China says it suspects ex-Canadian diplomat of ‘harming national security’
Michael Kovrig, who works for thinktank, being held in Beijing
Move follows arrest of Chinese Huawei executive in Canada
The former Canadian diplomat who was detained in China days after the arrest of a senior Huawei executive is being questioned on suspicion of engaging in “activities that harmed China’s national security”, according to state-run media.
Beijing News said on Wednesday that Michael 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 Co Ltd on 1 December 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 10 December 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.
Accusations of harming state security could cover a wide range of suspected crimes, and in China are often very vague when first levelled.
The ICG, a thinktank focused on conflict resolution, said in an earlier statement Kovrig was detained by state 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 spying accusations.
However, the 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, before the state media report came out.
“Everything we do is transparent, it’s on our website. We don’t engage in secretive work, in confidential work.“
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said the ICG was not registered in China as a non-government organisation (NGO) and Kovrig could have broken Chinese law.
The foreign NGO law, which took effect in January, is part of a raft of new national security measures introduced under President Xi Jinping.
“All foreigners that come to China, so long as they respect the law, have nothing to worry about,” 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 told Reuters.
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 the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
“In China there are no coincidences,” he said. “In this case it is clear the Chinese government wants to put maximum pressure on the Canadian government.”
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.
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