Canadian Coffee Shop Owners Detained Over State Secrets

Two Canadian nationals who own a coffee shop on the Chinese-North Korean border are under investigation for “suspected theft of state secrets about China’s military and national defense research,” Mark Mackinnon and Nathan VanderKlippe report at the Globe and Mail.

[… O]n Monday, the Vancouver couple – who have been living in China since 1984 – stood accused by Chinese authorities of espionage and stealing state secrets. Their immediate whereabouts were unknown and calls to their coffee shop went unanswered.

[…] What constitutes a “state secret” is extremely nebulous in China, legally defined only as “matters that are classified as state secrets by the national State Secrets Bureau” – effectively leaving interpretation up to the authorities.

Nonetheless, theft of state secrets is a very serious crime in China, punishable with life in prison, or the death penalty in certain circumstances. [Source]

The report notes speculation about ulterior motives behind the case. Some suggest the goal may be restriction of missionaries operating in North Korea, with whom the café was reportedly popular, or retaliation for last week’s hacking accusations aimed at China. From David Ljunggren and Alastair Sharp at Reuters on Friday:

Canada said on Tuesday “a highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor” had broken into the National Research Council, a leading body that works with major companies such as aircraft and train maker Bombardier Inc (BBDb.TO). Beijing on Thursday accused Canada of making irresponsible accusations that lacked credible evidence.

While Canada did not give details of the attack, CrowdStrike Chief Technology Officer Dmitri Alperovitch said it was similar to other hacking campaigns launched by a unit of the People’s Liberation Army that his company has nicknamed ‘Putter Panda.’ The group, Unit 61486, has thousands of people and conducts intelligence on satellite and aerospace industries, he said.

[…] A former Canadian cabinet minister, Stockwell Day, separately confirmed for the first time on Thursday that Chinese operators were suspected of hacking into the Finance Department and the Treasury Board, a body with overall responsibility for government spending, in 2011. [Source]

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal told the Globe and Mail, though, that “targeting two coffee shop owners would seem to be disproportionate. I wonder if it’s not just coincidence.”