Canadians Held Over “Danger to National Security”

Canadians Held Over “Danger to National Security”

On Wednesday, Chinese authorities confirmed that they had detained Canadian Michael Spavor on suspicion of harming national security. From Lee Jeong-ho and Keegan Elmer of the South China Morning Post:

A report by the Liaoning government’s official online news outlet on Thursday said Michael Spavor – a businessman based in the Chinese city of Dandong with connections to North Korea – was detained on Monday in an investigation by the provincial state security bureau.

The investigation was related to “activities that endanger China’s national security”, the report said.

On Monday, former diplomat Michael Kovrig was also detained, by the Beijing state security bureau, and faces the same accusation. Kovrig is a senior adviser for Northeast Asia with the International Crisis Group.

[…] Spavor is a prominent North Korea watcher and a founder of NGO Paektu Cultural Exchange. He has visited North Korea many times with delegations to assess business opportunities in the hermit kingdom. [Source]

News of Spavor’s detention followed that of fellow Canadian Michael Kovrig, who was also detained on Monday, December 10 for reasons that the government has not yet specified. Spavor is being held in Liaoning Province while Kovrig was detained by the Beijing State Security Bureau. Ottawa Citizen has written biographical profiles of both men. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang confirmed both detentions. From CNN’s Joshua Berlinger:

Speaking at a daily press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said authorities had taken “compulsory measures” on the two men on Monday and that both cases remain under investigation.

When asked by CNN, Lu would not specify what “compulsory measures” means nor would he be drawn in to whether the two men are still in custody. The term “compulsory measures” is generally used to refer to detention in China.

“As far as I know, Beijing State Security Bureau and Liaoning State Security Department notified the Canadian Embassy separately, and the two persons’ legal rights and interests have been guaranteed,” Lu added. [Source]

The Canadian ambassador to China made a consular visit to Kovrig but has not yet gained access to Spavor. From Canadian Press:

A statement from Global Affairs Canada says Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, met with former diplomat Michael Kovrig today in Beijing.

The department didn’t provide more details about the visit, citing privacy laws.

Canadian officials are still pressing China for access to Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor, who is also being detained.

[…] Earlier Friday, Tourism Minister Melanie Joly announced she won’t go to China to mark the end of a special year of tourism exchanges, as relations between the two countries continued to plummet. [Source]

Relations between China and Canada have deteriorated since the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was released on bail in Vancouver while awaiting an extradition hearing. U.S. officials hope to extradite her on charges of fraud related to alleged trade with Iran in violation of an embargo. Some see the detention of Kovrig and Spavor as retribution by Chinese officials angered by Meng’s arrest; others have noted the differences in treatment afforded to Meng and the two Canadians. Tom Mitchell reports for the Financial Times on fears expressed by Chinese executives of traveling to the U.S. and their anger at Meng’s arrest:

Most commentators on China’s tightly monitored social media platforms have stuck to the government’s anti-Ottawa script. “China’s counter-measures should not stop,” Han Dongyan told his more than 600,000 followers on Sina Weibo, the country’s equivalent of Twitter. “China should make Canada pay a heavy price for insulting an innocent Chinese national.” In Mr Han’s view, Ms Meng has been “kidnapped”.

The contrast between Ms Meng’s detention and the disappearances of Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor could not be more stark. Ms Meng has appeared with her lawyer before an independent judge in an open court packed with journalists. She was granted bail and allowed to return to one of her two Vancouver homes, which have a combined value of at least C$14m (US$10.5m). [Source]

Spavor ran Paektu Cultural Exchange, an organization in Dandong, China, promoting cultural and economic exchanges with North Korea, and he had met Kim Jong Un and introduced him to American basketball player Dennis Rodman, who became an unofficial American emissary to the country. BBC has more about his work. At The South China Morning Post, John Power looks at the dangers faced by foreigners who live and work on the border region between China and North Korea, as Spavor did:

The 43-year-old fluent Korean speaker, one of the few Westerners to have met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is under investigation by authorities in Liaoning province for “activities that endanger China’s national security”.

“He’s been at the North Korea game a long time, and based in China, so he’s of course on their radar, as any foreigner [would be who’s been] living on the border for that long,” said a friend of Spavor’s on condition of anonymity.

China’s Dandong, which faces the North Korean city of Sinuiju across the Yalu River, is the main hub for trade and travel between the two countries. Before the tightening of sanctions against Pyongyang, about 70 per cent of cross-border trade was estimated to go through the city – most of it textiles, coal, iron ore, and seafood.

[…] While observers widely suspect that both men are being held in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver earlier this month, it is far from the first time China has targeted foreigners on its border with North Korea. [Source]

Peter Dahlin, an NGO worker who was detained in China in 2016, shared his experiences with The Star Vancouver’s Jeremy Nuttall and says it is likely Kovrig is being held in a Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location facility, as he was:

Dahlin was held in a padded room, guarded by two men he wasn’t allowed to talk to, and subjected to interrogations and sleep deprivation. The sounds of guards beating other prisoners carried into his cell, and he believes guards wanted to make sure he heard the assaults.

“I was listening to one of my colleagues being beaten repeatedly upstairs,” Dahlin recalled in a phone interview from Madrid, where he works as a director for the human-rights group Safeguard Defenders. “Later on, I learned the reason for it is they wanted him to admit that I was a spy.”

[…] Dahlin says Kovrig is probably being held in a Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) facility in China, likely the same one he was held in himself.

“RSDL is a relatively new system,” he explained. “It was the first attempt by China to legalize what classifies as enforced disappearances and has become a favourite tool to attack political targets.”

Detainees can be held for up to six months without any charges or requirement to tell family members where they are, according to Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch. [Source]

At The New York Times, Steven Lee Myers and Chris Buckley write that Kovrig’s and Spavor’s detentions, together with other recent arrests, “suggest that the ruling Communist Party no longer cares much about the risk to its international stature posed by harsh actions against its opponents”:

Emboldened by its economic clout and confronted by an American administration bristling with hostile voices, China’s leadership appears increasingly impervious to rebukes from abroad.

That in turn has bolstered arguments of hawks in Washington and other capitals who say that China’s behavior warrants far harsher responses. The danger is a downward spiral in relations with the West that could lead to still more unpredictable confrontations.

Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, a Communist Party-owned newspaper, warned in a video that if Canada went ahead with the Huawei executive’s extradition to the United States, “China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”

The reasons for the shifting calculus are a matter of debate. Many political observers believe that under Xi Jinping, China has become both too powerful and yet too insecure to be willing to brook compromise — or the kind of measured efforts that could assuage its foreign critics. [Source]


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