Chinese authorities are questioning former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig – detained days after the arrest in Canada of a Chinese businesswoman – on suspicion of engaging in activities that harmed China’s national security.
State-run Beijing News said on Wednesday that Kovrig, who works for the International Crisis Group (ICG), had become the subject of an investigation by the Beijing State Security Bureau.
He was detained after police in Canada arrested the chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies on December 1 at the request of US authorities, infuriating Beijing.
The Canadian government has said it saw no explicit link to the Huawei case.
“Canadian citizen Michael John Kovrig was on December 10 investigated in accordance with the law by the Beijing State Security Bureau on suspicion of engaging in activities that harm China’s state security,” the newspaper said in a brief report.
The case continues to be under investigation, it added, without elaborating.
Accusations of harming state security could cover a wide range of suspected crimes, and in China are often very vague when first levelled.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa was engaging with Chinese officials about the case, which in the short term at least looks to have hurt his government’s bid to forge closer trade ties with China.
“This is obviously an issue that we are taking very seriously and it is ongoing,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday.
The ICG, a think-tank focused on conflict resolution, said in an earlier statement Kovrig was detained by security officials in Beijing on Monday night.
Diplomats in China said the apparent involvement of the secretive state security ministry, which engages in domestic counter-espionage work, among other things, suggests the government could be looking at levelling accusations of spying.
However, ICG President and Chief Executive Robert Malley said the group did not engage in such activity.
“I don’t want to speculate as to what’s behind it but I am prepared to be categorical about what’s not behind it, and what’s not behind it is any illegal activity or endangering of Chinese national security,” Malley told Reuters news agency.
“Everything we do is transparent, it’s on our website. We don’t engage in secretive work, in confidential work.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said he had nothing he could say on the details of the case. He said the ICG was not registered in China as a non-government organisation and Kovrig could have broken Chinese law.
“If they are not registered and their workers are in China undertaking activities, then that’s already outside of, and breaking, the law, revised just last year, on the management of overseas non-governmental organisations operating in China,” Lu said.
William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International’s East Asia Regional Office in Hong Kong, said Kovrig’s detention was alarming, especially as it appeared to be the first time the law has been used to detain a foreign NGO worker.
“We need to wait for the official explanation from the Chinese side, but this detention could have a chilling effect on the foreign NGO and business communities in terms of their feeling safe while travelling in China,” he said.
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China, was asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday whether the Kovrig detention was a coincidence after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
“In China, there are no coincidences … If they want to send you a message, they will send you a message,” he said.
A Western diplomat in China, who asked not to be identified, was even more blunt: “This is a political kidnapping.”
China had threatened severe consequences unless Canada released Meng immediately and analysts have said retaliation for the arrest was likely.
Meng was granted bail by a Canadian court on Tuesday, 10 days after her arrest in Vancouver – on US claims that she misled multinational banks about Iran-linked transactions – caused a diplomatic dispute.