Terry Glavin: Canada needs a new ambassador to China — Dominic Barton must go

If Trudeau was serious about restoring Canada’s reputation on the world stage and handling the threat posed by China, the first thing to do would be to rid us all of Dominic Barton

You could say that four days is not exactly a decent interval between Beijing’s release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and Canada’s ambassador to China returning to his habit of loudly pimping for profits from greasy state-backed enterprises in Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic.

But that would not be quite right.

“The growth and the nature of growth of China’s economy has significant implications for Canada’s economic prosperity,” Barton said, urging the corporate audience assembled by the Canada-China Business Council to scrutinize Beijing’s just-released five-year plan for money-making opportunities, because, of course, “China really cannot be ignored.”

But it would be wrong to imagine that this indecency is further evidence that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are eager to get back to “normal” in their scandalously obsequious relationship with the hostage-takers in the Xi regime — although it’s certainly true enough that they are indeed very eager. The mistake would be to regard Barton’s remarks as the end of an interregnum forced by the Michaels’ kidnapping, because there really wasn’t one.

More than a year ago, while the Michaels were languishing in their prison cells and Meng was tying up the British Columbia Supreme Court with one of her many failed stalling tactics, Barton was saying the same thing. “China is going to play a much more profound role as we think about the next 50 years,” Barton told a September 2020 Canada-China economic policy forum arranged by the University of Alberta’s China Institute. “There is a potential for us to do a lot together.”

Canadian businesses were well-positioned to take advantage of China’s interests in natural resources, financial regulation and artificial intelligence, Barton argued. These are improbable selling points, given Beijing’s grisly reputation in coal production, currency manipulation and surveillance-state technologies, but what the heck?

In his several years as a McKinsey & Company management consultant in China (and later as McKinsey’s big boss), providing services to Beijing’s state-owned enterprises, Barton was not known to scruple about such details. “There is a re-centring of the world economy, and China is very much in the centre of that,” he told the China Institute gathering. Bottom line: “We need to do more in China.”

What worried Barton about the Michaels’ captivity was that Beijing was hurting itself and its own interests. That’s what he told a private gathering organized by the Canadian International Council in May 2020. In his view, the Xi regime’s tendency toward belligerence, blackmailing and bullying was diminishing its own global “soft power” and undercutting its charm-offensive capacities.
Ever since the Michaels were kidnapped, Canadians have been promised a new approach to China of some kind, a new framework that would replace Trudeau’s official policy of mewling toadyism with something better suited to the way Beijing behaves in the real world — its influence-peddling, its hyper-aggressive intellectual property theft operations, its genocidal repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, its devouring of Hong Kong, its annexation of the South China Sea, its persistent threats to invade Taiwan and what have you.

Ottawa appears to have been quite successful in convincing quite a few Canadians that its persistent kowtowing and policy paralysis on the China file was a function of the Michaels’ predicament, a kind of necessary evil attending to quiet negotiations on the Michaels’ behalf. Surely, the thinking seems to go, there must have been some defensible reason why the Trudeau government was committed to undertakings that were diametrically opposed by the overwhelming majority of Canadians.

The Angus Reid polling company’s latest survey, released this week, suggests that 68 per cent of Canadians have been persuaded that the Trudeau government deserves at least some credit in securing the Michaels’ release — a proposition without any evidence, even now, after fairly close examination, three weeks after the Michaels’ return.

Jeremy Kinsman, the career foreign-affairs fixture and member of Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy council, credits Barton with having orchestrated a diplomatic feat comparable to the 1978-79 “Canadian caper” involving the Americans spirited out Iran after being secretly sheltered at the Canadian embassy in Tehran.

There’s no question that in the final innings, Barton provided exemplary service as a sort of high-drama travel agent. But the fact remains that after Meng struck a deferred-prosecution deal with Justice Department prosecutors, Xi no longer had any cause to keep the Michaels under lock and key, and so home to Canada they came.

Now, it’s as though nothing happened. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau is mumbling about co-operation with China, in the same childish language that was bubbling out of the Prime Minister’s Office in the days before the Michaels were abducted. We’re still waiting for the Trudeau government to catch up with the rest of the world’s liberal democracies and keep Huawei away from Canada’s core 5G internet infrastructure — the easiest decision to make, since Canada’s telecoms have largely moved on to other providers.

In Beijing’s bid to join the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — a comically transparent move to stymie liberal-democratic Taiwan’s application to join — Canada can’t even bring itself to take Taiwan’s side.

In that Angus Reid poll released last week, three of every four respondents said that when it comes to China, Canada should prioritize human rights and the rule of law over the trade and investment racket. Before the Michaels were kidnapped, nearly half of Canadians were willing to say they had a favourable view of China. It’s now down to one in 10 of us.

The views Ambassador Barton has consistently expressed over the years are unchanged, and you could say they are rather more nuanced. Or unprincipled and greasy, you could also say. It’s worth remembering that under Barton’s leadership as McKinsey’s managing partner, the global firm disgraced itself by striking a new course in the work of burnishing the credentials of police states and tyrannies.

During Barton’s last year as McKinsey’s big boss, the company held its lavish annual international gala in Xinjiang, within walking distance of a Uyghur concentration camp.

During his nine-year tenure at the top, the company provided services to at least 22 of Beijing’s 100 largest state-owned conglomerates, including the construction corporation that has been illegally building militarized islands in the South China Sea. McKinsey was caught making off with the proceeds of an illegal $700-million contract authorized by the corrupt South African government.

During those same years, McKinsey handled public-relations files for the Saudi regime that murdered and dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, provided services to Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan and ended up having to pay out $600 million in lawsuit settlements in the United States for having helped pharmaceutical companies “turbocharge” sales of opioids like OxyContin.

So if the Trudeau government was serious about restoring Canada’s reputation on “the world stage” and restoring the confidence of Canadians in handling the existential security threat posed by Xi Jinping’s China, the first thing to do would be to rid us all of Dominic Barton.

National Post