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China loves the 'handsome and charismatic' McGuinty Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty is a rock star.

Not in Ontario, mind you. Even when the Premier has been high in the polls, there has never exactly been McGuinty-mania in the province. When all is going smoothly - which it hasn't been recently - he seems the very embodiment of former premier Bill Davis's old pronouncement that bland works.

On the other side of the globe, however, Mr. McGuinty appears to have something else working for him.

He's not exactly a household name in China. But those who come into contact with him seem to see a different Premier than the one perceived back home.

During a hectic six-day visit that wrapped up on Thursday, Mr. McGuinty got reviews that most Ontarians would find at least slightly bizarre. "Young, handsome and charismatic," a 30-something Chinese lawyer enthused at a business reception, offering what seemed to be a common take. When told that wasn't quite how most Ontarians would describe him, he looked baffled. "Why not?"

This phenomenon may not be entirely unique to Mr. McGuinty. In mainland China, politicians get considerably more respect than they do in Canada. At the same time, most Chinese government officials are the antithesis of charisma. So it's not difficult for Western leaders, almost flamboyant by comparison, to light up a room.

But those who've watched other premiers and federal ministers shuttle in and out of China - something happening with growing frequency amidst a competition to tap into its massive economy - say Mr. McGuinty plays better there than most.

Who else is as good at working a Chinese room, a Canadian businessman was asked during a luncheon in Nanjing. "Exactly," he replied, mistaking it for a rhetorical question.

Part of what Mr. McGuinty gets credit for, it must be said, is "understanding" China. That means committing himself to the arduous relationship-building that drives China's business culture. But it also means being an effusive guest who goes nowhere near criticizing the excesses of what remains an authoritarian regime - a compromise that not every visiting leader is prepared to accept.

But more and more, visiting leaders - particularly of sub-national governments - are making that compromise.

So it can't just be that.

It may be that Mr. McGuinty's persona just happens, rather unfortunately for him, to be a better fit in China than it is in Canada. His stories about growing up in a family of 10 kids, and about raising four of his own, got warmer reactions in Shanghai, Nanjing and Hong Kong than they tend to get in Toronto. His corny jokes - he repeated over and over that he got an honorary degree from a Chinese university, but still hasn't been paid - got bigger laughs. And his lectures about collective responsibility seemed to be viewed as insightful, rather than patronizing.

But considering that Mr. McGuinty has gotten strong reviews on trips to other countries, as well, it may also be that he benefits from a fresh set of eyes.

In Ontario, impressions were largely formed back when Mr. McGuinty cut an unimpressive figure - particularly during the 1999 election campaign, and to some extent even when he took office in 2003. But those now encountering him, or who have only seen him sporadically during his four China visits, see a much better politician.

Mr. McGuinty now knows how to make strangers feel a little bit special when they meet him; how to answer (or steer around) a tough question; how to work into conversation the key points that will impress his audience; how to carry himself when out in public and how to position himself for a photo. He's more comfortable in his own skin, and more adaptable.

Of course, it's easier for those skills to come through when he doesn't have the opposition in his face, and is able to play the role of statesman. It will be a rude awakening, when he gets back to the Legislature, to find much less attentive audiences.

In the past, Mr. McGuinty's foreign excursions have led to speculation that he could have a career as a federal leader. That might be a stretch, given his image at home. But he'd probably make a pretty good foreign affairs minister.

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