Dominic Barton was supposed to fix a strained Canada-China relationship. But his past at McKinsey & Co. may have made him damaged goods

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Dominic Barton at the Public Policy Testimonial Dinner in Toronto on April 20, 2017.
Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press
When Justin Trudeau tapped Dominic Barton to become our ambassador to China last year, it looked like a marriage made in heaven from which Canada stood to profit handsomely.
As the former global managing director of consulting juggernaut McKinsey & Co., Mr. Barton had spent years forging relationships with Chinese officials while the firm he ran helped the countrys state-owned companies expand their influence abroad. The self-described bull on China had even mused that he had probably drank the Kool-Aid of President Xi Jinpings Communist government and its relentless promotion of Chinas rise to great-power status.
Mr. Trudeau had been similarly bullish on China, at least until the RCMP arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at Vancouvers airport two years ago on a U.S. extradition warrant. The arrest upended the Liberal governments plan to reset Canada-China relations after nine years of mostly drift under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
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The Conservatives had been deeply ambivalent toward China, cognizant of its rapidly increasing economic might, but wary of its geopolitical ambitions. The Liberals had no such qualms, to the delight of the Canadian business establishment. The countrys business elite saw enhanced trade ties with China as a win-win that could turbocharge Canadas economy.
Even after Ms. Mengs arrest cast a chill on relations between Beijing and Ottawa, the Liberal government seemed to hope the whole affair could be reduced to a hiccup in a relationship that began when Canada became one of the first Western countries to recognize the Peoples Republic of China in 1970. That would have been when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister.
The appointment of Mr. Barton was emblematic of Justin Trudeaus wide-eyed willingness to see the best in Chinas authoritarian leaders and an affection for Communists that he appears to have inherited from his father. Besides, if anyone could fix the damage Ms. Mengs arrest had caused to the Canada-China relationship, it was supposed to have been Mr. Barton.
Alas, more than a year later, the former McKinsey chief appears to have made little progress. Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain imprisoned in China on baseless espionage charges in apparent retaliation for Ms. Mengs arrest at the behest of the U.S. Justice Department. And Chinese officials have stepped up their angry diatribes against Canada.
Mr. Barton, meanwhile, is fast becoming something of an albatross for the Trudeau government. Republican and Democratic U.S. politicians are investigating the role McKinsey played in their countrys opioid crisis and in promoting Chinas US$1-trillion Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The latter has made a slew of highly indebted developing countries dependent on state-owned Chinese lenders. One of them is the Chinese Development Bank, on whose international advisory board Mr. Barton sat before becoming ambassador.
A series of reports in The New York Times has exposed a dizzying web of consulting deals on which McKinsey appears to have earned lucrative fees advising clients whose activities run contrary to U.S. national security interests. This month, McKinsey admitted that the firm did not adequately acknowledge the epidemic unfolding in our communities while it advised Purdue Pharma on ways to boost sales of OxyContin during Mr. Bartons tenure.
Mr. Barton, who has remained mum about his knowledge of questionable consulting activities that occurred on his watch at McKinsey, is essentially toxic in Washington now. At the very least, this complicates any attempt by the Trudeau government to earn the trust of U.S. State Department officials whose help it has been counting on in winning the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. It also augurs poorly for Canadas inclusion in future efforts by president-elect Joe Bidens administration to build a multilateral coalition to confront Chinas widespread theft of intellectual property and blatant violations of international trade rules.
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The McKinsey that Mr. Barton ran appears to have been representative of a values-neutral business ethos that is increasingly at odds with Western attempts to contain Chinas less-than-benign efforts to expand its geopolitical influence. The firm, which has partners in 67 countries, boasts that it does not even have a headquarters in the traditional sense.
In 2018, McKinsey responded to a Times piece on the firms role in raising the stature of authoritarian governments by stating: Like many other major corporations, we seek to navigate a changing geopolitical environment, but we do not support or engage in political activities. In other words, it does not care if its clients answer to dictators.
Dominic Barton is an extraordinary Canadian who is doing great work for us in China as Canadas ambassador, Mr. Trudeau said on Tuesday, ignoring specific questions about McKinseys work for Purdue under Mr. Bartons tenure. I am pleased to have him by my side on the international stage as we work very hard to stand up for Canadian values.
Our man in Beijing should be pleased to know he still has one fan.
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