China Arrests 2 Canadians on Spying Charges, Deepening a Political Standoff
BEIJING — Two Canadian men detained in China since December have been formally arrested on espionage charges, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, a move likely to ratchet up tensions between China and Canada that broke out with the arrest of a Chinese tech executive in Vancouver.
Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat who was detained while visiting Beijing, was arrested on suspicion of “gathering state secrets and intelligence for abroad,” and Michael Spavor, a business consultant who was detained in northeastern China, was accused of “stealing and providing state secrets for abroad,” Lu Kang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said at a regularly scheduled news briefing.
The vague reference to unspecified overseas entities left open the question of whether the men were suspected of working for a government or for some other organization.
Mr. Lu did not provide further details and said only that the arrests had been made recently.
“Everything in China is done in accordance with law,” Mr. Lu said.
Responding to a reporter’s question about Canadian officials’ criticism of how China handled the cases, he said: “We hope Canada will not interfere with or comment casually on China’s legal system and lawful practices.”
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, criticized the initial detentions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor as “arbitrary” and politically motivated; on Thursday, Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign ministry, denounced their arrests.
“Canada strongly condemns their arbitrary arrest as we condemned their arbitrary detention,” Brittany Fletcher, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, said in an emailed statement. “Canada continues to express its appreciation to those who have spoken in support of these detained Canadians and the rule of law.”
Supporters of the two men and foreign legal experts have said their detentions appeared to be retaliation for the arrest in Canada in December of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, China’s biggest telecommunications company.
Ms. Meng was arrested at the request of the United States, which wants to extradite her on fraud charges.
Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were seized by the police in December, days after Ms. Meng was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver. The Chinese government was incensed by Ms. Meng’s arrest, and the charging of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor makes it more likely that they will face trial and conviction, deepening the standoff with Mr. Trudeau’s administration.
Many in Canada have reacted with consternation at China’s treatment of the two Canadians, who have been denied access to lawyers and been confined in secret detention centers, without visits from family members. Canadian diplomats have been allowed to visit them about once a month.
Mr. Lu, the foreign ministry spokesman, did not respond to questions Thursday about where the two men were being held.
Their circumstances are a striking contrast to those of Ms. Meng, who is out on bail, has been living in Vancouver in a six-bedroom home valued at 6 million Canadian dollars, and is free to roam largely about the city with a GPS tracker on her ankle.
In addition to the diplomatic tensions, the Meng case and detentions of the two Canadians have fueled economic tensions between the two countries.
China, which bought about $2.7 billion worth of canola oil from Canada last year, recently halted shipments of Canadian canola oil, saying they were contaminated.
According to the Canada China Business Council, which promotes business, trade and investment between Canada and China, 20 percent of Canadian companies have been adversely affected by the dispute as demand from China for Canadian products shrinks.
A former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said the formal arrest of the two men signaled a worsening in relations with China and would make it even more challenging for Canada to secure their release.
“In 95 percent of cases the accused are found guilty, and this formal arrest signals the gravity of the situation,” he said. “We are in for a long period of difficulties with China in which pressure from the Chinese will increase.”
Mr. Saint-Jacques said that while China’s economic might outweighed Canada’s, Canada could retaliate by taking action against China at the World Trade Organization over the canola issue, and by rallying its allies internationally to make it clear to China that its actions against the two Canadians came at a price.
But he also added that the hope by some in Canada that improved trade relations between the United States and China could help clear the way for the men’s eventual release had diminished given the intensifying friction between the two countries.
Human rights advocates on Thursday denounced the arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.
“Their cases show again how the Chinese criminal system violates the human rights of detainees,” said Patrick Poon, a researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong. He called on Chinese officials to release the men, absent “credible and concrete evidence” of crimes.
Before the latest announcement, Chinese officials had signaled that Mr. Kovrig and Spavor could be charged with espionage offenses.
Mr. Kovrig worked for the United Nations and the Canadian foreign service before 2017, when he joined the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that tries to defuse conflicts between states.
He focused on Chinese foreign policy, Asian regional politics and North Korea, and was often quoted in foreign news outlets and invited to meetings in China.
Mr. Spavor was a consultant for companies and people interested in North Korea, including Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star who has befriended the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Mr. Spavor was detained in Dandong, the Chinese city on the North Korean border where he was based.
In early March, a legal affairs committee within China’s ruling Communist Party said investigators believed that Mr. Kovrig had been “stealing and spying to obtain state secrets and intelligence,” and that Mr. Spavor had supplied him with information.
But China’s definition of state secrets can be sweeping and opaque, and the International Crisis Group has said Mr. Kovrig’s work for it was in no way nefarious.
“Nothing Michael did was harmful to China,” the group’s president, Robert Malley, said on Thursday. “On the contrary, his work helped inform both China’s global policies and those around the world who make policies toward China in a manner that contributes to preventing and resolving conflict.”
The cases of Ms. Meng and the two Canadians are playing out as the United States is pressuring allies not to use Huawei’s technology, arguing that China could use it to spy on other countries.
Those efforts intensified on Wednesday, when President Trump moved to ban American telecommunications companies from installing foreign-made equipment that could pose risks to national security. The measure seemed aimed at blocking sales by Huawei, though it did not explicitly single out any nation or company.
Canada’s security agencies have been undertaking a national security review to determine whether Huawei’s technology should be used as Canada develops its 5G telecommunications network.
In January, American prosecutors indicted Ms. Meng and Huawei, laying out what they said were efforts by the company to steal commercial secrets, obstruct a criminal inquiry and engage in bank fraud while trying to evade American sanctions on Iran.
Huawei has denied breaking the law, and the Chinese government has repeatedly said that the charges were politically driven.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said at a news conference in early March that the case against Huawei and Ms. Meng was “by no means a purely judicial case, but rather a deliberate political case” intended to bring down Huawei.
Mr. Trudeau and Canadian and United States officials have said that the case against Ms. Meng is a legal matter, not a political one. But President Trump veered from that position in December, when he suggested that he could intervene in the case if that helped to seal a trade agreement with China.