Former McKinsey head Dominic Barton to step down as ambassador to China

08 December 2021 3 min. read
More news on

Dominic Barton, the former managing partner of global consultancy McKinsey & Company, has announced he will step down from his role as Canada’s ambassador to China on December 31.

Barton, who accepted the posting in September 2019, said on Monday he was stepping down because he had completed his “core priority” of securing the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, an entrepreneur, were jailed days after Canada detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition warrant in December 2018.

Kovrig and Spavor were accused of spying by China. Spavor in August was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Chinese court while Kovrig’s verdict was yet to be announced when the two Canadians were abruptly freed in September. The pair were released hours after a New York court dropped the extradition request for Wanzhou, allowing her to leave her house arrest in Vancouver.

“Working to secure Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor’s release has been one of the most significant events in my life and I have been incredibly moved by the bravery and resilience of these two men, as well as their families,” Barton said in statement. “It was the honour of a lifetime to help with their release.”

Former McKinsey head Dominic Barton to step down as ambassador to China

Barton’s diplomatic work included three weeks of secret talks in Washington in April aimed at facilitating a deal to free Wanzhou – and consequently, Kovrig and Spavor – according to a Globe and Mail report.

“With much gratitude and respect, I have accepted Ambassador Barton’s decision to leave his post in Beijing at the end of the year,” PM Justin Trudeau said in a statement on Monday. “For the last two years, Dominic has led our team in China with determination, integrity, and compassion, and at a time when relations between our two countries faced difficult challenges.”

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has urged Trudeau to appoint an experienced diplomat who would take a stronger stance against China. He said Ottawa needs to take a “principled approach” that prioritized confronting China’s human rights deficit and aggression against its neighbours instead of favouring base economic concerns.

“I would hope Mr. Trudeau puts a professional experienced diplomat in that post and not a friend of the Liberal party,” O’Toole said.

Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China, also called for an experienced diplomat to occupy the post.

“The relationship will remain fraught for some time,” Saint-Jacques told the Globe. “We need someone who can be strong and forceful and firm because that is the only language that China understands.”

Barton spent nearly his entire professional career at McKinsey, the largest management consulting firm in the world. Following the completion of a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in economics at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Barton joined McKinsey’s Toronto office in 1986 after a brief stint as a currency analyst in London.

He moved to McKinsey's Seoul office in 1997 and led the Korean office from 2000 to 2004. From 2004, Barton served as McKinsey’s chairman in Asia before being elected global managing partner in 2009. He served the maximum of three three-year terms and stepped down in 2018.

Barton’s successor Kevin Sneader lasted only one term as he struggled to deal with the fallout of several scandals from Barton’s tenure as managing partner. These included marketing work the firm did for opioid manufacturers to “turbocharge” sales; social media analysis that identified dissident voices in Saudi Arabia; charges of corruption in obtaining government contracts in South Africa; and holding a lavish company retreat in China approximately six kilometers from a Uighur internment camp.