China confirms detention of Canadians amid Huawei executive row

Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig held on suspicion of ‘endangering national security’

A second Canadian citizen is under investigation by Chinese authorities, ratcheting up tensions between the two countries following the arrest of a former diplomat in Beijing and the detention of a top executive of the tech giant Huawei in Vancouver.

China confirmed on Thursday that it had detained Michael Spavor, a Canadian whose company brings tourists and ice hockey players into North Korea, following its earlier arrest of another Canadian, Michael Kovrig.

Mr Kovrig was working in China for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) and was on leave from the Canadian foreign ministry.

The detentions appear to be a reprisal for the arrest in Vancouver, on foot of a US extradition warrant, of Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

China's foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said Mr Spavor and Mr Kovrig had been taken into custody on Monday.

Canada's foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, indicated that Canada was still trying to learn the fate of the two, suggesting neither had been visited by Canadian diplomats.

The Chinese government had earlier warned Canada of "serious consequences" over the arrest of Ms Meng, who is the daughter of Huawei founder Shi Zhengfei. Ms Meng was freed on bail this week.

Mr Spavor is well known in China, and helped organise the visit to North Korea by former basketball star Dennis Rodman. He and Mr Kovrig apparently know each other.ICG said Mr Kovrig was carrying out "objective and impartial" research.

It's possible he has been held under recent rule changes that keep non-governmental organisations in China on a tight leash. ICG closed its Beijing operations in December 2016 because of the new Chinese law, and Mr Kovrig was operating out of its Hong Kong office.

However, it is believed Mr Kovrig was detained by state security officers, who deal with more serious offences such as state subversion, rather than officers from the public security bureau.

Making headlines

China said ICG was not authorised to work in China. “We welcome foreign travellers. But if they engage in activities that clearly violate Chinese laws and regulations, then it is totally another story,” foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told a news briefing.

Although she has been freed on bail, the arrest of Ms Meng continues to make headlines in China and officials have renewed their call for her release.

The Global Times said in an editorial that Canada should release Ms Meng to show it wasn't a "vassal state".

“Canada should distance itself from US hegemonism and fulfill its obligations to help maintain international order and protect human rights. As a country having diplomatic ties with China, Canada should not violate China’s sovereignty by placing the ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ of a third country above Beijing’s basic rights,” it said.

“If Canada eventually fails to protect the safety of Chinese citizens within its territory – the country’s basic duty – and ignores ties with China, insisting on the extradition of Meng to the US, it is bound to pay for it. We believe that Ottawa has foreseen this and so has the world,” the commentary ran.

Ms Meng faces charges in the US that she misled multinational banks about Huawei's activities in Iran.

Ms Freeland, the Canadian foreign minister, criticised US president Donald Trump for remarks he made about the case, saying he was prepared to intervene if it served China's interests.

“Our extradition partners should not seek to politicise the extradition process or use it for ends other than the pursuit of justice and following the rule of law,” Ms Freeland said, adding that Mr Trump’s remarks could be used by Ms Meng’s lawyers in the extradition court hearings.

The Canadian government is reportedly mulling whether to issue a new travel warning to Canadians visiting China.

Ms Freeland told reporters that the current advisory urged Canadian to exercise a “high degree of caution” when considering whether tot visit China. She urged Canadians to keep checking the government’s travel website for any update. Additional reporting: PA

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing