Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to name career diplomat Jennifer May as ambassador to China after the past appointments of a veteran politician and a corporate executive ended in controversy, and accusations that they soft-pedalled Beijing’s human-rights abuses.
Ms. May, recently ambassador to Brazil, will become the first woman posted to Beijing, the second most important diplomatic mission after Washington, according to two senior government officials. Canada’s U.S. ambassador, Kirsten Hillman, is also a career diplomat and the first woman to serve in this position.
The sources said Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly pushed Mr. Trudeau to approve the appointment of Ms. May because she speaks fluent Mandarin and handled human rights and political issues as first secretary at the Canadian embassy in Beijing from 2000-2004.
Naming an experienced diplomat ends the Trudeau government’s recent practice of choosing outsiders to represent Ottawa in China. Experts say though that Ms. May has her work cut out for her as bilateral relations still remain frosty a year since Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor returned home after being arbitrarily detained in China for 1,020 days.
One of the officials described Ms. May as a “black-belt diplomat” who also served in Hong Kong and Thailand, giving her trade experience and a strong perspective on China’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the officials because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
The sources said China signed off on Ms. May’s appointment last week and the federal government is expected to make the official announcement as early as Friday.
“The government and the country is always better served by experienced diplomats,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China. “The embassy will work at its best if they know the issues and involve the staff and get them to focus on the issue of importance to country.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques said Ms. May has a sophisticated understanding of the Chinese political system and culture, although he said she will have to adjust to the “wolf-warrior type of diplomacy” that is conducted by China.
“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 ambassadors of Western countries to co-ordinate on strategies to oppose “the worst side of China – the bullying and use of trade as a weapon,” he said.
The Prime Minister fired his first ambassador to China, former Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum, 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 agriculture products.
Dominic 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 McKinsey and Co., and allegations in Parliament that as ambassador, he was pro-China.
Mr. Saint-Jacques said he’s pleased to see the government has given up on political appointees to China. 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.
Mr. Saint-Jacques said Mr. McCallum had “partial knowledge of China” from his many visits there as an MP but “it was always paid by the Chinese government, so he was not totally impartial.” As an MP, Mr. McCallum accepted trips valued at $73,300 from China or pro-Beijing business groups.
Mr. Barton was accused by opposition parties of leveraging his ambassadorship when he resigned last December to become chair of Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate that does half of its business in China. While praised for helping to secure the release of the Canadians, he was criticized for ignoring China’s human-rights abuses.
Fen Hampson, chancellor’s professor at Carleton University, said Ottawa is signalling that it is taking a pragmatic approach to bilateral relations as it decides how to deal with China in a long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, now being drafted by Global Affairs.
“Because it isn’t a high-level political appointee, it suggests that the relationship is going to be cool and tempered going forward,” he said. “With an experienced diplomat, who is a fluent speaker, there will be an opportunity to slowly rebuild diplomatic relations after a period of being in the deep freeze on both sides.”
Colin Robertson, senior adviser and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Ms. May may be an experienced China hand but he worries Beijing will feel snubbed because Mr. McCallum and Mr. Barton were hand-picked by the Prime Minister.
“The Chinese like to think that they would be treated the way we treat the U.S. and send someone who has the personal confidence of the Prime Minister,” he said. Most envoys to Washington are political appointees but Mr. Robertson said that Ms. Hillman, while deputy ambassador, won over Mr. Trudeau for her key role in NAFTA negotiations.
Before he was Canada’s envoy to China, Mr. Barton was the global managing partner of the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. He is facing a civil racketeering lawsuit in the United States involving allegations related to his time in that role.
The lawsuit names him and other top McKinsey executives. They are accused of filing misleading disclosure statements to a bankruptcy court in order to secure consulting appointments worth tens of millions of dollars.
During his time as head of McKinsey, he led the company through several controversies – including some related to China. In 2018, for example, the company held a retreat in China’s western Xinjiang region, just six kilometres from the location of what is believed to be an internment camp where members of the Uyghur ethnic minority are subjected to forced political indoctrination.
McKinsey’s work in China, including during Mr. Barton’s tenure from 2009 to 2018, has drawn scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers, who have demanded McKinsey share information about its work for Chinese state-owned clients.