BEIJING — China on Monday accused two detained Canadians of stealing state secrets, a serious allegation that comes just days after Canada said it would proceed with the extradition case against a top Chinese executive.
The charges will only intensify concerns that Beijing is exacting revenge against Canada for detaining Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies.
Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who had been working as a China analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, “had spied on and stolen sensitive information and intelligence through contacts in China,” according to a statement from the Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman who promoted exchanges with North Korea, was Kovrig’s “main intelligence contact” and provided intelligence to him, the statement said.
Kovrig and Spavor were detained Dec. 10, just 10 days after Meng was arrested at the Vancouver, B.C., airport while in transit. The United States requested her arrest and extradition to face charges relating to allegations that Huawei violated U.S. export sanctions against Iran.
At the same time, the United States has been leading a campaign to get countries to block Huawei, which wants to roll out fifth-generation Internet technologyworldwide, amid concerns that the Chinese government could use the technology for spying.
The arrest of Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder, has incensed China. The company, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, is a national champion in China, encapsulating the rags-to-riches “Chinese dream” but also exemplifying how companies can move up the value chain.
Meng is confined to her home in Vancouver while she fights the extradition case.
Kovrig and Spavor, meanwhile, have been detained in Beijing and Dandong, on the North Korean border, respectively. They have been denied access to their families and to lawyers, and have been kept in cells with the lights on round the clock. Consular officials, however, have been permitted to make several short visits to both men.
Kovrig, who was based in Hong Kong, has traveled to mainland China frequently since 2017 with a regular passport and a business visa, the Chinese commission said in its statement. He “is suspected of spying and stealing national secrets for foreign agents, and his behavior has severely violated Chinese law,” it said.
The International Crisis Group said the accusations against Kovrig were “unsubstantiated and unfounded.”
“Michael worked transparently and openly, keeping Chinese authorities informed of what he did and of his mandate: to advise all parties, Beijing included, on steps they could take to resolve and prevent deadly conflict around the world,” said Robert Malley, the group’s president.
“But false accusations aside, the reality is clear for all to see. The timing of Michael’s detention and his citizenship leave little doubt as to why he is being arbitrarily detained,” Malley said, reiterating calls for Kovrig to be released.
Spavor had been running Paektu Cultural Exchange, a company based in Dandong that he founded to promote cultural, sporting and business contacts with North Korea. He was involved in organizing former basketball star Dennis Rodman’s trip to Pyongyang in 2013 and spent hours with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during that visit.
The authorities “stressed that China is a country run by the rule of law, and the country will resolutely crack down on criminal activities that jeopardize national security,” the report on the commission’s website said.
The announcement came after Canada said Friday that it would move ahead with an extradition hearing for Meng, a sign that its Justice Department thinks there is “sufficient evidence” to formally proceed.
Meng will appear in a Vancouver court Wednesday to schedule the date of the hearing, the department said.
China’s Foreign Ministry again urged the United States to drop the extradition request.
“We are reiterating our demand to the U.S. to cancel the arrest order and extradition request for Ms. Meng, and urging Canada to free her immediately and ensure her safe return to China,” spokesman Lu Kang said Saturday.
“Canada and the U.S. abused their extradition treaty in arbitrarily taking coercive measures against Ms. Meng. It is an outright violation of the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens. This is a serious political incident,” he said in a statement.
In its latest broadside against Canadian authorities, the nationalist Global Times newspaper said the case against Meng “was a U.S. political game against Huawei, forged to look like a lawsuit.”
“We hope there will eventually be a turnaround in Meng’s case, or the spirit of justice will prevail and stop the U.S. and Canada from manipulating the judicial system,” the paper wrote in an editorial published earlier Monday. “We also hope the two governments will realize they are playing a dirty game, which will make them find a legal reason to revoke the case.”
President Trump has suggested that he could discuss the cases against Huawei and Meng as part of a broader trade deal with China, prompting criticism that he was politicizing what should be a strictly legal decision.
Separately, Meng is suing the Canadian government, charging that border security and police officers detained, searched and interrogated her before advising her that she was under arrest. The authorities interrogated her “under the guise of a routine customs” examination and used the opportunity to “compel her to provide evidence and information,” the lawsuit says, according to the Associated Press.