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Canada's Ambassador to China Dominic Barton waits to appear before the House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations in Ottawa, Feb. 5, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Global consulting giant McKinsey and Co. is declining to provide a Canadian parliamentary committee with the lists of Chinese state-owned enterprises that Dominic Barton, Canada’s envoy to Beijing, worked for during the nine years he headed the firm.

Opposition MPs had requested this information to determine whether Mr. Barton is in a conflict of interest as ambassador to China.

The House of Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations formally requested in December, 2020, that Mr. Barton ask the international management consulting company to disclose its client list of state-owned companies in China from 2009 to 2018, when he was global managing partner.

In a Feb. 15, 2021, letter to the committee, McKinsey – which recently paid US$573-million to settle investigations of its role in helping boost opioid sales – declined to provide any information about its Chinese clients.

“McKinsey is also bound by strict confidentiality obligations owed to its clients, in China and around the world,” the company said through its law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt.

The firm said Canada’s Parliament doesn’t have jurisdiction over its business dealings in China, and revealing the state-owned clients of Mr. Barton and McKinsey could risk retaliation from the Chinese Communist Party.

“We have been advised that, under Chinese law, McKinsey could face serious legal consequences in China for disclosing to a foreign authority confidential information of this nature, including potential prosecution by Chinese authorities as well as civil actions by the affected clients,” the letter stated. “This risk is heightened by the apparent lack of jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada to demand the information requested.”

The New York Times reported in 2018 that McKinsey advised 22 of China’s 100 largest state-owned enterprises. In its letter to MPs, McKinsey said its work in China “represents a very small portion of its global revenues” and “an even smaller fraction of McKinsey’s work in China is with [state-owned enterprises].”

“While Ambassador Barton could have had relationship-focused interactions or meetings with McKinsey clients worldwide during this period, the role global managing partner does not typically include providing consulting services or participation in any client specific consulting team,” the letter stated.

The Times has reported that Mr. Barton advised China Communications Construction Co., which has built militarized islands in the South China Sea in violation of international law. The World Bank had banned the company for eight years over bid-rigging in the Philippines.

An internet search of Chinese websites by The Globe and Mail has revealed that Mr. Barton also was hired as a senior consultant to the strategic advisory committee of state-owed China Merchants Group Ltd. in January, 2019, shortly after he left McKinsey but retained the title global managing partner emeritus. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Mr. Barton ambassador to Beijing in September, 2019.

Mr. Barton told The Globe on Thursday he gave up all his consulting work when he became ambassador. He declined to name any firms he worked for as a consultant.

“During my time at McKinsey and Co., I worked with a wide range of clients. All of these consulting and advisory roles ended when I retired from McKinsey,” he said in an e-mail. “While I am unable to comment on specific engagements, I worked closely with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner to address any conflicts or perceived conflicts in connection with the ambassador position and have closely followed the office’s advice as I have discharged my duties as ambassador.”

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has pressed McKinsey to reveal all its relationships with the Chinese Communist Party and whether it made sure its Chinese clients were not controlled by the military or involved in human-rights violations. The firm refused to answer, citing client confidentiality.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, vice-chair of the parliamentary committee, said he finds it troubling that neither Mr. Barton nor his former employer are willing to disclose “sources of potential conflict” in McKinsey’s roster of Chinese clients under Mr. Barton’s tenure. “It really speaks to the problem of accountability” with Mr. Barton’s appointment as ambassador, he said. Mr. Genuis said he hopes the ethics commissioner at the very least has been given the names of Chinese state-owned companies McKinsey worked for. The ethics commissioner’s office said privacy rules prevented it from discussing Mr. Barton’s former clients.

Mr. Barton is married to Geraldine Buckingham, who recently left her job as the chair and head of BlackRock Inc.’s Asia-Pacific operations, a post based in Hong Kong, to serve as a senior adviser for the company in Beijing.

Mr. Barton set up an ethical shield and put his investments in a blind trust when he became ambassador. He also agreed to abstain from any discussions involving McKinsey, BlackRock or Teck Resources Ltd., where he was chairman of the Vancouver-based metals and mining giant partly owned by China Investment Corp. Deputy minister of foreign affairs Marta Morgan and Mr. Barton’s chief of staff in Beijing manage the conflict-of-interest screen.

McKinsey has faced controversy since Mr. Barton departed, including its role in helping boost sales of Oxycontin for Purdue Pharma. On Monday, Democratic Senators Brian Schatz and Richard Blumenthal urged U.S. Attorney-General Merrick Garland to open an investigation into McKinsey’s role in promoting the sale of OxyContin.

Mr. Barton recently told The Globe that when he was McKinsey’s global managing partner, he was unaware the firm was working on strategies to help Big Pharma increase sales of OxyContin, the highly addictive painkiller that contributed to tens of thousands of deaths in Canada and the United States.

During his tenure at McKinsey, the firm worked to improve the image of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. It also prepared a brief on how Saudi Arabia’s austerity measures were being received, raising questions about whether its analysis played a role in Riyadh’s effort to target its online critics. In 2017, McKinsey apologized for “errors of judgment” in its business dealings with corruption-tainted firms in South Africa.

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