Was John McCallum a Sacrificial Lamb or a Useful Idiot?


Rivers 100x100Ray Rivers

January 31st, 2019



What was John McCallum thinking when he blurted out his innermost thoughts on the extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, currently on bail and awaiting trial. It is inappropriate for any public official, including a diplomat, to wade in on a matter before the courts. And McCallum, an experienced former government minister, would have had that drilled into him.


John McCallum, was the Ambassador to China and was once a senior officer with the Bank of Montreal. He is now retired.

He told an audience of Chinese-Canadian media that Ms Meng had a strong legal case and implied she might likely be acquitted. While most observers would have agreed with the reasonableness of that statement, most observers feigned outrage that he had said it publicly. And it took less than a heartbeat for opposition leader Andrew Scheer to demanded his resignation.

McCallum did eventually apologize for ‘mis-speaking’. But I guess he didn’t really mean it because he immediately unloaded a second bombshell – that it would be good if the US just dropped the extradition. And that was the proverbial straw on Mr, Trudeau’s back which did get him fired.

McCallum’s wife is ethnically Chinese and he apparently had wanted this posting, giving up his Cabinet job happily in exchange. Perhaps he was tired and did just mis-speak? Perhaps he was trying to ingratiate himself with his Chinese ethnic audience? Perhaps he thought it was fair game to chirp in on the Meng case given his role as Canada’s representative to China? And perhaps he was trying to move the diplomatic goal posts a little?

After all Canada and China are at an impasse on this messy Meng affair. A nation of laws, the PM says, we were simply complying with an extradition treaty obligation, and we will not be moved. Meanwhile China has nabbed a couple of Canadians and given a death sentence to another, just to show they really mean business. To China it’s all about politics and its all negotiable.

Perhaps McCallum realized that. In order to stop this rash of hostage taking by Chinese authorities something had to be done. So give them hope, or at least false hope. And it may have worked since the hostage-taking seems to have abated. And who knows that he didn’t secretly develop this strategy in cahoots with the PM’s office in the first place?


Meng Wanzhou; Chief Financial Officer with a prominent Chinese corporation that is a leader in the telecommunications field is on bail awaiting an extradition hearing to the United States.

The Canada-China dynamic has changed now that the US has actually filed its extradition papers. Washington, and not Ottawa, is the object of China’s angst now, regardless whether Ms Meng is extradited of not. And her future, assuming she is extradited, will be in the hands of the Chinese and American trade negotiators as they conduct the most important trade negotiations in their history.

China was once the world’s largest economic power. Back in the 1800’s the Chinese economy generated almost a third of global GDP and it is on track to overtake America sometime in the next decade.

Ms Meng’s Huawei is the second most popular mobile systems provider in the world, recently beating out Apple and just trailing Samsung. And while it claims to be a private entity, the Meng escapade shows how it’s not. Despite all protestations China is nothing less than a modern national-socialist state, with Huawei its monolithic telecommunications showpiece.

Huawei is a restricted telecom in three of the ‘five-eyes’ nations, US, Australia and New Zealand. That is because they are convinced the company represents a security threat – read espionage. The UK and Canada have been on the fence, but after China’s recent behaviour towards Canada, does anyone really think, we’ll let them help us develop our 5G systems.

It may be arguable that the Trump administration purposefully boxed us into this predicament regarding Ms Meng, but it sure looks like it. Clearly the US would like us to reject Huawei for any number of obvious reasons. So if the Yanks set us up for this conflict with China, the Chinese have played into their hands, and the Americans will likely score.

Mr Trudeau had hopes when he came into office that a free-trade deal with China would take pressure off NAFTA negotiations. But it became clear to Mr. Trudeau, after his 2017 visit there, that the ideological gulf between us is just too wide. Today’s China as not a suitable long term trading partner. There will be no free trade agreement between our two nations and Huawei will have lost Canada.

McCallum with trudeau

Best friends forever – until you say the wrong thing: John McCallum with Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons.

Trudeau fired McCallum because he had to. You can’t have a diplomat who appears to have eaten strange mushrooms and gone rogue while on duty. But the firing itself was another message for the China authorities who apparently liked our man in Beijing. It shows a certain toughness on our part. We may still be a small country but we’re not going to be pushed around.

The Chinese still revere Justin’s father for breaking international trade sanctions back when Mao was being shunned by the west. But if Pierre helped open the door for them then, it looks like it’ll be his son’s job to close it, at least as far as Huawei is concerned.

John McCallum may have knocked over the diplomatic applecart by his actions – but it would be hard to make a case that he did any significant damage to Canada. And we’ll never know why he did what he did. Was he a sacrificial lamb helping to throw the Chinese leadership off their game? Or was he just another useful idiot?

Rivers hand to faceRay Rivers writes regularly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was once a candidate for provincial office in Burlington.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.   Ray has a post graduate degree in economics that he earned at the University of Ottawa.  Tweet @rayzrivers


Background links:

McCallum Tweets –   McCallum Firing –    More McCallum

Scheer on McCallum –     US Extradition Charges

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3 comments to Was John McCallum a Sacrificial Lamb or a Useful Idiot?

  • Stephen White

    McCallum was a “loose cannon” when he was in Cabinet and his competence was questionable at best. Why Trudeau appointed him to such a sensitive position as Ambassador to China requiring someone who combines diplomacy, cultural awareness and strong insights is a mystery. McCallum’s “problems” to which Alide so diplomatically refers, are pretty well-known in political circles, and haven’t helped his reputation. Again, why the PM would appoint someone with such a checkered past to such a key role defies explanation.

    Instead of appointing retired politicians perhaps the Prime Minister might try appointing someone with real diplomatic experience. What a novel concept! I think it’s called “meritocracy”.

  • Alide Camilleri

    McCallum always had problems. The ex-banker, if anybody remembers him as such, had a personal problem that is not up to me to reveal It always seemed strange how quickly the man came up the political ladder even though from the start he had a tendency to misspeak. When he was named ambassador, I honestly could not see him in the post, regardless of his wife’s heritage. He proved me right. As an old China hand, I am fully aware what the Chinese political mindset is. It has nothing to do with rule of law, and all with not losing face. Well, the Huawei incident has made China lose face bigtime. The Conservatives, who allowed that company to get a foothold in this country, are much to be blamed for the situation although the likes of Scheer will put it all on the shoulders of the Liberals. As for McCallum, the fault lies with his masters, not just with him.

  • Alide Camilleri

    McCallum always had problems over the years.