Meet the posh consulting company working for some of the world’s most notorious autocracies

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RT / YouTube Putin and Mohammed bin Salman share 1543674505.jpg...
RT / YouTube

For your end-of-year long reads, consider this piece from New York Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe on the role of a single American company in “rais[ing] the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe, sometimes in ways that counter American interests.”

Hundreds of the company’s consultants frolicked in the desert, riding camels over sand dunes and mingling in tents linked by red carpets. Meetings took place in a cavernous banquet hall that resembled a sultan’s ornate court, with a sign overhead to capture the mood. […]About four miles from where the McKinsey consultants discussed their work, which includes advising some of China’s most important state-owned companies, a sprawling internment camp had sprung up to hold thousands of ethnic Uighurs — part of a vast archipelago of indoctrination camps where the Chinese government has locked up as many as one million people.

McKinsey and Company’s cartoonishly extravagant retreat in the Chinese desert, red carpets tracing through dunes as foot-perfect paths between white tents, certainly make for arresting photographs. Of more significance is the company’s role in shoring up a collection of autocracies that have become infamous for human rights violations. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Malaysian criminals and a pro-Russian Ukrainian criminal turned president; the booming company appears to have few qualms in working with either autocracies or the shamelessly corrupt.

The corruption-marred state-controlled entity building artificial islands that China would use as the basis for claiming expansive new territorial ownership of the South China Sea? A McKinsey client. And the company would pull off a neat trick in Malaysia, being hired on both as representative of that company and as the company that reviewed, for the Malaysian government, whether a partnership with that Chinese entity to construct a new gargantuan rail line would pay national dividends. (Unsurprisingly, McKinsey found that it would be a spectacularly good idea. Construction has subsequently been abandoned.)

The vast Chinese government program to expand nationwide surveillance of their citizens? Another McKinsey project. A report identifying major social critics of the Saudi regime, one that preceded a major crackdown on some of those same identified figures? A McKinsey production. A South African corruption scandal? Nor does the company shy from consulting with Russian companies under direct sanction by the United States.

Ticking through the list of each corruption scandal, autocratic initiative and hostile power to have been given a boost by McKinsey and Company, it seems plausible to wonder if the worldwide shudder toward kleptocratic-style autocracy is itself, in large part, an American corporate export. The same Wall Street and Washington deep thinkers that willingly brought world economic systems to near-collapse in their extravagant attempts to cheat their peers out of whatever cash they could are still eager to export that particular brand of kleptocratic capitalism into whatever new markets will have it—and can pay for it.

The central premise, at least, is the same. The fabulously rich ought to be excused from laws and ideals meant to protect the markets or the citizenry or international stability because anyone with an office costing at least X in monthly rent is, by definition, a better expert in any of this than any mere government could be. Banking laws, international sanctions, international borders, the constant irritant of human rights concerns—all of it is fine for most of the world, but for the very topmost ranks of the elite, different rules should apply. And that his how you end up with a cartoonishly extravagant company party four miles from an internment camp your client constructed to imprison and indoctrinate an ethnic minority.

It is an intriguing read. Whether the takeaway message is that this one particular international firm has been plundering their way through the world’s darker corners in ways not a stitch different from a high-end arms dealer, or whether you believe it to be evidence of something more significant than the gaudy dealings of a single consultant group, is up to you.

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