In appointing Dominic Barton its ambassador to China, the Canadian government has recognized that what it needs in Beijing at the moment is not a senior diplomat, but a hostage negotiator.
Barton, a former senior partner at the intensely private global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, has the high-level connections in Ottawa and Beijing to make him the right man to negotiate the release of the two Canadian hostages, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The two were detained by Chinese authorities and charged with spying after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and daughter of the founder of Huawei Technologies, was arrested in Vancouver on an extradition warrant issued by the United States Department of Justice.
The arrest of Meng and the kidnapping of the two Michaels has generated the most intense crisis in Sino-Canadian relations since mutual diplomatic recognition in 1970. Beijing insists Meng must be released, refuses to discuss its hostage-taking and has imposed bans on the import of Canadian grains and meat.
Until now, the Justin Trudeau government has remained dedicated to the rule of law and an independent judiciary while trying unsuccessfully to open back-channel discussions with Beijing.
In Barton, Trudeau and his foreign minister Chrystia Freeland think they have found the man to end the deadlock.
The McKinsey firm has a long history of representing state-owned Chinese companies, and Barton lived in Shanghai from 2004 to 2009 when he was the company’s Asia chairman.
He established contact with many senior Beijing officials at that time, but he is also well connected in Ottawa. As chair of the advisory council on economic growth to Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Barton has helped the Trudeau government design its economic policy.
He also knows Freeland from her days as a business journalist, and both were Rhodes Scholars, although not in the same year.
Indeed, she appears to have gone to unusual lengths to ensure that Barton is the right man for the job before the appointment was announced.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting that Freeland took the precaution of checking the Barton appointment with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, when the two met on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bangkok in August.
This precaution confirms Barton’s status as hostage negotiator rather than a conventional diplomat. But it is evident that his access to senior officials in Beijing is no guarantee that the crisis will be resolved easily or soon.
On Thursday China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, greeted the appointment with a familiar diatribe against Ottawa.
Responsibility for the crisis in relations “lies entirely with the Canadian side,” he said. For the matter to be resolved, Canada should “reflect on its mistakes,” and immediately release Meng, who is under night-time house arrest at one of her Vancouver houses while her extradition hearing goes through the Canadian court system.
The US Department of Justice claims Meng lied to international banks by telling them she had channels that would enable them to circumvent Washington’s sanctions against Iran.
The two Michaels, meanwhile, are being held in undisclosed prisons, have been allowed only one visit from diplomats a month since their detention last December and are being tortured by sleep deprivation.
Another difficulty over which Barton may have no control or influence is that the crisis in relations is not just an Ottawa-Beijing affair. Overshadowing it is the trade war between the US and China, in which Huawei and Meng may be pawns whose fate could become part of a wider deal at some point.
Canada has had no ambassador in Beijing since January when John McCallum was fired. McCallum, a former minister in Trudeau’s government, had a long record of excessive enthusiasm for Beijing’s interests. He was fired after telling a Chinese-language audience in Toronto that he thought Meng had a strong case for avoiding extradition to the US.
While Barton’s appointment is being welcomed by Canada’s China trade business community, for others it is a controversial appointment.
Clash of values
The Huawei Affair has highlighted the irreconcilable clash of values between Canada and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The affair, and especially the kidnapping of the two Michaels, has raised questions about Canada’s overly optimistic view of relations with the CCP in the past, and what is possible in the future.
This story is set out in my book Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada, which was published in January.
Among China watchers in Canada, the Huawei Affair has sparked the hope that future Ottawa-Beijing relations will be based on a more realistic and limited view of what is reasonable and possible.
The appointment of Barton as ambassador to Beijing, even if it is with a limited mandate to solve the hostage crisis, suggests Trudeau’s Liberals and closely related business elites want to restore the old relationship. The CCP and its business arms have been by far the largest beneficiaries of this relationship, while Canada has become a happy hunting ground for CCP Red Princes and Princesses to launder money and secrete overseas assets.
Outside the business world, Barton and McKinsey are controversial. The company has made something of a specialty of advising authoritarian regimes on investments and development strategies.
A December 2018 investigative report by the New York Times said McKinsey has advised 22 of the 100 biggest state-owned companies in China, including “the ones carrying out some of the government’s most strategic and divisive initiatives.”
Among the McKinsey clients have been the China Communications Construction Company. This company played a leading role in the building of the CCP’s illegal fortified islands in the South China Sea and is now barred from business with the World Bank. China Communications was also involved in the questionable acquisition of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which has led to much outrage and civil disturbance among local people.
At a personal level, Barton has recently been chairman of the Canadian mining company Teck Resources, which is more than 10% owned by Beijing’s sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp.
As she announced Barton’s appointment, Freeland tried to calm questions about his interests. She said as a condition of taking the ambassador’s job he will have to resign from all corporate boards and ensure that his assets are held so that they are not in conflict with his responsibilities to Canada.