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Dominic Barton, Canada’s ambassador to China, announced Monday he plans to step down on Dec. 31, now that Beijing has freed two Canadians who had been arbitrarily detained in China for 2½ years.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being urged to name a professional diplomat to replace Dominic Barton as Canada’s ambassador to China at a time when diplomatic relations between the two countries are at an all-time low.

Mr. Barton, a former global corporate consultant and a close adviser to Mr. Trudeau, announced Monday he plans to step down on Dec. 31, now that Beijing has freed two Canadians who had been arbitrarily detained in China for 2½ years.

“Working to secure Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor’s release has been one of the most significant events in my life and I have been incredibly moved by the bravery and resilience of these two men, as well as their families,” Mr. Barton said in statement. “It was the honour of a lifetime to help with their release.”

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were arrested in December, 2018, and imprisoned on charges of espionage after Canada detained Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. The dispute ruptured relations between Canada and China.

The Leader of the Official Opposition and foreign policy experts on Monday urged Mr. Trudeau to name a China expert as Canada’s next ambassador, someone who is clear-eyed about Beijing’s human-rights abuses, territorial claims and strident nationalism.

“Canadian relations with China are a mess,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told reporters. He said that Ottawa needed a “principled approach” to show that its economic interests in China would not dominate human-rights concerns about the Uyghur minority, or political tensions in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“I would hope Mr. Trudeau puts a professional experienced diplomat in that post and not a friend of the Liberal party.”

Former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques said Canada would be better served by sending a career diplomat to Beijing.

“The relationship will remain fraught for some time. We need someone who can be strong and forceful and firm because that is the only language that China understands,” he said.

Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Calgary, said Mr. Barton had “boundless energy and high intellect” and he hopes whoever Mr. Trudeau names as the next envoy – whether from inside or outside government – is an expert on China.

David Mulroney, a career civil servant who served as ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, said the last two political appointees to Beijing reflected what Mr. Trudeau characterized as a highly positive take on China.

“We don’t need a promoter, but someone who can help deliver a smart and realistic China policy that addresses the growing risks we face,” Mr. Mulroney said on Twitter.

Which Canadians are left in Chinese prisons? As Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are free, 115 more remain behind

Homecoming of Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig a welcome relief for Canada, but China rift runs deep after their detention

When Mr. Barton was named Canada’s envoy to China, he replaced former Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum who was fired in January, 2019, after he suggested Ms. Meng might have “quite good arguments” to avoid extradition to the United States on bank fraud charges. As an MP, Mr. McCallum had accepted $73,000 in free trips from China.

Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were freed in late September, hours after a court in New York dropped an extradition case against Ms. Meng, enabling her to leave Canada. Mr. Barton accompanied the two men back home, where he was thanked by Mr. Trudeau for having “put in the hours to get to this positive outcome.”

This included at least three weeks of secret talks in Washington in April led by Mr. Barton, aimed at facilitating their release by securing a deal that would see Ms. Meng leave Canada. While the two Canadians paid the cost for Beijing’s anger over the Huawei executive’s detention, Ottawa had always put the onus on Washington to take action.

Mr. Trudeau on Monday praised Mr. Barton for his role helping to secure the release of the two Michaels.

“He worked tirelessly on this important task,” the Prime Minister said. “He offered support and counsel to the two Michaels’ families and he worked to forge a coalition of like-minded countries to stand in solidarity.”

The two Michaels were just new characters in a Sino-Canadian drama whose decades-long plot is as twisted as ever

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Mr. Barton, who had extensive dealings in China as global managing partner of McKinsey and Company, was a supporter of closer trade ties with Beijing. He did not tend to criticize China’s human-rights records.

At McKinsey, he led the company through several controversies – including in China. In 2018, for example, the company held a retreat in China’s western Xinjiang region, just six kilometres from the location of an internment camp that is believed to deliver vocational skills training and forced political indoctrination to the ethnic Uyghur minority.

Mr. Barton’s departure comes as the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform is about to begin hearings into how McKinsey advised U.S.-based Purdue Pharma on ways to bolster sales of OxyContin. Mr. Barton was global managing partner of McKinsey from 2009 to 2018, a period during which the firm was a key adviser to Purdue.

Carolyn Maloney, the Democratic chair of the committee, has been seeking documents and information regarding McKinsey’s support for drug companies “pushing addictive opioid painkillers and raising prices for live-saving medications, even as McKinsey also advised the federal agency regulating their conduct.”

The New York Times has reported that during Mr. Barton’s leadership, McKinsey discussed ways for Purdue to “turbocharge” sales of its drug OxyContin, including paying Purdue’s distributors a rebate for every OxyContin overdose attributable to pills they sold.

McKinsey declined to say whether, as top managing partner, Mr. Barton was aware of the firm’s involvement with Purdue Pharma. The company agreed to pay US$573-million earlier this year to settle allegations in 49 states that its worked for opioid manufacturers contributed to the deadly addiction epidemic.

Having Mr. Barton as a Canadian ambassador called before the U.S. committee to testify would have been embarrassing for the Trudeau government.

Three public servants who might be considered as potential candidates to be the next Canadian ambassador to China. They include career diplomat Cindy Termorshuizen, who served as deputy head of mission in Beijing between 2015 and 2018; Julia Bentley, who served in China from 2011 to 2014 and recently ended an assignment as head of mission in Malaysia; and Sarah Taylor, a fluent Mandarin speaker, who is ambassador to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

With a report from Reuters

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