BEIJING • The arrest of a third Canadian in China has heightened anxiety in an expatriate community already accustomed to some level of fear and uncertainty.
Beijing last Thursday confirmed that it had arrested Ms Sarah McIver for working illegally in the country, following the detention of two other Canadians on national security grounds.
While the Canadian authorities said the latest detention appears to be a routine visa case, it has nonetheless exacerbated concerns among Canadian expatriates in China - fearful that they, too, might be held over a legal technicality.
"I think most Canadians who are here are living in fear at some level - fear of losing what they have here, fear of getting arrested, fear of retribution," said Mr Ricky Ng-Adam, founder of CoderBunker, a community of international software developers, who regularly travels to Shanghai for work.
"It's a constant fear," he said, adding that some of his compatriots self-censor their social media postings and try to keep a low profile.
Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and China-based business consultant Michael Spavor were detained earlier this month and accused of engaging in activities that "endanger China's national security".
I think most Canadians who are here are living in fear at some level - fear of losing what they have here, fear of getting arrested, fear of retribution. It's a constant fear.
MR RICKY NG-ADAM, founder of CoderBunker, a community of international software developers, who regularly travels to Shanghai for work, on Canadian expatriates in China keeping a low profile.
Mr Kovrig is a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group think-tank, while Mr Spavor facilitates trips to North Korea, including visits by former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
Though no link has officially been made between the three detentions, suspicions are mounting that China is holding at least two of the Canadians in retaliation against their country's arrest of Ms Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
The ambiguity surrounding the arrests has added to the unease, said Canadian Adrian Wu, who frequently travels to China for both work and leisure.
"Even though the third person arrested is not related to the cases of the first two, people see the headlines and immediately think 'a Canadian got taken'," he said.
Ottawa has repeatedly said that Ms Meng's arrest was not political, but part of a judicial process in keeping with an extradition treaty with Washington.
She was released on bail last week in Vancouver pending her US extradition hearing on fraud charges related to sanctions-breaking business dealings with Iran.
Even though the third person arrested is not related to the cases of the first two, people see the headlines and immediately think 'a Canadian got taken'.
MR ADRIAN WU, a Canadian who frequently travels to China for both work and leisure.
Ottawa and Washington have stepped up pressure on Beijing and called for the immediate release of Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor.
"We've been discussing it very actively with our allies and partners around the world," Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters last Saturday. "This is clearly a difficult moment in our relationship with China."
Observers say Canada is increasingly looking like collateral damage in a simmering US-China trade war, with Beijing at the same time working to ease trade tensions with Washington.
"Canada is really just caught in between the US and China. We're like a scapegoat," an entrepreneur in education said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Like a number of other Canadian expats, the entrepreneur is using the holidays as an excuse to stay out of the country. "At least I can remain in North America to see how the situation will play out from a safe distance," she said.
Others in the Canadian community, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said they are making contingency plans to leave China, in case the situation takes a turn for the worse.
It is now up to China to decide how much they want to escalate the situation, said Mr Hugh Stephens, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. "The Chinese aren't going to influence the Canadian court system by whatever they do, but there could be a lot of collateral damage, which could seriously potentially damage relationships in the long term," he said.
The fallout from the arrests could extend beyond the immediate Canadian expatriate community to include researchers who visit China.
Last Thursday, representatives of six Berlin-based institutions, which included the European Council for Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund, expressed concern about the spate of detentions.
"Developments such as these increase uncertainty and distrust among foreign scholars who regularly conduct research within China, as they fear for their safety," the joint statement said.
Still, some feel there is no need to overreact, calling this "China's way of dealing with things".
"I'm not worried about this on a day-to-day basis and I certainly won't change my daily activities because of a few people who have been detained," financial analyst Scott Laprise said.
"There's always a sense at the back of my mind that something could happen, but that's a part of living in China."