Liberals tap economic adviser Dominic Barton as new ambassador to China

OTTAWA — Dominic Barton brings to his new job as Canada’s ambassador to China the acumen of a savvy, globe-trotting business consultant with an enriched understanding of how to properly grease wheels and make profitable deals.

Barton’s success in the new job will be measured by his ability to negotiate one straightforward transaction: persuade Beijing’s communist leaders to release imprisoned Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

If he does that, he will have largely succeeded in his larger task — helping repair Canada’s shredded diplomatic and economic relations with China. They unravelled last December when Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request by the United States. Days later, China imprisoned Kovrig, an ex-Canadian diplomat, and Spavor, an entrepreneur.

China accuses them of undermining its national security, and has held them without access to lawyers or their family, or formally charging them — widely seen as retaliation for arrest of Meng, who is free on bail and living in a ritzy Vancouver house. Canadian officials have met with Kovrig and Spavor 11 times since their December arrests.

The ambassadorship has been vacant since January, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired former cabinet minister John McCallum following a number of public comments that broke with the government’s line.

Barton’s Canadian counterpart was confirmed Wednesday night when the Chinese embassy in Ottawa told The Canadian Press that Cong Peiwu will become the successor to China’s controversial envoy to Canada, Lu Shaye, who departed his post in June. China’s new man in Ottawa previously served as the head of China’s North American and Oceanic Affairs branch, which also includes Australia and New Zealand.

“The Chinese side has agreed to the Canadian nomination of Dominic Barton as the new Ambassador to China and expects him to play a positive role in promoting the bilateral relations back to the right track,” the embassy said.

Trudeau and his cabinet ministers have routinely branded Kovrig and Spavor’s incarcerations as arbitrary, and have marshalled broad international support from several dozen countries, including the United States. That coalition-building has angered China, which has banned imports of Canadian canola and blocked other agricultural products.

Enter Barton, who brings his gold-star resume that includes being the global managing director of consulting giant McKinsey & Co, the leadership of the Trudeau government’s influential economic advisory council, and his membership in former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s advisory committee on the public service.

Barton built strong ties in Asia, and has lived and worked in South Korea and the Chinese business capital of Shanghai. He’s served on the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and is listed as an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Those ties have also sparked controversial headlines, notably a weighty New York Times investigation from last December headlined: “How McKinsey has helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments.” The story detailed — among other things — how McKinsey held a lavish 2018 retreat in remote western China a short drive from where a large prison had been built to hold ethnic Muslim Uighurs. The United Nations has called on China to end the sweeping crackdown that has led to the detention of about one million Uighurs.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland dismissed concerns about that story, telling reporters on Wednesday that Barton had been thoroughly vetted. She also said he will have to distance himself from his current position as chairman of Teck Resources, a mining firm with ties to China.

“Our government has had, obviously, very detailed and extensive conversations with Mr. Barton about what the role of ambassador to China for Canada entails. That absolutely has included long discussions about the centrality of human rights, of women’s rights to Canada’s foreign policy,” she said.

“Mr. Barton’s appointment has been carefully vetted by officials in the public service whose job it is to ensure that no one serving Canada, representing Canada around the world has conflicts of interest. As with other people moving from a distinguished career in the private sector to public service, Mr. Barton will have to ensure there are no conflicts between his personal business interests and his public service.”

Robert Malley, Kovrig’s most recent boss at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview that he too has had many detailed conversations with Barton and views his commitment to human rights as unwavering.

“I’ve been talking to him for some time about international affairs … I knew that he had strong international interests and we have spoken about Michael’s case more recently, obviously since his detention,” said Malley, who also served on former U.S. president Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

“He brought up Michael’s case and I know that he is seized with it,” Malley added. “He will make this a priority and that’s what I’ve heard not just from him, but from Canadian officials with whom I have spoken in the last 24 hours.”

Freeland said part of Barton’s job will be taking part in regular consular visits with Kovrig and Spavor.

Barton declined interview requests, but his office and Trudeau’s released a statement saying he will “work hard to represent our great country and to resolve the challenges that currently exist.”

The influential Business Council of Canada, which represents the country’s top executives, praised Barton’s appointment. The group’s president, Goldy Hyder, said: “Dominic Barton brings decades of experience and knowledge of China, which are invaluable assets at this critical time.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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