her trade experience and a strong understanding of China’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
But experts say Ms. May has her work cut out for her, as bilateral relations remain frosty a year after Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor returned home after being arbitrarily detained in China for 1,020 days.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said Ms. May has a sophisticated understanding of China’s political system and culture, although she will have to adjust to the new “wolf-warrior type of diplomacy” China practises now.
“President Xi Jinping has really been pushing for a more aggressive foreign policy, and it has become more difficult for diplomats to do their work,” he said. “Trade has also become highly ideological, so the new ambassador will have a lot of work to try to promote Canadian business.”
In addition, Ms. May will need to work with envoys of Western countries to co-ordinate strategies to counter “the worst side of China – the bullying and use of trade as a weapon,” he said.
The Prime Minister fired Mr. McCallum as ambassador when the former Liberal cabinet minister publicly argued that the U.S. extradition request for Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was seriously flawed. Ms. Meng’s arrest in Vancouver in December, 2018, led to China detaining Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor and imposing sanctions on Canadian agricultural products.
Mr. Barton, who succeeded Mr. McCallum in September, 2019, was criticized by foreign-policy experts and opposition parties for ethical troubles from his time as head of international consultancy McKinsey and Company, as well as allegations from parliamentarians that as ambassador he was decidedly pro-China.
Mr. Saint-Jacques said he’s pleased to see the government has given up on political appointees to the post. He felt that both Mr. McCallum and Mr. Barton failed to see the strategic threat posed by China and tended to “pull their punches” when it came to Beijing’s human-rights abuses.