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Canada’s new ambassador to China has repeatedly made flattering remarks about the country’s leadership, including President Xi Jinping and the heads of state-owned companies, in his time as the top figure at global consultancy McKinsey & Company.
Dominic Barton, who spent more than three decades at McKinsey & Company, has spoken admiringly of Mr. Xi’s signature foreign-policy initiatives, including the development of China’s far western regions – where Beijing has been criticized for its treatment of Muslim minority groups.
Mr. Barton plans to take up his new position in Beijing this weekend, according to three people with knowledge of the situation who were granted anonymity by The Globe and Mail because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
He becomes Canada’s top diplomat to the world’s second-largest economy at a time when Canada has been plunged into a tense relationship with China, which has arrested two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – and blocked imports of some Canadian agricultural goods after the arrest in Vancouver of Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have strongly condemned China’s actions.
Mr. Barton has not accepted interview requests since becoming ambassador.
But he has – in books, articles, online courses and many hours of speeches reviewed by The Globe – created a lengthy record of commentary on China. Much of it is marked by an optimism so ebullient that he has poked fun at himself about it.
”I’m a bull on China,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2016, adding: “I probably drank the Kool-Aid there for too long.”
He repeated the term, while praising Mr. Xi’s long-term vision.
“At the risk of taking the Kool-Aid too much, I think Xi Jinping is someone who I personally think is looking at his legacy, if you will – at Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Xi.” It’s “a 30-year horizon,” Mr. Barton said.
It’s not clear how his views, including his opinions of Mr. Xi, have evolved amid a broad reconsideration of China in Europe, Australia and the United States in the past 18 months.
Two years after Mr. Barton’s bullish assessment of China and its leader, Mr. Xi formalized his ambitions by removing the term limit for the presidency. He is seen as steering China in a more authoritarian direction, which has included tearing down churches, curbing civil society and placing greater restrictions on free speech.
Some of the most dramatic changes under Mr. Xi have taken place in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, where hundreds of thousands – perhaps more than a million – people have been placed in internment centres for political indoctrination and skills training. Many are Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority that has been accused of harbouring extremists and terrorists. Xinjiang is central to China’s economic ambitions, including reviving ancient Silk Road trading routes.
Last year, McKinsey & Company held a corporate retreat a short drive from an indoctrination centre in Kashgar, a major centre in western Xinjiang. The company subsequently said it accepted ”commentary“ on the retreat after it became the subject of an unflattering New York Times report. It pledged to “be more thoughtful about such choices in the future.”
But Mr. Barton has often made clear his support for China’s ambitions in the region. “One of my areas of passion is the Silk Road,” he told the Saïd Business School in 2015. At the Council of Foreign Relations, he said more attention should be paid to Beijing’s Silk Road plans. “I think we’re way underestimating the investment and the growth that’s going to occur. These are in the areas going from the western part of China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,” he said.
He returned to the theme last year in a University of Waterloo president’s lecture, recommending travel to Central Asia. He made no comment about treatment of the Uyghurs, but instead praised Mr. Xi for his interest in environmental sustainability.
Mr. Barton’s nomination as ambassador has been cheered by Canada’s business establishment, which has praised his judgment, his experience and his knowledge of China. He has severed all corporate ties, according to Ms. Freeland, who has called him “a profoundly patriotic Canadian,” a person “for whom service, from his earliest childhood … has been very, very important.”
But his background, his former firm’s financial ties to China and his public support for its leaders have raised questions about his ability to break with his past.
Rarely has Canada appointed an ambassador with such credentials or international standing. Born in Uganda to a father who was a priest, Mr. Barton studied economics with an interest in industrial mathematics. He joined McKinsey & Company in 1986, where he was soon tasked with determining the optimal number of KFC chicken pieces to place in a lunchbox. (Four).
Over the course of his career there, he worked out of Toronto, Sydney, Seoul, Shanghai and London in a job that some years involved 300 days of travel. He was famously rejected twice when he sought to become a partner.
Still, he embraced the company’s love of big ideas – at one point pitching the merger of Canada, Ireland and Australia into a single country, a concept that quickly withered – and the access it gave him to world leaders. When he became global managing director in 2009, he pledged to speak with two chief executives or government leaders every day, conversations that informed deeply considered views on leadership.
He has lectured widely about the need for tri-sector leaders – people with experience in private industry, the public sector and social organizations. He has also been an outspoken advocate for companies acting not only in the short-term interest of shareholders, but for the long-term needs of stakeholders.
He married and divorced Sheila Labatt, the glass artist and scion of the Canadian beer family. He is now married to Geraldine Buckingham, who last year became the Hong Kong-based head of the Asia Pacific region for BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, and is tasked with developing business opportunities in China. They have a young child.
Their relationship is a concern for ethicists. Ms. Buckingham’s position is key for the firm, which manages US$6.8-trillion in assets around the world but only, as of last December, US$428.9-billion – 7.2 per cent of the total – in the Asia Pacific region. In April, chief executive Larry Fink said in an annual letter to shareholders that he wants BlackRock to become one of China’s “leading global asset managers,” as the country plays a major role in the industry’s growth over the next half-decade. Ms. Buckingham has been described in news reports as a “key architect” of BlackRock’s China strategy.
Its investments in China have included some of the country’s most important state-controlled enterprises, including China National Petroleum Corp., China Communications Construction Company Ltd., BAIC Group, as well as banks and telecommunication firms.
Mr. Barton has described Mr. Fink as a personal mentor – and having his wife “deeply involved in trying to make investments in China is something which the Ministry of State Security, the International Liaison Department and the United Front Work Department would be very happy about,” said Gerry Groot, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Adelaide, who has studied United Front work for more than two decades. “Because they would scan any opportunity to find any conflict of interests and any potential ways to compromise them. And they have abundant opportunities to create conditions for a compromise of interest.“
The International Liaison Department conducts foreign-affairs work for the Communist Party of China. United Front operations controlled by the party seek to influence people both inside and outside the country, to “co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition” to the party’s policies and authority, according to a research report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Under Canadian law, Mr. Barton “would have to recuse himself from any kind of decision-making process where her interest would be involved – even if there’s an appearance of that conflict of interest,” said Duff Conacher, the co-founder of Democracy Watch. That stands to create “quite a broad set of issues.”
Ms. Buckingham did not respond to requests for comment.
“Geraldine Buckingham and Dominic Barton have separate and independent careers. Geraldine remains based in Hong Kong and Dominic Barton is not involved in BlackRock’s business,” BlackRock said in a statement.
McKinsey & Company, for its part, has been deeply involved with Chinese state actors, working with city mayors, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission and dozens of state-owned firms.
Canada’s new diplomat to China “must work closely with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner to ensure that he takes all the necessary steps required to meet his obligations under the Act,” Global Affairs Canada spokesman John Babcock said in a statement. “This work is ongoing and began prior to his appointment as Canada’s Ambassador to China.”
Mr. Barton has been a trusted confidant of the Trudeau government, leading the Advisory Council on Economic Growth while advocating for a free-trade agreement with China, as well as India and Japan. Free-trade talks with Beijing have largely stalled, after Canada demanded labour and environment provisions that China rejected.
Mr. Barton has complained that Canada is “losing out in global trade,” saying it accounted for 9 per cent of China’s imports 30 years ago, but only 1 per cent today. “We’ve become less relevant in those parts of the world,” he told Universities Canada in 2017.
In a conversation at Yale University in 2017, he briefly alluded to Mr. Xi in comments on risk and political change in China. But, he added, “probably the best technocrats in the world in terms of government are in that country. So I feel confident, and we should just look at that as a place that will grow – not just demand, but also from an innovation point of view.” That also holds true for China’s sprawling state-owned enterprises, he said as part of a Tsinghua SEM-McKinsey Global Leadership Course, saying “some of the SOE leaders in China are some of the most high-performing leaders in the world.”
As recently as August, Mr. Barton told a University of New South Wales alumni event that “there’s many things that we can learn from China,” including the country’s focus on infrastructure. The system in China is “going to have to evolve as you have a larger middle class,” he said, referring to political tensions and the need for a “transition that’s done in an orderly manner.”
But he offered no criticism. “China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in the world,” he said. “We should acknowledge that and be supportive of it.”